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Andra Lim
By Andra Lim March 29, 2016

Adler promise of free bus fares for elderly in idle

Steve Adler dedicated a section of his17-page campaign white paper on how to make Austin more affordable to calling for the reinstatement of free Capital Metro bus fares for seniors and people with disabilities.

Adler told the Austin American-Statesman in October 2014 that seniors, just like non-senior citizens, pay local sales taxes comprising the bulk of what it costs Capital Metro to run its buses. The agency's fares covered about 10 percent of the cost of bus rides, the Statesman reported at the time.

And Adler made the bus fares a campaign issue in a December 2014 television ad criticizing his runoff opponent, Austin City Council Member Mike Martinez, for voting "to raise taxes and utility rates while ending free bus service for seniors." At the time, we rated that claim Mostly True; Martinez had backed the decision to charge the fares and bolster Capital Metro's finances though he hadn't steered the action by himself.

So, free rides, Mr. (new) Mayor?

Not yet. Nearly a year into his term, Adler said in a late 2015 phone interview that he hadn't yet worked on bringing back free fares for seniors and people with disabilities, though he said he still wants to make that happen.

To be fair, Adler doesn't sit on the board that approves policy, such as the level of fares, for Capital Metro. Council members on its board are Ann Kitchen and Delia Garza.

Rather than focus on fares, Adler said, he's worked on improving transportation options in the wake of voters rejecting a November 2014 ballot proposition that would have allowed the city to borrow $600 million toward a light-rail line. Specifically, Adler said, he'd focused on planning park and ride locations to get more people in and out of Austin more quickly. To our inquiries, Kitchen, who chairs the council's Mobility Committee, confirmed she had worked with the mayor on this. Separately, Capital Metro spokeswoman Amy Peck confirmed the same for her agency.

Adler's 2014 white paper delved into the history of fares for the area's senior and disabled populations, noting that when the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission reviewed the cash-strapped Capital Metro in 2009, one recommendation was to "stop the 22-year Austin tradition of free fares on fixed bus lines for seniors and the disabled."

To our inquiry about free fares, Peck pointed out that the sunset report also said Capital Metro had been subsidizing fares "at levels far in excess of its transit peers." A Capital Metro review of a dozen peer transit agencies -- Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio, Charlotte, Columbus, Denver, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Orlando, Sacramento and Tucson -- found that none offered free fares to its senior or disabled populations, Peck said by email. A Google search landed us a 2013 Capital Metro "Fare Policy Review" report stating the average reduced fares in the peer cities were 99 cents, amounting to half price on average.

After the sunset review, Capital Metro moved to require seniors and people with disabilities to pay half-fares, starting in 2011.

Even so, Peck told us, discounted and even free fares remained available to some residents through programs that provide bus passes to nonprofits, schools and government programs serving low-income people.

Adler's white paper notes that the sunset report recommending that Capital Metro start charging a fare to individuals who'd been getting free rides also said the agency could reconsider such revenue-generating steps once its reserves were replenished.

Peck said that as of the 2016 budget, Capital Metro's reserve account was already allocated for projects the agency put off during the economic downturn that began in 2008, such as additional buses including replacements. Still, Peck said, Capital Metro "is open to a discussion with the mayor and other stakeholders on new ways to meet the needs of low-income seniors and disabled passengers."

Adler, critical of his opponent for imposing fares on elderly residents, vowed to achieve free fares.

That hasn't happened. We rate this idled Promise STALLED.

Stalled — There is no movement on the promise, perhaps because of limitations on money, opposition from lawmakers or a shift in priorities.

Our Sources

Emails, Amy Peck, communications specialist, Capital Metro, March 8 to March 22, 2016

Emails, Jason Stanford, communications director, Austin Mayor Steve Adler, March 14 to March 18, 2016

News stories, Austin American-Statesman, "$1 billion rail, roads proposal rejected," November 5, 2014; "Capital Metro ridership paying the price for higher fares," Jan. 11, 2015

Phone interview, Austin Mayor Steve Adler, Dec. 30, 2015

Phone interview, Austin City Council Member Ann Kitchen, March 8, 2016

Draft final report prepared for Capital Metro, "Fare Policy Review," Nancy R. Edmonson, Transportation Consulting, May 8, 2013

White paper, "Making Austin More Affordable for Families," Steve Adler mayoral campaign, September 8, 2014

Report, "Sunset Advisory Commission Final Report, Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority," Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, July 2011

Web page, "Austin mayoral candidates offer transportation ideas at AARP forum," (accessed March 21, 2016)

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