Taken for a ride: On the future of Regional Transit in Sacramento

The region’s business elite want to rebrand bus and light rail as hip and attractive—but they could leave behind RT’s best customers

Illustration by Hawk Krall

Avondale Glen Elder, on the southeast edge of Sacramento, is a diverse community, but not a wealthy one. It's a neighborhood of smallish 1950s tract houses, and a lot of residents rely on public transit. Otherwise, without a car, it's a long walk to anywhere in particular.

Brenda Bean used to take the Route 8 bus into Glen Elder in order to visit her parents. But in 2010, the Sacramento Regional Transit District cut the No. 8 to save money.

With no other bus in the area, Bean had to make a 45-minute walk from the Power Inn light-rail station to her parents’ house. Later, when they got sick, “I walked it three times a week,” she says. Every quarter mile or so, she’d pass one of RT’s blue bus-stop signs, stenciled over with the words “NO BUS.”

Route 8 wasn’t the only bus cut in 2010. Hammered by economic downturn, falling sales-tax revenue and cuts in state funding, RT slashed bus service from 92 routes down to 62. Light-rail service was cut, too, especially at night.

Fares went up the year before, but worse was the elimination of transfers, which riders could use to connect from one bus to another, and from rail to bus. And RT got rid of the popular central city fare of $1 inside the downtown-Midtown grid.

And so, ridership plummeted. RT quickly lost 7 million riders per year. About 3 million riders have been lured back. But RT is at something of a crossroads now, as it tries to decide the best way forward.

Local electeds and business leaders want RT to focus more on those commuters who normally drive cars but might choose transit to avoid parking costs downtown, or to feel they are being a bit more green.

“We really have an opportunity to influence ’choice riders,’” says RT board member and Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna.

The business group is also keen to get these choice riders to take light rail and a proposed new streetcar system to the Kings arena, under construction, and spend money in the surrounding sports bar and restaurant district that is planned.

Advocates for the poor and “transit dependent” worry that the downtown business group has hijacked RT’s policy agenda, and are trying shift resources away from the people who need transit most.

“What we’re doing is building a special system for special people,” says Michelle Pariset, with Capital Region Organizing Project, a nonprofit that helps low-income communities organize to change public policy. “And proposing to fund its operation on the backs of families who need the bus to get to work, school and the grocery store,” she adds.

Waiting for the buses

The good news is that Avondale Glen Elder will finally get bus service back, sometime in September. “It has taken us five years to get this one bus route back,” says Pariset, who helped neighbors agitate for the return of their bus. “Eventually we just created enough noise that they had to negotiate with us.”

The bad news is RT isn’t anywhere close to restoring bus services elsewhere.

In fact, RT staff recently announced, somewhat quietly, that bus service won’t return to 2008 levels until sometime in 2023. That’s a lost decade-and-a-half for Sacramento bus riders.

RT is not just stuck. It’s falling further behind every year.

“We have not responded to growth,” explains RT general manager Mike Wiley. “When you have new development on the periphery, that takes new service to address it.”

In 2012, RT began the first phase of its Transit Renewal plan. Despite the hopeful name, Transit Renewal doesn’t mean anyone is getting a bus route back.

Instead, RT has mostly returned night service, and shortened “headways”—or the time between buses—on some routes. Even so, a full third of RT’s weekday buses run on 60-minute headways.

Wiley says RT targeted the routes with the lowest ridership for elimination. When—and if—a particular neighborhood’s bus service is restored, Wiley says, it won’t be the old route, but rather a new and more efficient route.

In September, Avondale Glen Elder’s new bus will be called Route 65. And it will have a slightly different alignment, and hopefully a higher ridership, than the old No. 8.

However, the 65 still won’t connect to the Power Inn light-rail station. And the station will still only have one bus connection, where it used to have three.

Comparing the RT system map of 2014 to the map just a few years ago, you see just how much connectivity was lost. The Fruitridge light-rail station had five bus connections; now it has one. Meadowview station went from six feeder buses to three. The 65th Street station, serving Sacramento State, dropped from nine buses to five. And so on.

And even though RT eliminated the “least productive” routes, the cuts are having a deep and lasting impact on ridership. Bus ridership dropped from 17.6 million to 13.6 in the space of a year, from 2009 to 2010. It’s not expected to recover until the early 2020s.

Ironically, RT’s operating budget has recovered, sort of. State and federal funding have remained flat, while sales-tax revenue has rebounded after the Great Recession. For the 2014-15 fiscal year, the budget was $147 million. That’s actually a little higher than the 2009 budget, right before the big cuts. But costs have gone up, too. So RT is spending more money to provide less service. And improving bus service in one area means making cuts somewhere else.

For example, RT planners recently proposed rerouting the Route 80 and 84 buses away from La Riviera Drive in order to provide a faster commuter service along Watt Avenue. But that change meant eliminating service through a neighborhood dense with houses and apartments.

Pariset went into action, handing out fliers and asking bus riders to come to an RT board meeting and speak out against the cut. On the day that SN&R joined her, there were no visible notices letting riders know their service was about to be eliminated.

Still, over several weeks, Pariset whipped up enough interest to convince the RT board of directors to keep one bus running on La Riviera. Bus service in the neighborhood will be reduced from every half-hour to every hour, but it’s better than nothing.

The lack of funds creates a zero-sum game for neighborhood bus service. “I expect we’ll see more of these kinds of cuts, as RT robs Peter to pay Paul,” says Pariset.

Chasing choice riders

Light-rail service, on the other hand, was restored comparatively quickly. RT projects that light-rail ridership will recover and surpass bus ridership for the first time sometime in 2016. RT is extending its “Blue Line” south to Cosumnes River College. It’s also looking for funds to extend a “Green Line” through Natomas and on to the Sacramento airport.

The shift to rail is partly due to RT’s effort to protect its “backbone” service. But RT policy is also being driven by a desire to appeal to more affluent choice riders.

It’s a shift that’s happening all over the country, says UC Los Angeles urban-planning professor Brian Taylor. In a 2014 paper, Taylor explains that transit agencies have seen their mission change over time.

For many decades, public transit was an important part of life for working- and middle-class people. As the automobile took over, and private bus and streetcar systems folded, mass transit became more of a social program for those who couldn’t drive.

Today, mass transit has a more complicated and more expansive mandate. It’s supposed to get people to work and school and the doctor’s office. But it’s also enlisted to fight air pollution and climate change, accommodate and encourage new development, and even produce an urban aesthetic (as with streetcars).

Taylor says a two-tiered system has developed. Bus riders as a group, Taylor says, tend to be more poor and more nonwhite compared to rail riders, who on the whole are more affluent and more white. Poor people are happy to ride rail, of course. The split has more to do with light rail’s usefulness for downtown commuters, and the aversion that choice riders have to buses.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that light rail and streetcars tend to have more political support than buses. A related issue is that there is more federal funding for capital projects—building things—than there is for operations, and this favors high-cost rail systems, too.

As a result, “transit spending priorities have been shifted away from bus service, and toward commuter oriented rail service, favored by the wealthier general voting public, although most members of this group rarely, if ever, ride transit,” Taylor writes.

A group of Sacramento business leaders is trying to steer RT hard in the direction of choice riders. This group includes folks like downtown developer David Taylor; Warren Smith, president of the Sacramento Republic Football Club; and Mark Friedman, the developer of the downtown arena.

At the invitation of county supervisor and RT board member Serna, the business group recently submitted a five-part list of recommended changes. And they were invited to join Serna and three other RT board members on a special “ad hoc” committee to consider system improvements.

Some of the changes they are asking for include tighter security, a crackdown on fare jumpers and more frequent cleaning of bus shelters and light-rail stations.

These are not so surprising. Most regular RT riders have at some point encountered intoxicated or mentally ill passengers. As with transit systems in most cities, there is sometimes raucous behavior, sometimes crime. Sometimes even serious violence; there were two separate fatal shooting incidents on RT trains last year.

But the business group is also asking RT to get more focused on serving the new downtown Kings arena, and to consider special fares for arena events.

They want a ban on “large bags of recyclables.” They are even calling for a “zero tolerance policy for civil disobedience” on RT property. (Ironically, this was included in the same January RT staff report that commemorated a “Season of Civil Rights” and the importance of public transit in the civil rights movement. That movement, you may recall, made effective use of civil disobedience.)

In their letter to the RT board, the business group also suggest “rebranding” RT to make it “more hip/cool, targeting the urban downtown residential market,” and adding, “RT is often thought of as a social service and not relevant to choice riders.”

The RT board and staff have been accommodating to the business folks. Wiley agreed to dedicate a full-time employee to serve as a liaison.

Michelle Pariset says it took five years to get just one bus route to Avondale Glen Elder, a poorer Sacramento neighborhood. “Eventually, we just created enough noise that they had to negotiate with us.”


Outside groups are skeptical. “To me, this sounds like a lot of folks who don’t ride transit getting upset that they see poor people on the train,” says Veronica Beaty with the Sacramento Housing Alliance.

The RT board is made up of a collection of city council people from area cities, along with county supervisors. They are not, for the most part, RT riders. Neither are the business folks on the ad hoc committee.

And while RT’s rules say the quarterly meetings of that ad hoc committee must be open to the public, RT board chairman and city councilman Jay Schenirer announced that the committee’s main work would be done in “working groups” that would not be open to the public.

Several transit advocates asked for representation on the committee, but they were refused.

“We need to have a very clear business focus,” says RT board member and city councilman Steve Hansen. “The one group we don’t usually hear from are choice riders.”

This left transit advocates shaking their heads. “It’s clear that riders and members of organizations will not be allowed to sit at the working group’s table,” laments Barbara Stanton, who has for years watchdogged RT for her group, RiderShip for the Masses.

Stanton says no one is opposed to cleaner or safer stations. Those are the kinds of problems she has been focused on for years. But she also wants to know where the money will come from to accommodate the business group.

It’s important to note some changes were already in the works. Wiley is negotiating a new contract for bus shelters to include more regular maintenance and refurbishment. The agency has already ordered 96 new buses. Wiley is talking with the Sacramento Downtown Partnership about contracting out the cleaning of downtown bus and rail.

But Wiley acknowledged the business group’s wish list will further strain the budget. Where will the money come from?

“Right now, I don’t know. They haven’t had that conversation yet.”

Is RT neglecting its best customers?

In a lot of ways, Sacramento’s streetcar plan encapsulates the tension between choice riders and the transit dependent.

City Councilman Hansen, a streetcar supporter, pitched the project to downtown business owners as appealing to “people who would not ride a bus.”

Streetcars fit in with the business community’s RT rebranding plan, too. But there are important trade-offs. If voters approve construction of the line in May, it’s likely RT will be asked to operate it and pick up a large portion of its operating costs. The agency could be on the hook for as much $2 million a year to run the streetcar, money that could be spent elsewhere. (The agency scraped together $685,000 in next year’s budget to run a bus to Avondale Glen Elder.)

“RT’s operations budget is extremely tight,” says Pariset. “Ultimately, what we’re talking about is diverting money from neighborhood buses and the transit-dependent to a streetcar for choice riders.”

Wiley argues that the streetcar will increase business activity downtown, thus increasing RT’s share of sales taxes. And he says he’s also considering funding the streetcar with new money that will be allocated under California’s cap-and-trade system for new transit service.

That doesn’t sit well with Pariset, who says that cap-and-trade money should go to shore up basic transit service. “I don’t think the community will stand for it. Not when there’s so much need in the neighborhoods for public transportation.”

Serna argues that appealing to choice riders will increase revenue for the RT system. “If you had the ability to attract more choice riders and reduce fare evasions, now we’d have more money to restore service,” says Serna. “I think what is going to be good for choice riders is going to be equally good for those who depend on the system.”

But Taylor at UCLA told SN&R that the emphasis on choice riders may do more harm than good in the long run.

“I worry that we’ll start to see these stories about the empty streetcars. There’s going to be a backlash from voters. And that’s going to hurt the people who need transit.”

And while RT may attract new riders with streetcars and light rail, it may lose more of its best customers because of cuts to bus service and high fares.

His paper concludes that “increasing bus frequencies, expanding center-city bus networks, and in particular cutting bus fares have been shown to be powerful stimuli for increasing ridership.”

Regional Transit general manager Mike Wiley has seen ridership numbers fall dramatically in recent years. He hopes to turn around the bus—and expand light rail to places like Citrus Heights, Elk Grove and the airport.

Cutting bus fares is Pam Haney’s No. 1 mission. She works with Wellspring Women’s Center, an Oak Park nonprofit that provides services to low-income women. “One of the biggest issues I hear about at Wellspring is transportation, transportation, transportation,” Haney says. So every week, the center hands out a limited number of free bus passes to clients, first come, first serve.

Haney has been campaigning for a more affordable transit system, organizing groups of women to testify to before the RT board.

RT offers half-price fares to seniors, students and the disabled. But Haney is also asking for the return of bus transfers, for free transit for all riders under 18 and for fare-free zones downtown.

The cuts to service and the higher fares have hit Sacramento’s most vulnerable the hardest, Haney says. “It’s created this box, where people are stuck and they can’t access the things they need.”

She is also pushing for a “means-tested” fare for RT. This is an idea that is about to be tried out in Seattle, where riders with household incomes less than 200 percent of the poverty level pay half-price to ride.

Haney says some board members have been supportive. But helping more poor people to ride RT may run counter to the idea of rebranding RT as less social service and more hip, cool and relevant to choice riders.

Destination unknown

The word “rebranding” can sound a little phony. But RT is up to some genuinely interesting things.

For example, the Seattle fare experiment is possible in part because of new smart-card technology. And RT is about to introduce something similar, called the Connect Card, which it plans to roll out this summer.

It could be used to create more discount fares, and distance-based fares, too. “We lost a lot of riders with the elimination of the central city fare,” says Wiley. “I see some real opportunity with the Connect Card for the short-hop rides.” And Wiley says distance-based fares could work anywhere, not just in the central city.

RT is also experimenting with dedicated bus lanes and traffic signals which allow buses to “queue jump” ahead of cars at some intersections.

These innovations are a little futuristic, but Wiley’s vision for RT is grander still. For many years now, he has been pitching a system that offers “full access and full mobility for all.”

It’s called the Transit Action Plan. It’s ambitious—and expensive. It includes extension of light rail to the airport, Citrus Heights and Elk Grove. It features circulator streetcars downtown and around Sacramento State, Cal Expo and Rancho Cordova. And it proposes a network of “Hi Bus,” or high-frequency buses and Bus Rapid Transit systems, running up major roads like Bradshaw and Watt Avenue. And it includes more neighborhood buses and shuttles, too.

Much of Transit Action could be become reality with the passage of a one-half-cent sales tax dedicated to transit.

That’s what the Bay Area spends on transit. In Los Angeles it’s a full cent. In Sacramento, just one-sixth of a cent is dedicated to RT.

Wiley had hope for a ballot measure to increase funding. But the recession dragged on and Gov. Jerry Brown’s Proposition 30, and the city of Sacramento’s Measure U, beat RT to the punch.

And Wiley says internal polling also showed that a transit-only sales tax was unlikely to hit the two-thirds voters approval threshold necessary for passage. Voters tend to be more supportive of measures that mix transit with money for road construction and maintenance.

So now, RT is supporting a new proposal by Sacramento Transportation Authority—a coalition of local governments—for a half-cent sales tax to fund an array of transportation projects in Sacramento County.

Much of the money would go to build and maintain streets and roads. That includes construction of the Capital Southeast Connector highway linking the suburbs of Elk Grove and Rancho Cordova. Some money would also be put into the construction of Sacramento’s intermodal transit station downtown.

Some fraction of the half-cent—it’s not clear how much—would be available to RT.

Can RT find the funding to grow? Who benefits from the agency’s scarce resources? There are even more existential questions on the horizon for RT.

New technologies like ride share, and eventually self-driving cars, may one day—perhaps not too far away—eat into RT’s market share. “Choice riders in particular may have a more appealing alternative to public transit. And that may reduce demand,” says Nidhi Kalra, a researcher with the RAND Corporation who has been studying the possible impacts of autonomous vehicles, or AVs.

For example, long commutes in the car might be a lot more appealing if you can read or surf the Internet while your Google-powered personal vehicle does the driving for you.

On the other hand, AVs will likely be expensive, at least for a while. She thinks it’s not too soon for transit agencies to start thinking about how they might introduce AVs and “on demand” technology into their systems.

“I can imagine a transit service that picks you up at your door, without any additional cost,” Kalra says.

These technologies have tremendous implications for transportation, for land use and for the ability to provide transit to those who need it most. “But agencies may need to rethink what public transit means.”