Ruven Brooks is a senior and transit advocate who believes that public input into transit design needs to be much deeper than the occasional public hearing with three minute speeches.
Why Change the Committees?
In the City of Austin, citizen advisory committees can be very important and powerful organizations; the dreaded Zoning and Platting Commission and the Planning Commission are, in fact, merely citizen advisory committees.
Why have these committees become so important? There are at least two reasons. One is that they are a source of expertise; members of those commissions frequently know as much about City land development policies as City staff do and they sometimes point out errors in what staff have done. Second, they give an opportunity for airing and public discussion of controversial issues before City Council members are required to take a public position. The Cap Metro board needs both of those benefits.
To receive these benefits, Capital Metro needs to give its committees a different role, improve the selection and training of committee members and increase the number and specialization of the committees.
Role of Committees
The main purpose of citizen advisory committees is to bring to the board and staff information which they would not otherwise receive from Capital Metro staff and other sources. This information is often about public opinion but it could equally well be operational or technical information.
Currently, advisory committees play almost entirely a summative role; they are asked to pass judgement on complete change proposals. In this regard, they are really no different from all of the other public input mechanisms Capital Metro uses. Instead, they need to be brought into a more formative role in which their input is used to shape proposals. For example, If there’s a need to cancel routes or stops, advisory committees could be provided with ridership data and then asked for the pros and cons of different alternatives, or, even, asked, with staff help to formulate the alternatives.
Once proposals have been formulated, citizen advisory committees should be asked to hold public hearings on major or controversial issues before any board hearings.
Agendas and backup materials for advisory committee meetings should be posted on the web site in advance of the meetings, just as they are for Cap Metro board meetings and City of Austin commission meetings. If possible, they should be broadcast and recorded.
Selection and Treatment of Committee Members
Committee members should be made aware that their role is to assist the board in making decisions and they serve at the pleasure of their board member and may be asked to step down if the board member does not feel that they are making an effective contribution. Committee members should be given Cap Metro email addresses and have published phone numbers so that other members of the public can communicate with them.
Committee members should also be required to complete the same type of training as City of Austin committee members. Every committee member should understand what they are allowed to do and are not allowed to do as committee members. They should also be aware of how Capital Metro is financed and the financial constraints it operates under.
In a change from current policy, all committee members should be expected to have at least a minimal understanding of public policy and governmental operations and a reasonable command of spoken and written language, either directly or through the use of assistive technology. As needed, Cap Metro should be prepared to offer translation and interpretation support for committee members whose fluency is in languages other than English. Committee members are, effectively, representatives or the wider public and if they are unable to get their thoughts across to others, they are limiting public input to the decision-making process.
Qualifications for committee membership should be determined on the basis of the tasks of the committee. In particular, frequent ridership on Cap Metro services should not be an automatic requirement for membership; for example, a committee whose charge is recruiting new riders might well benefit from having members who don’t use the services currently.
Currently, recruitment and retention of committee members is problematic. A likely major contributor is that the committees are seen as ineffectual. Once this perception changes, it will be easier to recruit and keep committee members.
Increasing the Number of Committees
The City of Austin has something like 66 citizen boards or commissions. Why so many? There are two factors which encourage a large number:
Commission members are appointed by and have access to council members. Effectively, the commission members are the eyes and ears and, sometimes, the voices of council members. The more committees, the more of the city government the councilperson has a citizen contact for.
A second reason for many committees is to narrow the focus of each committee. If the same committee which hears complaints of building code violations also had to handle requests for zoning changes, it is doubtful whether either commission would do its job well, even though the areas are somewhat related.
A final reason for many commissions is limiting agenda length. If all of the cases heard by the Zoning and Platting Commission and the Planning Commission were handled by a single commission, meetings would last far into the night.
The City of Austin has four times the budget of Cap Metro; on that basis, Cap Metro ought to have something like sixteen advisory committees. Perhaps, the City of Austin is a bit too enthusiastic in setting up committees but Capital Metro could probably benefit from having a few more than the four it now has.
IT and Technology Services
In form or another, technology services form a substantial part of Cap Metro’s budget. None of the current board members can claim much expertise in the IT area or other technology areas so there’s little oversight at the board level. Austin is rich in technology professionals, at a least a few of whom would be willing to contribute their expertise.
Topics concerned with the evolution of the network, such as the Connections 2025 plan, should be the responsibility of this committee. All service changes intended to reach alignment with this plan would come under this committee. Members of this committee need to have the background and perspective to carry out this responsibility. Particularly desirable would be people with backgrounds in urban planning, demographics, or real estate development. There would no particular requirement for members to be current frequent riders.
This committee would advise on current network operations. Their main function would be to identify current problem areas, particularly those not already known to Cap Metro staff, and bring them to the attention of the staff and the board. Frequent use of public transit would a requirement for membership and care should be taken that all of the different services are represented, e.g., there should be at least one person who participates in the Metro Rideshare program.
Even though its charter doesn’t say so, this existing committee focuses on use of the transit system by individuals with disabilities. It is highly desirable that the membership represent as large a range as possible of people with disabilities. Also included under this committee’s charter should be support for riders who have limited or no capability to communicate in English.
Project Connect Advisory Committee
Project Connect already has the Multimodal Community Advisory Committee. In some respects, this committee is a model for how the rest of the committees should function since it does it’s work before public release of reports, rather than critiquing them afterwards.
Plaza Saltillo and Other Transit Oriented Development Projects
The Plaza Saltillo project has received input from City of Austin citizen advisory committees such as the Planning Commission but this input ceases once the plans have been approved. Experience with Planned Unit Development (PUD) zoning, which uses the same zoning mechanism as TOD zoning, has shown that long term adherence to the original agreement is often very dependent on citizen monitoring. It would be worthwhile to establish a citizen’s advisory committee to monitor Plaza Saltillo and other transit-oriented development projects to ensure that these projects continue to meet the objectives of transit-oriented development.
Mobility Innovation Zones
As the sprawl leader among the 20 largest American cities, Austin suffers particularly from the problem of providing public transit services in low density areas, whether these areas be wealthy or low income. The Mobility Innovation Zones are an opportunity to try solutions that don’t involve a 60 passenger fixed route bus. For these innovations to be really successful they must attract riders beyond those who use the limited fixed route service currently available.
Getting public input early enough to play a formative role is important and cannot wait until Cap Metro staff has a complete plan. Formation of this committee should have started with the beginning of the Pilot experiment. Members of this committee should include representatives of businesses and organizations which are likely to help fund new services, such as those businesses which fund the Chariot routes, representatives of businesses and organizations which operate their own transportation systems in the area, such as senior residences, and, even, individuals who do not currently ride public transit but who are likely to do so if appropriate transit is provided.
CapMetro’s existing citizen advisory committees are the Access Advisory Committee and the Customer Satisfaction Advisory Committee.Meetings are open to the public and anyone eligible may apply to join the committees at any time. Austin also has a Multimodal Community Advisory Committee, “formed to act as an advisory group to both the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan and Capital Metro’s Project Connect.” A full list of Austin’s Boards & Commissions is available here; all meetings are open to the public and Austinites may apply to fill vacancies at any times.