Public transit’s identity crisis: What’s wrong with Regional Transit and how can it get better?

Amid proposed fare increases, more cuts to service and declining ridership, RT scrambles to figure out who its going to serve

Critics say Regional Transit needs to be more concerned with transit-dependent riders and less focused on recruiting “choice riders” or cleaning up trains before Kings games.

Critics say Regional Transit needs to be more concerned with transit-dependent riders and less focused on recruiting “choice riders” or cleaning up trains before Kings games.

illustration by jonathan buck

Sacramento Regional Transit is not what it used to be. RT has lost 9 million annual riders since 2009—owing to steep fare hikes and deep service cuts. At nearly 26 million riders a year, the system has fewer passengers than at any point in the last decade.

And the troubled transit agency may soon lose more riders. Last month, RT staff recommended a 20 percent base fare increase, hikes to discounted fares and elimination of the monthly Paratransit pass for seniors and riders with disabilities. RT is also considering elimination of several more “underperforming” bus routes.

Critics say RT is trying to fix its budget at the expense of those who need transit the most: seniors, the disabled, youth and low-income riders. And fare increases and service cuts may only worsen the problem.

“To me, it’s like a death spiral,” says Jeff Harris, a Sacramento Regional Transit board member and city councilman. “You cut service, people can’t use the system, ridership drops, revenue drops.”

RT staff acknowledged that fare hikes would likely drive ridership down an estimated 3 percent for every 10 percent of fare increase.

“A big fare increase is not going to bring riders back. It’s likely to accelerate the decline,” says Greg Thompson, a transportation researcher who is working with the local government watchdog group Eye on Sacramento. “A 20 percent fare increase would be catastrophic.”

And many are questioning RT’s timing. Harris called the fare hike proposal “really out of the blue.”

RT’s most recent budget contained no hint of a looming shortfall. It did acknowledge that cheap gas prices were pulling down ridership, but fare revenues were still projected to outpace expenses for the next five years. That budget also projected more riders and more fare revenue thanks to the extension of its Blue Line to Cosumnes River College.

And in October, RT staff floated a proposal for gradual fare increases every two years, because the agency had not raised fares since 2009.

But by late January, the financial forecast was scrambled, and RT was projecting sharply lower fare revenue, and asking for a big fare increase right away.

“I think there may be some funny accounting going on,” said Michelle Pariset, with Organize Sacramento, a group advocating for low-income and transit-dependent riders. “I read the last budget. I didn’t get a sense that [RT] were so underwater that they had to cut routes and raise fares. So what is it they want to pay for?”

Pariset and Thompson both noted that the amount of money that RT proposed to raise with higher fares, $4 million a year, is exactly the same amount of money that has been proposed for the operation of a new streetcar line to serve downtown development. Eye on Sacramento and transit advocates have been critical of streetcar, which would compete with neighborhood transit service for operations money.

Eye on Sacramento also wants RT to look closely at the new Green Line, which loops between downtown and the railyards, and carries very few passengers, an estimated 400 boardings on a weekday (compared to 20,000 to 30,000 for the blue and gold lines). The line is designed to serve development in the railyards and then eventually continue on to Natomas and ultimately to the airport. “Having that little stub going back and forth is costing a lot of money,” said Thompson, suggesting that RT mothball the Green Line trains until the line and railyards are further built out.

Eye on Sacramento’s Thompson thinks suspending operation of the Green Line could save millions. RT staff have considered changes as part of their analysis of underperforming routes, but haven’t made any determination about possible savings.

RT is also losing money to fare evasion, particularly on the light-rail trains. RT says 5 to 10 percent of riders don’t pay, though the real number may be higher. As of February 1, if you have a monthly pass, you have to swipe it now to board the bus, supposedly because people were photocopying passes. Harris says it’s well known that checking fares on trains “only happens infrequently.”

RT is hoping to hire more ticket checkers to ride the rails. Checking just 20 percent of riders would help give the impression that the system is back under control, says Thompson. But he warned the crackdown may not fill RT coffers. “It will probably cost more to step up enforcement than you’ll get back in revenue.”

Another idea that may help: bring back transfers. RT eliminated free transfers between bus and rail in 2009, ostensibly as a way to increase revenue. But Thompson said the loss of transfers, and the “dismembering” of RT’s coordinated bus and rail system, drove steep losses in ridership. “I think restoring that free transfer would have a big effect.”

RT is bringing back transfers, sort of. Last month, RT launched its RideSacRT smartphone app, which allows customers to plan trips and buy tickets using their phones. Passengers who use the app also get unlimited transfers for 90 minutes.

But customers who don’t have smartphones, data plans or credit cards won’t get free transfers. “That’s an inequity,” said Chris Jensen, with the Resources for Independent Living, which advocates for Sacramento-area people with disabilities. “They should bring back transfers for everyone.”

Usually RT conducts an “equity analysis” for any action that affects fares. But that hasn’t happened with the smartphone app, yet, because it’s technically only a pilot project.

The app highlights a certain tension between RT’s new focus on “choice riders,” who might be lured to occasionally leave their cars behind, and the agency’s mission to serve the transit-dependent.

“We’re going to get to a tipping point, where choice riders use the system, where it feels safe and it stays in the black,” Harris explains. The downtown Kings arena and other downtown destinations are part of RT’s choice-rider strategy. In fact, the arena is the only place where RT is currently planning new service.

At the same time, RT is trying to squeeze more money from the transit-dependent. For example, RT hiked fees for Los Rios College student bus passes last year. “It feels like they are trying to change the customer base,” says Pariset. “When poor people don’t ride the bus anymore, then the choice riders will ride.”

Transit advocates are pushing in the opposite direction. They want “means tested” fares, like Seattle and San Francisco, where low-income riders pay half price for monthly passes. In San Francisco, the low income Lifeline monthly pass is $35. Sacramento RT—a much more limited transit system—charges $100 for a basic monthly pass, $50 for seniors and students.

Jensen said RT should hold off on any fare increases until it investigates the possibility of raising additional revenue through sales taxes—more on that later—and until the agency finally implements its long-awaited Connect Card technology.

The Connect Card, which was supposed to be implemented last summer, would allow the agency to be more creative with its fare structure—for example, bringing back central-city fares, higher fares for long commutes and cheaper fares for short hops. The Connect Card could also make it easier to implement a low-income fare.

“There are all kinds of things you can do with the Connect Card,” said Jensen. “How can we honestly talk about the best fare structure when that’s still not in place?”

It was clear during the February RT meeting that a 20 percent fare increase gave many board members heartburn, and there seemed to be no appetite for elimination of the monthly Paratransit pass.

Harris said it’s likely that RT staff will propose a more modest fare increase at its next meeting on March 14. But as of this writing, RT had not made that proposal public.

RT has the highest base fares of any public transit system in California. But Sacramento taxpayers give very little financial support to transit, compared to other cities.

RT gets one-sixth of one cent from Sacramento County’s Measure A sales tax for transportation projects. By comparison, Bay Area governments levy a half-cent for transit (three times the rate in Sacramento), while Los Angeles taxpayers give a penny on every dollar spent (six times Sacramento’s rate).

“You get what you pay for, and we have to find a way to pay for something better,” said RT board member Councilman Steve Hansen during the February meeting.

As it happens, the Sacramento Transportation Authority, the multi-agency partnership that administers Measure A, is considering an additional half-cent sales tax that would be divided up among several transportation spending priorities, including roads and transit.

RT’s long-forgotten Transit Action plan shows a half-cent of additional sales tax revenue could fund a significant expansion of the system, including streetcars, additional light rail and more neighborhood bus and shuttle service.

But when STA sent out glossy mailers earlier this month to help build support for a new sales tax, public transportation was barely mentioned. There was a bullet point about expanded Paratransit service for seniors and disabled folks, and one about improved security and cleanliness for light rail. But the mailer focused more on repaving streets, widening highways and building new infrastructure. Nothing about expanded RT service. (Regional Transit wasn’t even mentioned by name.)

At the February meeting, Hansen said RT faced an “existential quandary,” and that a “robust conversation” about the agency’s future was needed.

On this point, Jensen agrees. “I think RT is having an identity crisis. It has to decide what it wants to be. If they decide they want an elite transit system for ’choice riders,’ well, OK. But we still have to figure out how to provide affordable and accessible public transportation for everyone.”