There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Monday, July 28, 2008

Scared silly

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?


uneasy rhetoric said...

The distinction between operating and capital funds is there, and it's real, but it needs serious revisiting when governments and the services they provide are in crisis.

For something like RT, what good is capital without operating? RT can collect all of the capital funds in the world to build a world-class light rail system but if it can't run the trains, who cares?

Not that the Feds would let us re-purpose the funds, but talking about expansions in a time of belt tightening is a little like eating ice cream while on a low-carb diet.

John said...

The distinction between capital and operating expenses is important and useful. I'm sure there are plenty of tales around of agencies that stole there capital outlays to fund operations they couldn't afford.

But the more important issue here is the state's inability to keep its promises. What RT and other transit agencies have experienced in the last two budget cycles is exactly what prompted the schools to get Proposition 98 passed so that their share of the pot was etched in the State Constitution.

That's horrible budgeting, but what's the alternative?

Transit needs to be a priority, not just because for some people that's their only way to get around. Transit is important to the whole community and it should be treated as such.

A reliable source of operating expenses is mandatory if there will be any hope reaching a future where people will have a choice not to drive.

Anonymous said...

Just a correction, Paratransit did NOT provide free rides to the board meeting. All riders were expected to pay their own way. If they got payment or a coupon from another organization so they could attend, Paratransit had nothing to do with it other than to provide the transportation.

John said...

About the Paratransit rides: During the meeting Board member Bonnie Pannel interrupted one speaker and asked if Paratransit had provided a free ride to the meeting. The speaker said yes. Pannel then asked how many more people received free rides. No one at the meeting challenged the question of whether Paratransit provided the free rides.

Given the general confused nature of much of the testimony, the distinction between getting a free-ride voucher from an advocacy group and receiving a free ride from Paratransit may be too fine a point to pin down.

The bigger point is the obvious effort to scare these people. And since they actually had a reason to be there -- the loss of their free RT ride -- it's a bit troubling that advocates for Paratransit felt that was necessary.

Brian Goldner said...

doh! I knew i was forgetting something yesterday...

It seems RT is in trouble. They're going to need to get ridership up, and a sales tax. Personally, I think they need to change existing legislation to take some of the money away from roads, if not pass a news sales tax that gives more to transit. A tax allocation district would also work I think, especially for a streetcar that would be a good interurban circulator.

anyway, operating and capital expenses are separated by law I believe, and RT cannot break those laws.

'tis a shame that RT may have to cut service. My only hope is that if they do have to make cuts, that they can one day achieve a level of service far above what they have now.

John said...

Every member of the RT board also represents a local government. These people need to take transit back to their "day" jobs.

My idea: A fee assessed by local governments for every parking space. The money raised would be used for transit and improving bike paths and sidewalks.

There should be no such thing as free parking. Shopping malls can add to fee to purchases; paid lots can increase fees to cover this.

Such a fee would encourage people to leave their cars at home.

uneasy rhetoric said...

Oh, I hope I didn't come across as saying RT doesn't need additional operating funding -- it does, and it should be ongoing and reliable.

I just don't think we're going to be able to get the general public to separate the notions of operating funds and capital funds. As far as the public is concerned its all one pot of money (like, try getting the public to understand the concept of the state's "General Fund" versus specific other funds.)

I realize we're going to have to find a way to do it, but it won't be easy.

ranma9037 said...

I seriously considered trying to make it to 1400 29th back on Monday,but I was wary about the possiblity of the meetings running longer than 2 hours or long enough that I would end up stranded because 80 and 93 don't run nearly as late as some of the strongest routes.From what it looks like,nothing may get adopted until September or October...

John said...

ranma9037, I went to the meeting on the bus and the train. A lot of people left before the public hearing was over.

I left at 9 p.m. to catch the 9:13 p.m. outbound train to 65th Street station. I then had to wait more than 20 minutes for the last No. 82 bus home.

Several people from the hearing were at the train station. All of them had something to say about a transit district board that holds meetings that transit users can't attend or at least can't attend to the end. Of course, those are the same district board members who don't ride transit anyway, so I suppose it's not really a surprise.