What will it take to get you out of your car?
Sacramento is in the middle of a big experiment. It’s what the folks at Regional Transit call the “perfect ridership storm.” At the beginning of this summer, gas hit $4.50 a gallon in our region. At the same time, Caltrans shut down one of the region’s busiest freeways, Interstate 5, for repairs.
Sacramento’s public-transportation system, Regional Transit, encouraged people to get out of their cars, to carpool and get on the bus. It didn’t take that much encouragement. Even here in car-crazy Sacramento, increasing numbers of people started using RT, particularly the light-rail system, to get to work every day.
In its most recent report, RT says that in the month of May, light-rail ridership was up 22 percent over the same time in 2007.
And yet, even if gas prices stay high, even if interest in public transit remains high, RT still isn’t equipped to be a viable transportation option for most people. Service on many bus lines is infrequent at best. And the system is geared towards moving people in and out of downtown during the commute hours, not towards getting us around the way we use our cars.
“We need to re-envision where we want to go,” says RT’s general manager, Mike Wiley. “In many ways, our system is woefully inadequate.”
He’s pushing for a system that isn’t a backup plan, or just for those without other options. He envisions an RT that provides “full access and full mobility for all.”
But to do that, Sacramento would have to do something it’s never wanted to do historically. It would have to make a big investment in public transit.
Wiley met with SN&R and laid out three scenarios. Scenario “A”: We decide not to invest any more money in public transit, and “what you see is what you get.” Scenario “B”: We come up with a little more money, which would allow us to do some cool things. Or Scenario “C”: We come up with a lot of money and build a system that rivals cities like Vancouver, Canada; D.C.; or Portland, Ore.
It could be a tough sell. Voters just four years ago renewed Measure A, a half-cent sales tax, which is supposed to fund RT along with road and highway projects and road maintenance. Will they be willing to tax themselves again after such a short period of time?
And while RT officials and transit advocates keep their eye on the long-range plan, the immediate picture is ugly. Thanks to the state’s financial woes and the local economy’s flagging sales-tax numbers, RT is in near crisis. Later this month, the RT board of directors will meet to consider drastic service cuts and major fare increases, just to make ends meet. Mike Wiley’s vision may be beautiful.
But can we get there from here?
Living the transit lifestyle
“It is an experiment. We’re in sort of uncharted waters right now,” said Mike McKeever, executive director of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments. And Sacramento isn’t the only laboratory.
In April, the Federal Highway Administration reported that Americans drove 1.4 billion fewer miles than they had in April 2007. In California, we’re using less gasoline. In January of 2008, we used 58 million gallons less of it than we did in January 2007—a drop of 5 percent. If you’re hoping to get people out of their cars, these are just the right circumstances.
Anecdotally, mass-transit systems around the United States are experiencing an upsurge in new riders. Locally, Regional Transit has seen its ridership soar to record levels. Most of the increased ridership has been on the light-rail system—the Blue Line, which runs from downtown to south Sacramento, and the Gold Line, from downtown to Folsom.
McKeever helped guide Sacramento’s elected leaders through the process of drafting two key long-range plans for the region. The first, the regional Blueprint, has gotten national attention—including a recent feature story in The Wall Street Journal—for its ambitious plan for more compact and transit-friendly development throughout the six-county metropolitan area.
SACOG is also the entity responsible for figuring out how state and federal transportation funds are divvied up throughout the region. Most recently, SACOG’s $40 billion Metropolitan Transportation Plan was approved, laying out the region’s transportation priorities for the next three decades. Both documents are important guide-stars in Regional Transit’s long-range plans.
Just how uncharted are the waters McKeever speaks of? Consider, just 10 years ago, oil was under $20 a barrel. Today it’s hovering around $140. In 1998, gas cost about $1.30 a gallon in Sacramento.
Today it’s closing in on $5.
It’s not just the price of gas that’s changing behavior, says McKeever. “A lot of people would be hurting right now even if we had $2 a gallon gas. People who do have jobs, their wages aren’t going up very much. People are just tight in a way that they haven’t been in a long time,” said McKeever.
In 1993, the RT system accommodated 18 million riders. In 2008, it is projected to be closer to 32 million. But right now, RT only carries 1 percent of all trips made in the region—and only 2 percent of all commuter trips.
On the other hand, 20 percent of all commuter trips made to and from the central business district are made on RT, according to RT surveys.
It’s not such a bad system, if all you need to do is get in and out of downtown. But taking the kids to school, shopping or working late hours, traveling the outer neighborhoods (and a lot of the inner neighborhoods), that’s something different.
“In general, the transit system we have is inadequate for the large majority of people. It doesn’t pick them up where they want to be picked up, and it does not take them where they want to go,” said McKeever.
On top of that, the system is perceived by some as unsafe and unpleasant to ride. While driving is less and less attractive for a whole host of reasons, including gas prices, most people still don’t see RT as real alternative.
“In many places, it operates with hourly frequencies. So, if you’re running late and you miss your bus, you’re going to have to wait for an hour,” Wiley notes. On the light-rail system, trains run once every 15 minutes, a frequency that Wiley describes as being “on the edge of where most people feel comfortable.”
“The system needs to give you flexibility similar to the flexibility you have with your own car. Your car doesn’t say, ‘I’m only leaving here once an hour. You better hop in or I’m not starting up.’”
Transit gurus used to talk about trying to attract the “choice rider,” who owns a car but is willing, sometimes, to take the bus or the train. Wiley has a different person in mind.
“It’s about developing a different kind of user. The ‘lifestyle user,’” he explains. “The lifestyle user doesn’t need an automobile, because the system is so robust that it meets all of their needs.”
Here in Sacramento, you often hear Portland held up as the model of smart growth and transit-friendly development.
“I want to go beyond Portland,” Wiley says. “In the West, you have to go out of the United States. Go to Vancouver, go to Calgary, even Edmonton.”[page]
You get what you pay for
But we can’t go to Vancouver—we can’t even go to Arco Arena on the bus—without more money in the system.
So far, RT has come up with three scenarios, three possible futures for the system. In about six months, RT officials hope to have a working proposal, along with a price tag, based on public reaction to each of the three options.
The first scenario, appropriately named Scenario “A,” is the “base case.”
Based on existing revenue, Wiley says, “we can expand bus service a little bit.” It allows for more security cameras in light-rail stations, and a little more for transit cops. It’s enough money to begin the extension of light rail through Natomas and to the airport, and to expand light rail south to Cosumnes River College—two extensions that have been planned for years. In a nutshell, Wiley says, “It gives us the ability to operate what we already have.”
Sort of. Given the region’s projected growth, scenarios of increasing congestion, worsening air quality and rising gas prices, just maintaining the status quo looks a lot like losing ground.
“As the population grows, are we going to be able respond to that growth?” Wiley muses. “Are we going to be able to respond to growing congestion, just to stay even in terms of the level of service? The answer is no, we can’t. Because of all of the other growth around us, we fall behind.”
In other words, the system will remain “woefully inadequate.” Mass transit isn’t all that popular in the United States generally. But Sacramento seems to have a special aversion to investing in buses and trains.
“We don’t have enough money,” said Wiley. “Most urban areas in the country have a much higher level of local funding in place for transit than we do here in Sacramento.”
In Sacramento, our local funding comes from a special sales tax called Measure A. The measure is a half-cent sales tax, levied on anything you buy from a car to a candy bar. But only about one-third of that half-cent goes to fund RT operations. That’s just one-sixth of one cent.
In Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa and San Francisco counties, the levy for transit is one-half cent, three times the tax rate Sacramento collects. And in Los Angeles, where the car is king, citizens pay one full penny on every dollar to fund mass transit. That’s six times the rate Sacramento has been willing to cough up.
Which brings us to Scenario “B.”
This scenario more or less follows SACOG’s Blueprint and transportation spending plans. Here are just a few of the highlights: It would allow RT to extend the light-rail line all the way to the Sacramento International Airport, and it would add a new track to the Gold Line all the way to Folsom.
It would allow for a 150 percent increase in bus service and some express buses on freeway carpool lanes. Under Scenario “B,” Sacramento would see the beginnings of a streetcar system, running from downtown to West Sacramento, and a slightly longer streetcar route in Rancho Cordova.
But it will cost us. This scenario assumes there is some new money out there—most likely in the form of an additional quarter-cent sales tax for transit.
That’s still a much smaller tax than most Bay Area counties, but it would kick in $50 to $55 million a year to run buses and trains. The sales tax would have to be approved by two-thirds of voters, in an election likely to be held in November 2010.
Conventional wisdom is that you won’t be able to get a sales tax for transit passed without throwing some large bones to roads and drivers. Four years ago, the backers of Measure A were adamant that voters would never approve a transportation sales tax that was too heavily weighted in favor of transit. So, one possible option is to put a measure on the ballot to approve a half-cent for transportation, and give half of that to transit, half to road maintenance.
But even if Sacramento were willing to cough up the additional quarter-cent to run the buses and trains, the whole system can be undermined by suburban-style development.
“I can’t overstate how important changing our land-use pattern is,” said Sacramento County Supervisor and RT board member Roger Dickinson. “We are not ever going to have a successful transit system unless we have a substantial shift in our land-use policies.”
San Francisco is obviously a more transit-friendly city because of the way it’s laid out. And the Blueprint figures on a different approach to development, too—not San Francisco-style development, but growth patterns that emphasize building in already existing communities and along existing transportation corridors.
While many environmentalists argue the Blueprint doesn’t go far enough, it’s a far cry from the sprawling development style that has been the rule for the last five or six decades.
“We’ve had a land-use pattern that is almost impossible to service with transit,” said McKeever, “and we’ve started to change that.”
But there’s a sort of chicken-and-egg problem that isn’t obvious at first. You can’t have transit-friendly development without the transit and the development happening at the same time.
“It’s a horrible Catch-22,” McKeever explains. “You need those densities to exist in order to provide transit there. But the market sort of depends on the transit being there to begin with.”[page]
The stars align
The final scenario is Scenario “C,” what Roger Dickinson calls “Christmas morning. Or maybe it’s just Thanksgiving.” RT just calls it the “Integrated Transit Solution.”
Think of it as Scenario “B” tricked out with all the options. Among many possibilities, bus service could be increased by 250 percent. This scenario contemplates a much more extensive streetcar system running from downtown to Midtown, to Broadway and out to the Sacramento State campus. RT is playing with the idea of light-rail extensions to Elk Grove, Citrus Heights and Roseville. Also on the wish list, something called “Bus Rapid Transit,” where city buses get their own right of way on major corridors like Stockton Boulevard, Florin Road, Watt Avenue. BRT would run much more frequently than regular bus service, and would rival light rail in speed.
But if Scenario “B” costs another $50 million a year, what’s the cost for Scenario “C”? Well, that’s hard to say. Scenario “C” isn’t a proposal, so much as a menu. It’s a jumping-off point for a regional conversation about what the transit system ought to look like.
“Well, it’s more, not less,” Wiley says of the potential cost. “Look, these are just concepts. You don’t want to stifle the visioning process. Let’s really explore what we collectively want to be. After we’ve identified that, then we ask, ‘OK, do you really want to pay that much to get there?’”
Wiley is careful to point out that more sales tax isn’t the only way to raise revenue. New development fees, an additional local gas tax or property tax assessments are all possibilities. In Portland, where there is no sales tax, the city generates its mass-transit money with a payroll tax on local businesses.
But let’s say after picking and choosing among the various options on the Scenario “C” menu, the bill comes to double that of Scenario “B.” Will Sacramento voters be willing to pay an additional half-cent on every dollar they spend to fund a transit system that really makes it possible for them to ditch their cars?
“It’s an interesting question. The polling that has been done has all predated this aligning of the stars,” Wiley said, meaning the confluence of high gas prices, bad economy and environmental consciousness that we’re seeing now.
In fact, when voters passed Measure A four years ago, gas cost just $2 a gallon. “I’m not aware of any polls that have been done since we started paying $4, $4.50 for a gallon of gas. Right now, I don’t know what they’re going to say.”
These are, after all, uncharted waters. “Things seem very different to me right now. We’re seeing the needle move in a way that it hasn’t before,” said McKeever.
Can’t get there from here?
It’s easy to say you want RT to be a better, more robust system that gives people the option of leaving their cars. But here’s a quick reality check: Right now, when we need it most, RT is shrinking, not expanding. Service is getting worse, not better.
Thanks to a lousy local economy, Measure A funding to RT is short $10 million this year. And thanks to a lousy state economy, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to divert a portion of the gasoline taxes collected in the state away from public-transportation programs like RT and use the money to try and dig his way out of California’s $15 billion budget deficit.
Overall, his budget would cut $1.8 billion from public-transportation programs around the state. But the sting to Sacramento would be especially painful, said Roger Dickinson.
“RT is more fundamentally dependent on state assistance than a lot of other systems around the state,” said Dickinson. The governor’s budget would take $18 million away from RT this year.
In April 2007, the governor appeared on the cover of Newsweek juggling the Earth in his hands above the headline “Save the Planet—or Else.” He told the magazine then, “I feel things tipping … I feel things moving forward.” The irony isn’t lost on Roger Dickinson.
“It’s kind of mind boggling—when you see the governor out there talking about climate change and at the same time cutting public transit.”
Indeed, in a letter to the governor, Wiley argued that the budget “will ultimately result in less bus and rail service … and more cars on the highways.”
The state Senate’s budget would only ding RT for about $6 million; the Assembly would cut the Sacramento region’s transit funds by $3 million.
But RT is preparing for the worst. The RT board of directors is meeting on July 28 to consider an array of service cuts and fare increases. “Everything is on the table right now,” says RT spokesperson Alane Masui.
The agency is contemplating a 30 percent reduction in light-rail service. And in a memo to the RT board, the agency’s budget-crunching staff “requests that every route in the RT system be listed … as a candidate for elimination.”
“Taking away people’s buses is going to be devastating,” said Barbara Stanton, with RiderShip for the Masses, a small but feisty public-transit advocacy organization. Stanton began the group 10 years ago, when she realized it would take her an hour to take the bus from her north Sacramento house to the California State Fair four miles away. Since then, she’s been organizing bus riders to fight for lower fares and more frequent and reliable service.
It looks like Stanton and friends will have their hands full on July 28. Not only is every bus route and light-rail line a potential casualty, but riders face the prospect of paying a lot more to use the shrinking system.
A monthly pass now costs $85. RT’s budget crunch may push the cost of a monthly pass up to $100. That’s actually just one scenario proposed by RT staff. Another possibility is $128 monthly passes. For comparison, San Francisco’s Fast Pass costs just $45, though Muni plans to raise it to $55 next year.
Ultimately, Sacramento’s experiment in retooling its public transit was off to a good start, but it may be cut short.
“Our theory is that more service and lower rates gets people out of their cars,” said Stanton. As for building a system that provides “full access and full mobility for all,” it’s looking like a tantalizing, but still far off, vision.
“Make all of the long-range plans that you want,” said. Stanton. “If you don’t have the money, it doesn’t matter.”