Waiting for the buses

Regional Transit has grand plans for the future, if it survives the economic downturn

Regional Transit mechanic Jeff James works on one of the transit system’s compressed natural-gas-powered buses. Thanks to $22 million in federal stimulus money, the system anticipates no reductions in maintenance of the fleet.

Regional Transit mechanic Jeff James works on one of the transit system’s compressed natural-gas-powered buses. Thanks to $22 million in federal stimulus money, the system anticipates no reductions in maintenance of the fleet.

Photo By anne stokes

A community workshop on the Transit Action Plan will be held Thursday, June 18, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the Tsakopoulos Library Galleria, 828 I Street.

Higher fares, longer waits and fewer buses. It hardly sounds like the makings of a bright future for Regional Transit. But that’s really up to us, said RT general manager Mike Wiley.

“The message is that we can no longer rely on the state of California to fund a transit system that meets our needs. That falls on our shoulders,” said Wiley.

For the third year in a row, Regional Transit is preparing for deep budgets cuts, reduced bus service and higher fares.

This fiscal year, the system’s operating budget totals $144 million. RT collects the majority of this money, roughly 60 percent, from state and local taxes. Another 20 percent comes from the fares collected. The feds kick in about 14 percent. Contract services and miscellaneous sources make up the remainder.

However, thanks to the state’s financial meltdown, a major portion of RT’s revenue stream has dried up—the funding from state and local taxes. The system expected to get $26 million in state transit assistance this year; it’s getting $4 million. Next year it gets zero, blowing a 17 percent hole out of the operating budget.

Somewhat paradoxically, the cuts come just as RT director Mike Wiley and staff are rolling out an ambitious 30-year plan to expand and improve the regional public-transit system. But first RT must immediately cut some $8 million from its present operating budget, and perhaps another $1 million come January. Because RT has been trimming its budget already, the next round of cuts won’t come as total shock to the system, noted Wiley.

“We started this process two-and-a-half years ago,” he said. “That belt tightening has helped us to have more gradual reductions.”

A dose of new federal stimulus money is also helping. The feds are kicking in $22.2 million towards maintenance costs and rehabilitation of RT’s fleet. That still leaves RT with an $9 million deficit.

To make up the shortfall, Wiley and staff are recommending that the RT board of directors cut $6 million from the operating budget and raise $2 million through fare increases.

About $2 million will be saved in labor costs by not filling vacant positions next year, Wiley said. Another $2 million will be saved by cutting everything from outside service providers to office supplies. Eliminating two dozen bus lines will save another $2 million.

“I’ve gone through, scrubbed out as much as we can,” Wiley said.

Finally, $2 million will be raised through increased fares. The cost of a single ride will rise from $2.25 to $2.50 under the plan, a daily pass would rise from $6 to $6.50 and the discount fare would rise from $1.10 to $1.25. The cost of monthly passes would not go up. All of these cost-cutting measures would go into effect in September.

The RT board of directors is expected to vote on the proposed cuts and fare increases on June 22.

Just two days before that, Wiley will be presiding over a very different public meeting, trying to build support for the “Sacramento TransitAction Plan,” a 30-year blueprint for developing a public-transit system that Wiley envisions would be just as practical and flexible as driving your car.

The draft plan is several hundred pages thick and includes dozens of proposals. There would be more bus lines and more frequent service. The light-rail system would be extended. The plan calls for the introduction of “Bus Rapid Transit,” high-speed bus lines that travel in their own lanes on major corridors. Streetcar lines would connect downtown Sacramento and West Sacramento. The plan envisions two European-style tram loops; the north loop connecting the downtown rail yards, Midtown, Sacramento State, Cal Expo and Arden; the south loop connecting the rail yards, downtown, West Sacramento and Broadway. Rancho Cordova would get its own streetcar line, and Sacramento, two European-style tram loops.

The list goes on. It’s an ambitious plan, and an expensive one. With all the bells and whistles, the whole package would cost an additional $300 million a year, according to RT. About one-third of that could be raised by a countywide half-cent sales tax generating about $100 million a year. Wiley is hoping to place such a measure on the November 2010 ballot.

“The sooner we do it, the better,” he said. “Then we can stop talking about these cuts and start talking about growing the system.”

Still, Sacramentans have never been terribly supportive of raising taxes to fund public transportation. We spend just one-sixth of a penny in sales tax to fund Regional Transit. Other counties, like San Francisco, Alameda and Contra Costa, all pay a half-cent sales tax; in Los Angeles, the tax is a penny.

“It is never easy to ask voters to pass a tax increase,” said Alan Wulkan, a transportation consultant who has helped run several transit ballot measures and has also served as a consultant on the RT plan. The economy makes taxes a tougher sell, but he said that around the country, “People continue to be concerned over rising fuel costs, growing congestion and preserving the environment,” and have been willing to pay for new transit options.

“Last year, at the height of our country’s worst economic recession since the Great Depression, over 75 percent of the transit ballot measures across the country passed,” he said. “People demonstrated that they will support good plans that address their transportation challenges.”

Most experts agree that if we’re going to do something about global warming and reduce our dependence on foreign oil, public financing for mass transit is a must.

“We need society to invest in public transit, because that’s the only way it’s going to work,” said Dennis Rogers, senior vice president of governmental and public affairs with the North State Building Industry Association.

At the beginning of this year, the BIA reached a remarkable accord with the Environmental Council of Sacramento, agreeing to work together developing new revenue sources for public transportation in the region. That’s a total reversal from 2004, when BIA and ECOS clashed over Measure A, a sales tax to raise $58 million for regional transportation projects.

Environmental groups opposed the measure, arguing that it seriously shortchanged public transit and spent too much money on new, sprawl-inducing road projects. But developers, especially BIA, supported Measure A with millions in campaign donations. It passed easily.

Things are different this time, Rogers said. Thanks to major new environmental laws, such as Assembly Bill 32, California’s landmark climate-change law, builders now have to embrace “smart growth” principals. They’re gearing up to provide alternatives to the old car-oriented suburbs with denser, more transit-friendly developments.

“In order to make that work, we’re going to need robust public transit,” Rogers said. “We don’t want just a bunch of high-density projects with really crappy parking.”

Rogers said a sales-tax ballot measure is the most likely source of new revenue, but he added there’s still work to be done to bring the smaller cities and suburban jurisdictions around to supporting the plan.

“We’re going to try and go in 2010, but we have to be realistic,” said Rogers. Still, with groups like the BIA on board, there might yet be hope for the future of public transportation. “It’s the right thing to do for a myriad of reasons. Not the least of which is that it makes business sense,” said Rogers.