Friday, Sacramento Regional Transit celebrates light rail's 20th birthday with free rides, a concert in Capitol Park and a gaggle of speeches from elected officials.
But what have transit officials done for riders lately? Fare hikes and a decline in ridership, and plans for service cutbacks in the coming year. Certainly not the stuff for fanfare. Now RT's general manager, Beverly Scott, is leaving to take a job with the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, an agency that announced last month that it had "achieved an operating budget surplus for the second year in a row."
A comparison of RT's fate with that of MARTA is illustrative: "As a result of its financial success, MARTA has focused on reinvesting funds into enhancing the quality of service for customers and sustaining upgrades and maintenance to the system," MARTA announced Aug. 29. "MARTA has increased bus service, added security, cleaning and customer service personnel, and invested in capital improvements. ... These service improvement efforts have contributed to a 4.3 percent increase in passenger revenue over the last year - helping the authority to maintain its financial stability."
Sacramento Council of Governments transportation planners are working on a comprehensive metropolitan transportation plan that looks ahead to 2035. A draft project list contains 130 transit projects in Sacramento County, including light rail lines north to the airport and an extension south to Cosumnes River College. (The last day to comment on the draft project list is Sept. 19.)
But if they build it, will riders come?
As part of the preparation of the MTP2035, SACOG has solicited community input. A focus group study reported these results: "When prompted to think of what could be done for the region's transportation problems, their minds jumped right away to different forms of public transit. ... But when posed a slightly different question, which asked what participants could personally do to reduce their car use, using public transit was not what first leapt to mind for most."
The next Regional Transit general manager will face a chicken and the egg dilemma: Can RT hatch a real choice that gets drivers out of their cars and into buses and light rail before the chicken becomes roadkill in a transit system spiraling toward irrelevance?