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

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Five obstacles to riding transit

The other day I asked the wife to list five obstacles that keep people from riding transit. On top of the list was the obvious schedule issue in combination with the location of stops. That was followed closely by the perception of safety that merges into the uncomfortable feeling one gets when required to sit with strangers. Finally, was the bag problem.

This is why I asked the wife. There are things I just don't know about. Bags fit here.

It turns out that the wife sees transit as an obstacle to successful shopping. You can't conveniently carry bags on the bus or the train. At least not the trophies from a really good day at the mall.

So, in my manly way, I scoffed at this bag idea and declared it a girl thing. After all, this is easy to illustrate. Consider the phrase "bag lady" and the phrase "bag man." The gangster lackey who collects the proceeds from the numbers racket is just not the same as the homeless woman. Bags make the difference.

This all came to mind Sunday while I was riding a standing-room-only single-car train from downtown to meet the wife at the Roseville Road park-and-ride lot.

Of the five obstacles, I had the inconvenience of a Sunday schedule. The location issue came up when I wanted to get from the Amtrak station to the Watt-bound train. As I walked from the Amtrak train, I watched the outbound Folsom light rail train leave the station. Rather than wait around for the next train, I walked to St. Rose of Lima station.

Then there was the crowded train. I don't know how much money Sacramento Regional Transit saves running single-car trains, but it can't cover the lost patronage it creates when a gray-haired middle-class couple board a train only to find they'll have to share a seat.

The only thing I didn't have a problem with was bags. At least not until the train reached the Alkali Flat station.

I was seated in the last seat in the train and there was a great deal of commotion behind me. I turned to see two giant garbage bags filled with recyclable plastic bottles being shoved onto the train.

At this point I have to underline "giant." I have never before seen garbage bags as tall as a grown man and so wide they barely fit the door. These were not just big.

Pushing the bags was a guy who was dragging a bicycle with him. And just to add to this Labor Day Weekend scene, behind him was another guy with a bike and a bag of glass recyclables. Thankfully, the glass bag was more modest.

Together, the two bikes and three bags filled the rear platform. The rest of the train was soon filled with the smell. It was like riding in a recycling dumpster.

One woman opened the small window above her seat. When the guy across the aisle discovered his window was locked, the woman walked over and showed him how to unlock it by sliding a credit card between the window and the frame. You have to wonder where people pick up these talents.

When the train reached the Royal Oaks station, the bicycling recyclers dragged their bags and bikes off the train, leaving behind the lingering smell and a pool of liquid that had seeped from the bags.

"See," I said to the wife when she met me at the train. "Bags are not a problem on the train."

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Showing up for work at Sacramento Regional Transit

This is a page from Mike Wiley's Key Performance Report PowerPoint presentation from Monday's meeting. A goal of 209 days for bus and light rail operators is surely too low if The Bee is correct and YoloBus manages to have drivers available 239 days a year.

When Paratransit-qualified riders are looking at a loss of their free rides and all riders are looking at a possible increase in fares, then RT bus drivers and light rail operators need to do their job -- or RT management needs to do its job.

* * *

Mike Wiley's complete Key Performance Report PowerPoint from the Aug. 25, 2008, board meeting is available here.

Meanwhile, back at The Bee . . .

The Bee weighs in with its opinion of Sacramento Regional Transit's efforts to cope with a massive budget shortfall. The re-balancing efforts are fine, The Bee says, even the possible fare hikes, but . . .

The fare hike should draw fresh attention to its ongoing failure to reduce absenteeism among drivers. On average, RT bus drivers and light rail operators work just 206 days or 41 weeks out of the year. That's an astonishing 11 weeks or almost 3 months off a year for the average driver. This absenteeism increases overtime and drives up costs.

By contrast, in neighboring Yolo County, YoloBus drivers are available on average 239 days, or almost 48 weeks out of the year. YoloBus has not had to raise fares and has even increased service in Woodland. RT might want to consult with YoloBus on ways to reduce absenteeism among its drivers.
It would be interesting to hear something from RT on this topic. The monthly staff reports point out that RT has a goal for improving absenteeism and that RT efforts have exceeded those goals. Is this just a case of setting goals too low?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Regime change (hope and history)

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Regime change (the wife)

Michelle Obama's speech to the Democratic National Convention.

Monday, August 25, 2008

My hero and the RT budget

Sacramento Regional Transit directors called a stop to further consideration of service cuts tonight. Despite the chance that the state could punch an $11.8 million hole in the district budget, directors took the possibility of service cutbacks off the table. The majority also doused cold water on the staff's idea of charging a fee at the district's park and ride lots.

The staff had asked the board to set priorities to be followed to reach various levels of savings necessary once the state finally agrees on a budget. After a lengthy public hearing, the board agreed that the staff's top five ideas were OK:

  • $2.3 million of the shortfall will be covered by the fare revenue brought in with the ridership increases.
  • $1.5 million will be covered by not filling current vacancies in RT's staff.
  • $1.3 million will be saved by changing how RT amortizes its pension obligations.
  • $0.3 million can be raised by renegotiating fare and transfer agreements with surrounding transit providers.
  • $2 million will be generated by ending the free ride Paratransit-qualified riders currently receive on the district's fixed routes. Instead, those riders would pay the same discounted fare that other disabled and elderly riders pay.
Those changes could cover a $7.4 million shortfall. But it's possible the state cuts will be more than that. If so, then the board gave staff authority to implement fare increases. When the new fares would be instituted would depend on how much the district needs to raise.

The lone dissenter on the fare hike -- and my hero for the night -- was Roger Dickinson, who pointed out that recent increases in ridership will generate a lot more money than the staff was suggesting.

RT General Manager Mike Wiley told the board that ridership continues to run significantly higher than last year. Light rail ridership is up 21.3 percent higher than last July, and bus ridership is up 13.4 percent. Wiley pointed out that the increase in the bus ridership comes after bus service was reduced by 5 percent. The fare recovery is 4.2 percent above the district's goal and the cost of operating the service is running 7.4 to 7.9 percent below budget estimates.

Dickinson pointed out that in the month of July alone, the district's increased fares and reduced staff costs amounted to a $700,000 gain. If that continued for the entire year, the district would have an additional $9 million. If just the ridership continued, it would add up to an additional $6 million.

"Why rush to raise fares?" Dickinson asked.

Wiley tried to argue against being too optimistic on the fares, explaining that for many years the district had budgeted using unrealistic fare recovery estimates. But after some consulting with his staff, Wiley admitted that if current fare recovery rates continued, the district could expect to raise $4.5 million.

The question of whether there will be a rate hike will now be up to the Legislature. It's time to write more letters.

Back to school

You get a flavor of what living in a transit-friendly realm would be like when you ride to college classes. For a couple of years, I rode by Sacramento State on my way to midtown, joining the famously smart college students who realize that driving alone just isn't worth either the cost or the hassle. Now I'm going off in the other direction, to American River College once a week for a class in creating Flash animation.

The ride to ARC is ridiculously convenient. The campus is less than a mile from my house. If it were'nt for the sidewalkless and breathtakingly curvy Winding Way, I'd hike to school. Instead, I hop on the No. 82 and get off six minutes later across the street from the campus. It doesn't get any easier.

Today, I rode to school around 12:30 with a half-dozen other students. Two hours later, I rode home with a standing-room-only crowd. In between, I marveled at the sea of cars parked in the lots surrounding the campus. Hundreds and hundreds of cars. What a waste.

But, of course, this is hardly a transit-friendly realm. On Saturday, at around 1:30, I rode to ARC to buy my class books. Along the short route, I noticed people standing, waiting for the bus that would head back from ARC. On the weekend, the No. 82 runs just once an hour.

I arrived at ARC in time to make it to the book store before it closed at 2 p.m. I was back at the No. 82 bus stop by 2:10 p.m. All of the people I had passed on my way to ARC were still waiting for the return bus. I listened as a man shepherding three elementary-school-age kids praised the advantages of the shade and grass around the bus stop.

"Would you rather be on that hot sidewalk in the sun like we were before?" he asked the kids. No one wanted to be in the sun. But no one wanted to wait an hour between buses either.

Friday, August 22, 2008

RT's worst-case scenario at a glance

As mentioned yesterday, if California legislators can reach an agreement on the budget that limits cuts in state support to RT to less than $5 million, then a little belt tightening and the extra income generated by recent increases in ridership should cover the shortfall. Fares and service will be unaffected.

But if legislators give in to the governor's request to cut millions more, then the RT board will face several very hard choices when it meets Monday at 6 p.m. at RT headquarters at 29th and N streets.

Here are the fare increases that might be necessary:

RT staff have repeatedly said that service cuts should be the very last option, but if it comes to that, here's where the cuts would be made in bus service: (Click on image to see readable version.)

One other service reduction option is to reduce the hours some routes operate. The following routes would operate between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m.:

People who don't want to see these rate hikes and cuts in service need to contact their state representatives.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Balancing RT's budget

The Sacramento Regional Transit directors will consider a cafeteria plan for dealing with the expected cuts in state transportation funding when they meet Monday, Aug. 25, at 6 p.m. at RT headquarters at 29th and N streets.

The board will be asked to give General Manager Mike Wiley authority "to implement revenue enhancements including fare changes and/or cost reduction measures including service reductions determined to be necessary and in the order approved to balance the [fiscal year] 2009 operating budget based on the level of reduced transportation funding in the adopted state budget for [fiscal year] 2008-2009."

The state budget proposal back in January included a $7 million reduction in RT's state transit funds. In June, RT adopted a preliminary operating budget of $151 million, absorbing that $7 million loss. But then the governor proposed cutting RT's state funding an additional $11.5 million. A compromise suggested by Assembly and Senate negotiators would restore some of those funds, but it would still leave RT with a $4.8 million hole in its preliminary budget.

Here's Wiley prioritized budget solution. If the budget compromise holds, the loss could be covered without a direct impact on service:

  • An estimated $2.3 million of the shortfall will be covered by the fare revenue brought in with the ridership increases between April and the end of the fiscal year in June.
  • By not filling current vacancies in RT's staff, the disctict estimates it could save $1.5 million in labor costs.
  • Changing how RT amortizes its pension obligations could save the disctrict between $800,000 and $1.3 million.
But if the district has to make up more than $5.1 million, then Wiley proposes:
  • Renegotiating fare and transfer agreements with surrounding transit providers could save $300,000.
  • Elimination of free rides for Paratransit-qualified riders -- making them pay the same discounted fare as seniors and students -- would raise approximately $2 million in new fare revenue.
  • Charging $2 to use district park-and-ride lots, with a $30 monthly parking pass available for frequent commuters. After taking into account the startup and administrative costs, RT expects to get $1.1 million in the 2009 fiscal year and $2.2 million in subsequent years.
These steps would cover a state cut of $7.9 million. But if the bottom falls out, Wiley wants to:
  • Double the Paratransit monthly pass from $100 a month to $200 in $25 steps between 2009 and 2011. RT staff say the higher price will still represent a 50 percent saving for the most frequent users of the Paratransit monthly passes. The $25 increase will generate around $100,000 the first year and $200,000 in subsequent years.
  • Increase basic fare to $2.25, the daily pass to $6 and a monthly pass to $100. (Since the Paratransit fare is set at twice the basic fare, it would increase to $4.50.) Increasing fares would raise $2.2 million in the first six months of 2009 and nearly $4 million in subsequent years.
Only if the district needs to find more than $10.2 million will service reductions be considered. Bus routes that operate at "less than 70 percent of passengers per revenue hour" would be eligible for elimination. As an alternative, bus and rail service could be eliminated before 6 a.m. and after 8 p.m. Or the frequency of bus service could be adjusted so that no bus route or train ran more often than every 30 minutes during peak hours. Open for discussion is the idea of ending weekend service.

Clearly Wiley and his staff have correctly prioritized how they will respond to state cuts. What transit riders must do is contact their state representatives to ensure that transit service is not damaged in the process of balancing the state budget.

Infusion of blogging (continued)

We're back at the University of California, Davis, Cancer Center. The machine whirs and clicks and pumps the drugs into the wife as she naps. We've settled into a two-week cycle -- a deep trough of tiredness followed by a slow but steady climb back to a feeling of general well-being -- and then back here.

This is the start of the third of eight cycles. There will be one more of this particular cocktail of drugs, and then four cycles of a different cocktail.

Getting laid off from work at the same time the wife started her battle with cancer has been useful, but it has put a real dent in my transit riding. This week I rode the bus to play Go with the Sacramento-Davis Go Club at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-Op on Monday evening and then got a ride home with the kid, who recently started work as a supermarket courtesy clerk.

The recreational reading that I used to do while riding to and from work has been the biggest personal loss. It's not that I don't have the time, but I feel I need to be doing something demonstrably more useful. So I've been teaching myself the Ruby programming language and the Ruby on Rails Web building framework. I've finished one book and I'm working my way through the second. Soon I'll start rebuilding one of my Web sites to get some practical experience. And then I can add another line to the résumé.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

People need to spare the air but RT can't spare the fare

Tomorrow, August 14, is a Spare The Air day.

Transit in Placer County -- Auburn Transit, Lincoln Transit, Placer County Transit and Roseville Transit -- is free tomorrow.

Yolo Bus and UNITRANS are free tomorrow.

El Dorado Transit is free.

Even transit on the North Natomas TMA shuttle is free.

But not at Sacramento Regional Transit.

Yes, yes -- RT has been hit two years in a row with state transit funding cuts and it would cost much more for RT to offer free rides.

But, still, has RT even tried?

According the Placer County transit Web site:

"In cooperation with the public transit operators in Placer County, the City of Roseville, and with funding provided by the Placer County Air Pollution Control District, the Spare the Air campaign offers two incentive programs: "Spare the Air: Free Fare" and "Spare the Air for Bucks." Spare the Air: Free Fare: On all designated Spare the Air days in the Sacramento Region this summer, you can ride any fixed-route or commuter bus service in Placer County for FREE! Spare the Air for Bucks: Those who carpool, vanpool, bike, walk, take the bus or train, and telecommute to work can win monthly CASH and PRIZES!"
In Yolo County, the Spare the Air free rides are paid for by a grant from the Federal Transit Administration.

According to the Yolobus Web site:
"The grant to YOLOBUS of $62,290 will cover up to 24 free-ride days and is part of an effort by the Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG), the Yolo County Transportation District, and the Yolo-Solano Air Quality Management District to help the region avoid violating clean-air standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)."

Friday, August 8, 2008

Free transit -- sort of

For the price of two classes at American River College, I now have free transit until the end of the year. And, as it turns out, I could have received the pass for the price of just one class.

This raises a very interesting point about the concept of free transit. At the meeting of the Sacramento Regional Transit District board on July 28, the idea was briefly touched upon in the board's discussion and quickly discarded.

But it's not as far fetched as it sounds. According to the "RT Fact Sheets" at RT's Web site, the district's operating budget is $147.7 million. Last year, RT anticipated just 21 percent of its operating expenses would be covered by the fares riders pay.

In other words, if the community saw the value of transit and agreed that providing transit was a worthy goal -- a goal on a par with trash collection or street maintenance or park programs -- it would cost less than $32 million in new taxes each year to make transit free in Sacramento. That's less than $16 a year per person for the 2.1 million residents served by RT. That is less money than RT currently receives from local sales taxes.

If the county and the cities in the region taxed "free" parking, everyone could have free transit.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Infusion of blogging (continued)

We're back at the University of California, Davis, Cancer Center for the wife's every-other-week infusion of chemotherapy. The chemo appears to be having more effect on my hairline than the wife's.

As I write this, the wife is asleep in the recliner as the pump clicks and whirrs. Her first two-week course went well. She was able to work more each day. By yesterday, she was putting in more than five hours at her office.

We've also been easing back into riding transit. I drive the wife to light rail and she takes the train to Rancho and the bus to the stop a block from her office. Four or five hours later, a co-worker gives her a ride to the train and I pick her up. There really is no point in all of this riding public transit. It doesn't save money or much in the way of gas. It is more something to do to feel better, to feel "normal."

After today's infusion the wife hopes to recover enough by Saturday afternoon to take part in Second Saturday -- perhaps a meal in midtown and a short walk.

By the time the final infusion arrives we'll be old hands at this. (Says the guy who sits and watches.)

Meanwhile, back at the Honey Do Ranch. We have a bunch of turkeys wandering the neighborhood. They stick around for a half-hour or so and then they wander off. I've got no idea where they came from. In the five years we have lived in this house, this is the first year we've had turkeys.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Calculating transit's value

The American Public Transportation Association is out with a new report that details the personal savings pocketed by transit riders.

"According to APTA’s “Monthly Transit Savings Report” a person can save an average of $672 dollars per month based on today’s gas price of $3.909 as reported by AAA. The savings are more than the average household pays for food in a year."
You can calculate your savings at

My former commute to midtown -- 22 miles roundtrip, free parking at work (a benefit I think should be taxed), a minivan with an mpg of 20 (best case scenario, but not realistic) -- calculates a savings of just $262.70 for the year if I were to pay Sacramento Regional Transit full fare.

Of course, the monthly pass can bring the savings up, but it is easy to see why people who weigh just the cost of gasoline to get from home to work and back don't see Sacramento Regional Transit as an especially good value. When RT raises fares next year, which appears unavoidable, it will be even less attractive.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Games of chance, dragons and bus passes

I heard the sound of tires locked in a skid before I saw the blue sedan fishtail and swerve into the curb. There was no mistaking the sound of the collision with something solid, something unyielding. The car bounced back into the traffic lane and came to a stop.

A young man, maybe in late teens or early 20s, hopped out of the car. Clearly agitated but apparently unhurt, he walked around the car inspecting the damage.

It's like playing a game of chance. Get in the car and spin the wheel. That game of chance is probably the No. 1 reason why I don't like driving.

I've been doing all together too much driving. The wife is still getting a feel for how much she can do during her chemotherapy treatment. This week she worked from home two days, but on three days I drove her to Rancho Cordova, drove home, drove back to pick her up and drove home again.

That pretty much explains why I really wanted to figure out a way to get to Exposition Boulevard and Tribute Road at 9 a.m. without driving. Unfortunately, as far as Sacramento Regional Transit service goes, the district map might as well say "Here Be Dragons." Buses just don't cross the Crosstown Freeway to service the office and commercial area that has been developing for the past two decades.

But Google Transit's addition of "walking" directions when traversing the realm of dragons has made "making do" with RT's limited service a little easier or perhaps more tolerable.

To get to Exposition and Tribute by 9 a.m., I took the No. 82 to American River College, where I transfered to the No. 1. The No. 1 dropped me off at the Watt/Interstate 80 light rail station. I road the train to the Royal Oaks Station. From there it was a 1 mile hike.

Google says the walk from Arden and Royal Oaks to Exposition and Tribute takes 16 minutes. It took 20 minutes for me, but I arrived exactly at 9 a.m.

While I was out, the wife had driven to the Roseville Road light rail station, parked the car and taken the train downtown. She got a ride home, which left the car for me to use.

The walk back to the train and train back to the car were uneventful. And then while driving home I was reminded why I really, really don't want to be driving.

I've been struggling with whether to buy a monthly pass or just pay cash. July was the last month I was able to get a discount pass from The Bee. Now, I'll have to pay the full $85, but I'm not riding regularly.

Today, I bought a $5 all-day pass. The full fare for my trip -- bus to bus to train and back by train -- would have been $6.25. For a monthly pass to be worthwhile, I'd need to take 17 trips like that.

Buy the pass and waste money? Don't buy the pass and worry about having the correct change?

I'm leaning toward getting the pass. I need to get out of the house (not counting driving the wife around) and having the pass will encourage me to do that.

Of course, if I could get a job . . .