UT Capital metro cuts and the exclusion of a student voice

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On September 23, the Capital Metro board of directors voted unanimously to cut two UT shuttle routes. Under this plan, beginning in spring 2014, the Wickersham Lane shuttle will be eliminated and the Cameron Road shuttle coverage will be reduced and ultimately phased out completely. Those students who want to keep using these shuttles are then faced with an important question: who is responsible for maintaining these shuttles and, broadly, valuable student services like them?

Capital Metro held public meetings in early September to discuss the possibility of the shuttle cuts. However, Graduate Student Assembly president Columbia Mishra told The Daily Texan in early October that UT and CapMetro did not allow students to become informed about the issue. [1]. She said the cuts were discussed over the summer when students were not at school, and that the public forums on the issue were held off campus, both of which made it difficult for students to participate in the conversation.

Mishra’s organization unanimously passed a resolution on October 8 aimed at reversing the shuttle closures and requesting a dialogue with Capital Metro that would actually include a student voice. The GSA has rightly noted that these graduate students are, numerically, the most hurt by the Cameron and Wickersham closures. GSA also noted that many of these students have already made housing decisions based on the availability of these shuttle routes, and may now be locked into leases without access to that transportation. Unfortunately, their arguments were dismissed. It now looks like shuttle closures will continue.

CapMetro spokeswoman Melissa Ayala said that the student shuttle bus committee approved cutting the Pickle Research Campus shuttle for mid-2014, though a service change proposal has not officially been made. Funding for these shuttle routes is split between Capital Metro and UT. But as UT Parking and Transportation Services (PTS) spokeswoman Blanca Juarez explained, “as [transportation] costs increase, we will either have to receive additional funding or make adjustments to service.” [2]

As Juarez explained, the UT portion of the funding comes from its Student Services Budget Committee (SSBC). For the 2013-2014 fiscal year, PTS requested an additional $275,000 a year (on top of recurring funds) to “maintain the normal weekly busing hours.” The SSBC denied this request. It did approve some additional funds, such as $57,928 of bubble funds per year for the next 3 years, and from a separate account $150,000 per year for the next 2 years. That separate account is the SSBC Shuttle Bus Reserve, and it was created from surplus that PTS had in the fiscal years of 2006-2007 and 2008-2009 [3].

There is $800,000 in the Shuttle Bus Reserve, so it would have been sufficient to fulfill PTS’s request for the additional $275,000. The SSBC was aware that the lesser amount they granted would lead to cuts, and they provided two recommendations on the issue. The first was to cut “West Campus routes as opposed to routes further away from campus.” The second was to “take a serious look into advertising … to increase revenue.” This means that UT knowingly allowed cuts to happen. The SSBC even told PTS to generate more money rather than use its own surplus [4].

But putting aside whether or not UT should have fully funded PTS, the SSBC’s second recommendation to not cut far routes is worth considering. Certainly, students who live further from campus are most affected by the closure of a UT shuttle route. The Capital Metro board was made aware of this at a public hearing on September 16, as students who were able to attend voiced that argument. The complaint was heard, as board member Frank Fernandez said afterwards that the board may amend or even reject the Cameron Road shuttle cut due to students’ concerns [5].  Of course, the cuts ultimately did pass (unanimously), and the justification was that the Cameron Road and Wickersham Lane routes have low ridership. The same justification is given for the potential cut of the Pickle Research Campus shuttle. All three of these shuttles serve areas miles from campus – the areas that SSBC specifically said not to cut.

Some students have even questioned Capital Metro’s conclusion that these routes have low ridership. GSA communications director David Villareal said that shuttle’s reflectors, which are used to count riders, are only on the front door and not the rear. According to him, students who enter through the rear entrance are left uncounted. But even if they are, the measure of ridership may be unfair, as Sociology graduate student Chelsea Smith made the point that Capital Metro’s method counts rides, not riders. A student may take the West Campus bus multiple times a day to and from campus, but she says that students who live farther away typically only take their shuttle in and out once a day. Smith says this results in graduate students (and others who take far shuttles like Cameron and Wickersham) being counted less [6].

The past few years have seen stories of budget cuts and austerity throughout the country, so students shouldn’t be shocked by those menaces coming to the University. We should, however, be very critical of how they unfold. It is shocking that the University has not made a public statement on the cuts yet, especially given that the SSBC was aware they would happen. Moreover, the SSBC could have prevented these cuts with the Shuttle Bus Reserve funds. But even moving past that, there was no serious attempt by Capital Metro to have a dialogue with students about the cuts. The attitude now seems to be that students who have concerns have to find their own avenues to voice them, rather than being given timely consideration (as Mishra described). We paid for these services, and the institutions receiving our money (the University and Capital Metro) are responsible for including us in the conversation.

Mukund Rathi

[1]http://www.dailytexanonline.com/2013/10/08/graduate-student-assembly-resolution-aims-to-reverse-capital-metro-route-cuts

[2]http://www.dailytexanonline.com/2013/10/08/shuttle-routes-may-continue-to-close

[3] http://www.utexas.edu/tuition/ssbc/docs/2013-14_SSBC_Report.pdf

[4] Ibid.

[5]http://www.masstransitmag.com/news/11175317/cap-metro-mulls-fare-increase-service-cuts

[6]http://www.dailytexanonline.com/opinion/2013/09/23/students-should-continue-to-question-wickersham-and-cameron-road-shuttle-closures

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