Anita Adams is old enough to earn one of Sacramento Regional Transit's lifetime passes. "They wait until you have one foot in the grave," she explained as we waited for tonight's hearing to start.
I met Adams on 29th Street between Q and P streets. I was heading toward RT's auditorium at its headquarters at 29th and N streets. Adams was shuffling slowly toward the light rail station. She looked frail and unsteady with her cane.
As our paths crossed, she asked me, "Where's N Street?"
"It's behind you," I said, pointing.
"There's a big hearing at RT about service cuts and fare hikes tonight," she said in answer to my unasked question. "Lots of people are going to be there."
Fifty-two people signed up to speak before the board. When the hearing started at 6 p.m., it was standing room only in the small auditorium, with at least four television stations represented. Of course, the TV cameras were long gone by the time folks in the audience got their chance to speak.
RT Board Chair Roberta MacGlashan called out, "Anita Adams." When MacGlashan didn't see any movement, she called the name again. "I'm coming," Adams said. She waved her cane as she struggled to get up from her chair in the audience.
Adams suggested to the board that perhaps they were moving too fast on the plans to cut back service and increase fares.
"We're going to have a new administration in Washington soon," she explained. "It's going to get better."
But when she suggested that perhaps the planned extensions of light rail be delayed just until the federal government starts sending more money, Mr. Light Rail, Roger Dickinson, was quick to get staff to explain that money set aside for capital improvements can't be used for operating expenses. Many in the crowd found the distinction between capital and operating expenses hard to understand.
Of course, the crowd was already suffering from a certain handicap. It seems that Paratransit gave several customers free rides to the meeting after telling them that RT was planning to increase Paratransit fares to $6.
After the third or fourth speaker mentioned the "planned" Paratransit fare hike, the board was clearly confused at where this was all coming from. The board stopped the testimony and had RT General Manager Mike Wiley explain that the staff suggestion was to eliminate the free ride Paratransit-qualified riders get on buses and trains, not to increase the $4 Paratransit fare. In the course of that explanation, however, Wiley mentioned that RT was prohibited from charging more than twice the basic fare for Paratransit.
Ah, ha! the Paratransit crowd murmured. And Wiley had to admit that the proposed increase in basic fares would open the door to consideration of a Paratransit fare increase. But when Wiley asked the board if they wanted staff to pursue that option, he was quickly told not to go there.
Unfortunately, the whole hearing, at least the public input portion of it, suffered from the scare tactics that RT had employed as it banged on pots and pans and tried to get everyone's attention. The July Next Stop News flyer's suggestion that ALL routes would be affected by service cutbacks had many people at the podium defending routes that would never be on RT's list of changes.
On the train ride home, I rode with a mother from Rosemont who had brought her two high-school-age children to testify in defense of the buses they take to school. She too takes the bus to work. She's a teacher, and she is a choice rider. She's even trying to take the bus to run errands.
RT had wanted to manufacture alarm in the hope of motivating riders to get involved, to write letters, to appreciate the severity of the threat. But somewhere a line was crossed.
RT faces real problems, and if the state were to adopt cuts on a level originally proposed by the governor, big fare hikes and real service reductions would follow. But the Democrats in the Assembly and the Senate have tentatively agreed to cuts of less than half what the governor proposed. Yes, there will likely be fare increases, but the horror tales of ending weekend bus service or shutting down the trains at 8 p.m. just aren't going to happen.
Crying wolf got everyone's attention. But what happens when the real wolf shows up?