Ride along

Regional Transit’s new CEO and the transit company’s union president talk improved services, Measure B and arena parking

Photo caption

Photo caption

Photo by Natasha vonKaenel

Nestled among the American and Sacramento rivers, Sacramento came into being because of transit. And our future depends on transit. Those with or without cars—now or in the future—depend on Sacramento developing a more effective public transportation system.

Nearly two months ago, I met with new CEO of Regional Transit Henry Li who talked of plans to fix RT. Knowing that union and RT management have often been in conflict, I asked Li what the union thought of this change. He told me that he had very good discussions with Ralph Niz, the president and business agent of Amalgamated Transit Union.

But I wanted to hear from Niz directly. Niz said he liked some of the changes at RT, but also had more of a wait-and-see attitude. He was not even sure that his union was going to support Measure B, which is supposed to bring significantly more money to transit. So I proposed that Li and Niz do a joint question-and-answer interview.

That finally happened late last month at SN&R’s offices. During the interview, both Li and Niz appeared to be committed to work together to create a great transit system for Sacramento. Oh, and Niz is now on board for Measure B.

I want to look at RT from a broader perspective. Henry, one of the things that we talked about earlier was when you came in, RT had a fiscal imbalance …

Li: When I came here we [had virtually] exhausted all of our remaining operating materials, which is $3.1 million. We expect we’re going to exhaust that at the end of the fiscal year and then since I came on board, we pulled support from all different partners, especially Ralph. … We [started] looking for all different types of opportunities to reduce cost and generate additional operating revenues.

What kind of deficit was it annually?

Li: In March we expected we were to have a $3.1 million deficit. At that time we expected about $155 million revenue, but the expenditures were $158 million. Right after that we started many different initiatives; by the end of June, based on the latest information and audit information, we actually will have [had] $3.2 million operating return—where instead of using up [the] entire $3.1 million, we [will] have $3.2 million in our bank.

What changes have happened over the last several months?

Li: First we had to create a culture of “customers first;” every business decision we had to make we had to look at how we could serve our customers better, and then more and more customers, potential customers who would try to ride with us. Then we grow the ridership, and then we can make a bigger contribution to the region because more people riding with you means you’re providing more value to the region. We expanded our customer service center hours and then we tried to operate RT like a corporate business. We reduced about 10 percent of our management positions, and increased 6 to 7 percent of our customer service front-line positions. We planned to increase our transit agent positions again [and] hired 25 transit agents.

Ralph, if the fairy godmother of fate all the sudden made you RT’s general manager, what would you like to see?

Niz: Since the Sacramento board leaders and some council people have come to talk to the union along with Henry, improvements have been made. Both are working for the same thing, securing the jobs, betterment of the transit. That’s the bottom line. … We sat down and we took a step forward with the transit agents. Security was extremely important, not only for the public but for the operators. … The trains have been worked on—the public, I think they’re seeing a change that’s long overdue and that’s a good thing. Whereas before there was a lack of communication between the union and the company, there isn’t now. If I have something to say I’ll pick up the phone directly and call Henry.

What other things would you recommend?

Niz: Continue the progress and the changes. … Do not let it go back to what it was. Do not neglect areas, namely the public, security, the system itself, the trains they need to be upgraded; if they do, then buy them.

Henry, this fairy godmother has also made you the head of the union.

Li: I would do the same thing, continue to do the same thing Ralph is doing now. Because you know, I see this gentleman is a fair but also a very aggressive dealer, and he tries to protect his membership, that’s his duty and obligation.

Ralph, we talked several weeks ago about Measure B; you were lukewarm.

Niz: I was noncommittal.

What’s the change?

Niz: The change is communication, I want … to make sure that if there is any money coming in here, that it is going where it’s supposed to go—transportation, improvements, security, jobs.

Why should voters approve Measure B?

Niz: Because there are major improvements being made in the system.

Li: We will try to use this money to improve our service. We need to bring back more routes, more schedules, extend our service to the late hours, so our potential riders can use that for their job, whatever.

Let’s talk about the role of transit in terms of community development and how Measure B fits into that.

Niz: Increasing the service; there are people that work late, and increasing the service and routes and increasing the efficiency is extremely important.

I did a focus group with bus drivers once, and one thing that was cool was learning about the connection they made with so many passengers.

Niz: Every operator out there, being light rail or being a bus driver, we are the PR people for regional transit. We take your children to school, we care for your children when they’re on the bus, we try to take you from point A to point B in a safe manner, so when you get on the bus and we open that door in the morning we greet you, say hi to your children, I used to, when I drove in the first of the month or at the time when the children had to buy their stickers—knew that it took two or three days for the parents to get the stickers, and I would see children walking down the street because they didn’t have the sticker, I would pull the bus over and I would open the door and I would say, “Get on the bus.” We are the front-line people.

How do you see RT in the future?

Niz: I would expect them, within a very short time, hypothetically lets just say 10 years, to be a top-notch transit system.

So then we’re saying by 2026, people will be saying they moved here because it’s so easy to get around?

Niz: Let’s just say there would be a lot more jobs brought into the area, the service would be extended; in San Francisco you can go out and catch a bus or a train at 2 in the morning. I’m not saying RT will do that, I’m just saying those things matter, security matters, cleanliness matters. The operators’ attitude at taking care of the public, that’s what I see.

Li: I cannot agree with Ralph any more because we want to make sure we take care of customers—first take care of our own employees, then … they can really serve our customers better. Within 10 years I hope we can expand our service [and have] the light rail extend to Elk Grove. If Measure B passes we will be able to do that, right now we still [have funds] allocated [for the] airport extension, and after we get the federal match we will be able to finish that project in 10 or 11 years. By doing that ….we’re going to spend lots of effort on the transit-oriented development to get the communities built around light rail stations, so major bus hubs. In 10 years this is my hope: we can get our ridership up … We may want to do the free transfer throughout the entire system so you don’t have to pay transfers within 90 minutes … that we will have a huge impact.

In terms of the vision, how much more extensive will the bus service be?

Li: The next major project is to look at the entire system, not just our transit system [but] also the suburban area transit systems; we’ll work with them and work with the [Sacramento Area Council of Governments] to wipe out the current service design … then work with all transit systems to say what the ideal, optimal new structure, new route structure, should look like.

So is what we’re talking about here bringing in Roseville and Elk Grove, etc.—then rethinking the whole regional pattern?

Li: Yes, for example, Citrus Heights [and] Roseville [have had] huge growth in the past couple decades, but our system never really changed much. We needed to design our system according to the job growth, the employment center will change, the travel pattern, the entertainment, all those types of stuff changed. Economic patterns changed. How the system will change accordingly … we hope we will make sure we get this done in a way that’s smooth, but successful.

Let’s talk about arena parking. Downtown, we have 100,000 state workers, or people who come down every day. There are 15,000 spaces—which are going to be used primarily in times when there are no workers around.

Li: The question is during the right before and right after the event, if you have 10,000 cars moving around, that is huge congestion, so maybe it’s …

So is it materially that much different?

Li: If they come at 5 p.m.

If we have 100,000 workers, almost all driving alone—then with the arena there’s 15,000 people, almost more of them coming together …

Li: I don’t know if that’s the right assumption. When you say 100,000 people come downtown to work, I don’t know if it’s [really] 100,000 who come to downtown because state offices are scattered in different places. There may be just 20,000 state workers come to downtown to work. For example, the [Department of Motor Vehicles] is on … Broadway.

For me, getting the community college students to take transit is a bigger concern than people going to a Kings game.

Niz: Reaching out to the communities making a better system for everyone, not just centering on the arena. I know Henry goes out to the community organizations, so do I, we have alliances with all the communities because we are concerned about their children and them getting to work. It all plays into improving the system all over.