Rant ’n’ rail

Coming to terms with the high price of public transportation

I’m not a public transit kinda guy. It’s not that I don’t believe in it. Clearly, it’s the most efficient way to move large numbers of people in and out of large cities. Riding the bus or the light rail not only cuts down on air pollution, it helps preserve the world’s precious but dwindling oil supply. From that perspective, mass transit beats the automobile by a country mile, which, for those of you who’ve never been out of town, is twice as long as a city mile.

At any rate, none of this really concerns me. I ride a motorcycle. I haven’t owned a car for 15 years. My carbon footprint is minuscule. The bike gets 40 miles per gallon in the city, 50 on the freeway and is a helluva lot faster than a Prius. I never have a problem finding a parking spot, unless you’re talking about Downtown Plaza, which has inexplicably banned motorcycles from its parking garage. (Bastards! See if I ever shop there again!) In short, I’ve never really had a reason to ride mass transit in Sacramento.

Until now.

No doubt you’ve heard SN&R has moved from Midtown to Del Paso Boulevard in north Sacramento. As it turns out, the light rail runs directly from my house to work. It’s literally door to door. I can walk a block to the station and take the 30-minute ride out to Del Paso Boulevard, where the train drops me off and I walk the remaining block to work. It’s just too damn convenient, with one exception: the fare price.

When a co-worker informed me it cost $2.50 to ride the train and the ticket only lasts two hours, my eyes nearly popped out of their sockets. That’s $5 to ride to and from work, every day. It’s been a while since I’ve depended on mass transit to get around, but when I lived in San Francisco in the 1980s, I believe the fare was 85 cents. When I lived in Seattle in the 1970s, the bus was free inside city limits.

True, Sacramento Regional Transit offers a monthly pass for $100, reducing the cost considerably. But do the math; I did. It costs me $20 a month to gas up the motorcycle. Even if I drove a 15 mpg SUV, it’d still be cheaper than riding the light rail. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t public transit supposed to be less expensive than driving an automobile? Why ride it otherwise? What gives?

It’s not RT’s doing. What’s on display here is our country and our state’s confounding lack of commitment to public transportation. Despite all the lip service Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pays to slowing anthropogenic global warming, when the state’s budget crisis reached epic proportions last year, one of the first things the governor and the Legislature cut was transit funding. More cuts are undoubtedly on the way. The same scenario is playing out in cities across the nation.

The end result? Today, in Seattle, the bus fare is $2.75. In San Francisco it’s $2, and at the start of the year, the cost of a monthly pass was jacked up $15, from $55 to $70. According to City Mayors, an international think tank for urban affairs, “Ninety percent of the public bus companies in the U.S. reduced service or increased fares in 2009.”

That makes me feel a little bit better about shelling out $100 to RT for a monthly transit pass; at least we’re all riding the same train. And after one trip to work and back, I’ve become a believer.

Now, in Sacramento, and no doubt other cities across the nation, transit users game the system to cope with higher fares. Here, one popular ruse is to sign up for a community college class, receive a free transit pass that lasts the entire semester and then immediately drop the class. Personally, that sounds a little dishonest to me, and after considering the intangible benefits of riding the rails, I’m completely willing to pay the full price.

For one, even though the actual journey by light rail takes twice as long as the bike, when you count the time it takes to put all my gear on, it’s about the same. I’ll also be able to garage the motorcycle for the rest of the winter and conduct some long-delayed maintenance. Finally, as much as I enjoy splitting lanes at high speed during the morning commute and afternoon rush hour, it’s kinda stressful. On the light rail, you can kick back.

I like kicking back. I’m down with clean air, preserving our fossil-fuel resources and having an even smaller carbon footprint. Maybe I’m a mass transit kinda guy after all.