AUSTIN, TEX. -- The free ride soon will be ended here for public transportation users, who have participated in a unique program since last October.
Despite an 85 percent increase in ridership and generally positive reviews from the public, the Capital Metro Board of Directors, concerned about revenue and increased incidents of crime and rowdiness on buses, voted 4 to 3 to end its free-fare program Dec. 31.
"Our goals were to increase ridership and allow people to familiarize themselves with the system," said Howard Goldman, Capital Metro spokesman. "We achieved those goals, and the majority of the board saw no reason to extend" the program.
The brainchild of former board chairman Steve Bayer, who resigned in August when the panel rejected his proposal to continue free fares through 1995, the program will cost Capital Metro an estimated $1.9 million of its $15.5 million annual budget this year.
"I think the board was more concerned with collecting revenue than encouraging people" to continue using public transportation, Bayer said. The experiment doubled average weekday ridership to 80,000 passengers in this city of about 435,000 people.
Controversy has surrounded the program. Although 86 percent of 3,000 passengers interviewed by Capital Metro in April responded favorably or very favorably to the program, free fares have attracted large numbers of youths and transients who fill empty hours riding the air-conditioned buses.
"Some people really abuse it," said Genaro Hernandez, 44, a "checker" who rides buses in plain clothes to watch for security problems. "I see them ride one block, get off and ride back in the other direction. They're kids mostly, and they use too much abusive language."
Dale Hancock, 37, who is unemployed, rides the buses frequently, looking for work. "I think they're going to have to get rid of free fares if they want to upgrade service," he said. "Some routes are tremendously overcrowded." Hancock said he does not mind paying a fare if it means "cleaning up some routes that I try to avoid now because the atmosphere has become unpleasant."
Although reported security incidents increased from 44 to 120 in comparable three-month periods before and after the plan started, Goldman said the figure is misleading. "I think some of that was not reported before," he said.
Anticipating problems, Capital Metro increased security manpower hours from 40 to 250 a week. The rise in reported incidents occurred because the system is "doing a better job of monitoring now," Goldman said.
Most security problems involve disputes among passengers or verbal abuse by riders against drivers. The number of incidents involving injury averages one a month and has remained stable since free fares began.
A bus driver who said he has 12 years of experience at Capital Metro and asked not to be identified said many drivers do not like the free-fare system. "Too often now you get hassled, or you have to worry about driving the bus and policing the passengers at the same time," the driver said.
Despite drawbacks, most Austinites like the convenience of boarding buses without having to fish in their pockets for the regular 50-cent fare, Goldman said.
"Before, you had to have the exact change to board a bus," he said. "Now, there's no hassle involved. You just get on and go. And we're also more efficient because the driver doesn't have to worry about collecting fares or taking transfers."
For some low-income patrons, free fares are a needed windfall. "I save $20 a month," said Virginia Harris, a restaurant worker. That was the price of a monthly pass. "That money goes to new shoes or clothes or something that I wouldn't normally get," she said.
To address concerns of low-income riders, Capital Metro proposes reducing the price for a monthly pass to $10 next year. Indigent citizens who register with a social services agency would ride free. The fare structure waits final approval by a local governmental committee.