More than ever, we need a complete overhaul of Regional Transit

So, the Sacramento Regional Transit board has voted to go ahead with a 10 percent increase in fares, in order to make up for an unexpected budget shortfall. RT is likely to cut several bus lines to save money as well.

RT’s revenue problems are attributable to both short-term and long-term problems. For example, gas prices have been really low lately, and that hurts transit ridership.

But the main causes of RT’s long-term ridership decline are higher fares and diminished service.

RT has the highest base fares of any transit system in California. RT also eliminated transfers a few years ago. At the same time, RT severed many of the connections between its bus and light-rail networks. (The loss of transfers was part of that disconnection; many of the bus routes that fed passengers to light rail were eliminated.) Because of all of this, RT lost about 9 million annual riders compared to its peak in 2009-10.

The new fare hikes are supposed to address the immediate shortfall. And RT leaders believe the current effort to “clean up” and a crackdown on fare evasion will help to stabilize the system.

Maybe or maybe not. Even if it does, merely stopping the bleeding isn’t nearly good enough. Our environment and economy, the health of our neighborhoods, our sense of self as a world-class city—or at least as a not half-assed city—demands a much better transit system than the one we have now.

For example, RT is the cornerstone of regional planning efforts like the Sacramento Region Blueprint, and the Sacramento region’s Sustainable Communities Strategy. The Blueprint assumes a sharp uptick in per capita transit trips. The SCS assumes a 20 percent increase in transit service per capita by the year 2020. We’re going to miss those targets, because the transit system is shrinking, not growing.

So, how do we get there from here? I’m not sure, but it seems like first we would want to avoid short-term fixes that only dig the hole deeper, such as the fare increases. In their estimates, RT staff used the rule of thumb that for every 10 percent increase in fares, you can expect a ridership drop of 3 percent, all else being held equal.

And RT staff estimated that a 20 percent fare increase, broken up over two years to allow riders to better absorb the hit, would drive away about 1.3 million riders.

RT board members were understandably a little freaked out about that number. Board member and County Supervisor Don Nottoli said the prospect of losing that many riders was “startling.”

So, instead, fares will only increase by 10 percent. But that still means 800,000 riders could be lost. And we may be back in the neighborhood of a million lost riders, once you figure in the damage caused by cutting additional bus routes.

The emergency fare hikes bring into focus another issue that ought to have gotten more attention before now: RT’s implementation, or rather, its failure to implement the long-promised Connect Card technology.

The electronic smart card would allow transfers between RT and other regional systems like Yolobus or Elk Grove’s eTran. It would also allow transfers between RT buses and light rail, and allow RT to charge according to how far you travel, or how long.

The Connect Card was supposed to be rolled out a year ago. Today, RT officials can’t say when the program will be launched.

If the Connect Card were in place right now, RT would have more flexibility in crafting a fare structure to meet its farebox-recovery needs and still retain, perhaps even grow, its ridership.

Distance-based fares and means-based fares, or just having an easy way to transfer between buses and rail, would surely bring people back to the system and make it more equitable.

When transit advocates pointed out last week that RT’s fare-hike plan would result in the highest fares in the United States, RT staff protested that other systems often employ “up-charges” that push the effective fare higher.

Exactly. And without the Connect Card, or some way to produce a more nuanced fare structure, we are stuck with this single dumb fare for any trip, short or long. Why did RT drop the ball on this? And would things be different now?

This seems to be a lot of confidence among RT board members and staff that “cleaning up” the system will bring back RT riders. This is the nut of RT’s “choice riders” strategy. (That, and streetcars, the arena and free Wi-Fi.)

It’s clear that the fare-evasion problem on light rail is ridiculous, and should’ve been fixed a long time ago. It should have been considered when light rail was built. But, again, we’re living with the consequences of short-term thinking and the desire to do things on the cheap.

For all the 20 years that I’ve lived in Sacramento, I’ve heard people complain about dirty trains, homeless people, blah, blah blah. Some of those complaints are legitimate. But the fact is that no matter how much you clean up RT, the folks who are bothered by that stuff are just not going to ride. Not as long as the masses are still allowed on mass transit. And yet, for most of that time, ridership on RT grew.

Something changed to make ridership start falling, and it wasn’t the social scene. It wasn’t that people suddenly found out the trains were dirty, or that sometimes the bus seats were stained and threadbare.

RT lost 9 million riders because it got too expensive, because it takes way too long and because it doesn’t go where people need it to go. Falling gas prices and the rise of Uber are aggravating factors.

Cleaning up RT is nice and fine, good for everybody, as long it doesn’t mean discriminating against poor people. (A real possibility, unfortunately.)

But cleaning up RT is not going to bring back 9 million riders. It is not even going to replace the 1 million or so riders RT will lose with this next fare hike.

Some are pinning their hopes on a possible half-cent sales tax measure, being considered by the Sacramento Transportation Authority, to fund a variety of road and transportation projects, possibly included some additional funding for RT. Again, beware political expediency.

Back in the early 2000s, some environmentalist and transit advocates rebelled against Measure A, the proposed countywide transportation sales tax, because it drastically short-changed transit and was loaded up with funding for new roads. Especially in the sprawling suburbs, which are hard to serve with transit.

The chambers of commerce and building industry won the day, mostly by arguing (plausibly) that a transit-heavy ballot measure would never get the two-thirds vote needed to pass.

So, other transit fans (grudgingly) backed Measure A, because one-sixth of one cent for RT was better than nothing. (Other California metros devote a half-cent to a whole cent sales tax for their transit systems.)

Ever since, there has been talk of a “Son of Measure A” that would, someday, put Sacramento’s transit funding on par with other California cities. Well, the day is here—but it seems likely the transit will take the backseat once again.

The details of a possible STA measure are not settled; it’s not even decided that there will be a ballot measure. STA has put a lot of emphasis on road-building and maintenance. And RT is not even mentioned by name in the brochures STA has mailed to would-be voters.

I’ve got to wonder if the concerted “RT sucks” campaign that’s been waged in the last years by certain Sacramento business leaders has worked a little too well.

Business interests have managed to grab hold of RT’s policy agenda. But I wonder if they’re also driving public opinion of RT down lower than it would otherwise have been.

Either way, how likely is it that RT will get even one-quarter of a cent more from the STA sales tax? Sure, transit supporters will be inclined to vote for any crumb of additional funding, because it’s better than nothing. But surely we can do better than that.

Sacramento mayoral candidate Russell Rawlings—who knows better than any of the other candidates what it’s like to depend on the transit system—says RT needs a complete overhaul. “I believe we need to replace RT with something that works for the people.”

And I’m intrigued by Organize Sacramento organizer Michelle Pariset’s proposal for a special city transit funding district.

Rather than relying on voters out in suburban Sacramento County to agree on a funding package that tries to balance the appetite for suburban road projects with transit, Pariset suggests asking Sacramento city voters for help to support a combination of bike and pedestrian improvements, along with better RT service.

It could be funded by a local half-cent sales tax, or maybe a small property-tax assessment, as we do with schools, and streetlights and flood protection. Or a ticket surcharge on arena events, or some combination thereof.

My guess is that the powers-that-be won’t like Pariset’s idea, because it would compete with STA’s proposal.

Oh well. Maybe, as Rawlings suggests, a total reset of RT is in order. We certainly need some new ideas to be heard. The old ideas are not getting us where we need to go.