April 27, 2010
Back in 1997, Capital Metro – our little transit agency in Central Texas – was having some, uhh, troubles.
It was involved in an FBI criminal investigation. The Legislature was looking at gutting it. And some local politicians were crawling over each other to strip Capital Metro of the sales tax it uses to run the bus and transit system in and around Austin.
Well, I was running for mayor at that time. And I used to say that Capital Metro was like a very well-dressed drunk that we’d found unconscious, disheveled, sort of dirty and smelly, and lying face-down in a gutter.
Some folks, I noted, wanted to roll the guy. They wanted to go through all of his pockets, taking anything of value they could find, including his money (and his suit, probably), and maybe kick him a couple of times. And, finally, they wanted to get out of there before it started raining on him.
But as I said then, there just had to be a better way. I felt like we needed a high-performing transit agency in our growing region.
So I believed we should at least try to pick the guy up, force him to dry out, clean up and get to doing the job we needed him to do. Rolling the guy wasn’t going to get us what we needed to meet our transportation needs. We needed him to be a functioning member of society.
So the community came together and forced some big changes at Capital Metro. And, for almost a decade, Capital Metro seemed to have a vision of where it wanted to go, ran an effective bus system, and avoided the seedy questions of the 1990’s.
In that time, not even the most ardent Capital Metro bashers were calling for the agency’s abolition.
I know those sound like small victories – especially as we’ve watched the agency start weaving and tripping here in the last few years. I suppose you could say the old boy seems to have fallen off the wagon again.
The agency’s recent problems were on full display last week, thanks to legislation I passed last year to truly and completely reform Capital Metro. I’ll get into last week’s developments in a minute.
But suffice it to say that for a while now, I’ve been very frustrated. And I’ve used my position as Senator to force a new round of rehab.
The recent problems are well-known and well-documented. The commuter rail so many of us had supported was mired in delays and controversy, and many people feel like they were not told the truth about what they were getting. The agency’s finances were clearly a mess. And its governance was in crying need of an overhaul.
In 2007, shortly after first becoming a state senator and as then-Chair of the region’s main transportation planning group, I launched a “peer review” process that looked at Capital Metro’s governance and compared it to other transit providers.
And last year, I wrote reform legislation that re-made the agency’s board, requiring folks with real experience in management and finance will always be among the appointees to the agency’s board of directors. It made the agency’s auditor report directly to those board members instead of to management. It set regular reporting requirements on Capital Metro’s operations and finances.
And, perhaps most importantly, the legislation mandated a top-to-bottom review by the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission – a state agency that conducts extensive assessments of other state agencies and recommends whether or not they should be abolished.
Well, that report was released last week. And it was, as they say, a doozy.
As I noted in my statement last week, the Sunset report provides an unbiased, clear-eyed look at steps Capital Metro must take to cut costs, reform its financial and accounting systems, enhance the safety of the new commuter rail line that opened this spring and find a way to better engage stakeholders.
This review, and the report it produced, is exactly what I wanted when I proposed the legislation – and it’s exactly what this region needs. It builds on recent changes I’ve encouraged (and, in some cases, mandated through my legislation) to its practices and its board.
It’s the next step in this process – the road map for where Capital Metro needs to go from here.
The agency’s board now has to work with the Sunset Commission and implement these critical recommendations. But the board can’t do it alone.
Riders, administrative staff, contractors and employees all have to take ownership and responsibility for the changes Capital Metro must make – and the transit provider it must become.
It won’t be a short, easy or pain-free process. Every group and constituency will have to work together, and work hard, to make sure Capital Metro is a successful, financially sustainable agency.
I sincerely hope they will. To have a truly comprehensive transportation system, we need a strong transit provider, and I believe that if it makes the necessary changes, Capital Metro can be that provider.
But one thing I know for sure: I’ll be watching.