METRO service costs taxpayers more than riders

HOUSTON Traveling is expensive, so saving a few bucks on the ride to the airport makes sense. But every option has a tradeoff. Taxis are easy but expensive, shuttles cheaper, but sometimes slower, and as we found the cheapest option, METRO's bus service, has a hidden cost you didn't know you were paying.

This METRO bus may be one of the best kept secrets in all of Houston. It makes two stops, one in downtown, the other at Bush airport. And it only costs the passenger $15 each way.

"Fifteen bucks, that's a good deal," said Linda Mosley.

Until you know the true cost. METRO makes 30 roundtrips a day to the airport and back. According to METRO's own data, less than two people take each trip, making this particular bus seemingly busy with three passengers on board.

"It was empty. I couldn't see anyone on there," said CeCe Emerson.

No matter how many people ride the bus, it costs METRO $1.5 million a year to run it. Divide the cost by the current number of passengers and it makes the real cost of the one-way trip $74 per person. The rider pays $15, and you, the taxpayer, chip in the other $59. And you have been for a year and a half.

"Oh no, that's not good," said Emerson.

George Smalley of METRO defended the service, saying, "Don't just play the 'gotcha' game when you think something is bad. This service is good for Houston in so many ways."

METRO says it's only a year and a half old and according to METRO math, the $59 subsidy on a $15 fare is pretty good.

"You've got to give it fair time to be a success," said Smalley. "This particular route has an operating ratio of 22% which is very healthy and in line with our other service."

In other words, taxpayers subsidize almost 80 percent of the cost and METRO is OK with that. METRO subsidizes all its routes, but the airport is by far the most expensive.

"I didn't know about that," said taxi driver Milton Beck.

He had no idea his tax dollars were paying to take people downtown for $13 more than he charges. METRO would save $1,000 a day by simply putting the bus passengers in taxis and paying their fare.

If METRO came to you and said they would give you $59 to take one person downtown, what would you say?

"I would be delighted to take them," said Beck.

That's not going to happen though.

"They need to discontinue it," said Eunice Williams.

That's not going to happen either. METRO says they won't even review the service until it's two to three years old. The agency hasn't even considered dropping the number of trips or raising the price.

In fact it seems our critical look is part of their plan to save you money.

"I am glad Channel 13 is here. I hope to get the word out. I hope you leave this part in the show, so viewers can give the service a try and judge for themselves," said Smalley.

You might as well. You're paying for it and since METRO is committed to giving it a chance to grow, the only way you'll pay less is if more people ride.

In case you want to give the service a shot, we've linked to a METRO Airport Direct schedule here.

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