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, November 30, 2008

Trains, transit and choices

Over at the California Progress Report, I was reading David Greenwald's "The Future of Trains in Solving California’s Transportation Problems and the Larger Picture".

He offers:

"One of the huge keys to our future will be solving our transportation puzzle. There are some who believe that Americans will never give up their cards (sic). They might be right. The real question is whether you can get them to drive less in cars that are more energy efficient."
That certainly encapsulates what I'm trying to do. And I'd like to believe this is an ideal that a majority in America sees as worth pursuing. After all, we even have oil companies running national advertising campaigns urging people to use less energy, even specifically to drive less.

In Sacramento, as well as around the country, we have seen people make the choice to leave their car at home and instead to ride transit. This year there have been real increases in ridership. Even as gas prices started to fall from their record highs, the ridership continued to increase. (I'm told RT's ridership numbers for October are not yet available, and won't be available until closer to the next board meeting, Dec. 8.)

But the practical application of this ideal is a struggle. Will recent gains in transit ridership here in Sacramento slide as the commuters weigh their choices -- gasoline at less than $1.80 vs. an inconvenient and time-consuming transit trip? And then there's the coming fare increase. For monthly pass holders, that jump from $85 to $100 a month is going to test their resolve.

RT made an important choice as it struggled to make its budget balance in the face of state funding cuts: RT chose not to reduce service. That choice may help mitigate the coming fare increase. But RT needs to find a way to improve service, even if only incrementally.

Personally, I think RT should reconsider the point at which it switches from commuter service -- 15 minute interval on light rail and the most popular bus routes -- to its minimal evening service. Just moving the dividing line to 8 p.m. from 7 p.m. would allow me to reverse my morning commute at the end of the day, something I can't do today when trains and buses are running at half-hour headways. I also expect two extra Folsom trains would more than pay for themselves in increased ridership.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Back to the blog

OK. If I'm going to have a blog, I'm going to have to blog. Of course that's easier said than done, but still . . .

Part of the problem has been that I don't ride the bus as much as I did when I worked in midtown Sacramento. Now that I commute four days a week to Oakland, I take the same morning bus four days a week. On days I work and the kid gets off work at 8 p.m. at Safeway on Alhambra, I take the No. 30 bus out to Safeway and ride home with him. On days when the kid works a different shift or has the day off, the wife picks me up at the Amtrak station.

After 7 p.m., Sacramento Regional Transit is just not useful. I sympathize with the writer of the Nov. 25 letter "Light rail leaves Amtrak riders behind" and the writer of the Nov. 27 letter "Another poor light-rail link to Amtrak," but they miss the point. It's not that the light rail operator won't delay the scheduled departure to allow arriving Amtrak passengers to catch the train. It's that RT cuts costs by shortchanging non-commute riders. If light rail and the No. 30 bus continued at 15 minute intervals into the night, then the vagaries of Amtrak's arrival wouldn't matter.

In a pinch, RT could get me home after 7 p.m. or at least within a walkable distance. But that requires a level of transitarian dedication -- a faith-based commitment -- that I find just too hard to maintain after 7:30 p.m. on days that start with a 6:30 a.m. bus ride. If I can cheat and get home in a half-hour rather than an hour and a half, well I do it.

I suppose my guilt at not trying harder to make RT work for me is the biggest reason I've not been blogging.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Riding on the edge

There is a line between success and failure when it comes to getting around on the bus. But that line is so thin as to be the difference between two sides of a single coin. If you make the connection, it's a success. It doesn't matter how close you came to missing the connection. It doesn't matter that depending on such a connection would be beyond foolish.

No. There's nothing like success.

I'm writing this on my Amtrak run to Oakland this morning. Last night, I arrived in Sacramento at 6:37 on an Amtrak trip that wasn't scheduled to arrive until 6:48 p.m. As I walked from the train, I saw a No. 30 bus arrive. I walked over to the bus and boarded. I picked up a No. 30 schedule -- I already had a No. 82 -- and settled in the back. I minute later, the bus began its circuitous route to J Street and Sacramento State.

The No. 30 bus I was riding was scheduled to arrive at Sacramento State at 7:03 p.m.
The No. 82 bus heading from CSUS to my house was scheduled to depart at 7:03 p.m.

I suppose that if I'm going bet on connections like that I should invest in Lottery tickets. Sure, you're not likely to win, but it could happen.

And, miracle of miracles -- or, more likely, thanks to the fact that we didn't have to pick up or drop off passengers at every stop -- we arrived at Sacramento State at 7:02 p.m. I had just enough time to walk from the No. 30 bus to where the No. 82 stops before I saw the No. 82 turning on to Sacramento State.

This morning, I boarded my regular bus outside my house at 6:27 a.m. and arrived at Sacramento State at the scheduled 7 a.m. But the No. 31 I need to ride to meet my Amtrak train connection didn't arrive 7:09. The No. 31 is scheduled to arrive at the Amtrak depot at 7:31 and the train is scheduled to depart at 7:40. Since I have been making this particular run, the bus has never been early to the station, but it has never been so late that I missed the Amtrak train. At least not yet.

The No. 31 was five minutes late leaving Sacramento State. I resigned myself to my fate and tried not to watch the clock display in the front of the bus.

By the time the bus turned on 5th Street for the final leg of the route, it was 7:37. By the time the bus came to a stop and I stepped off, it was 7:39 a.m. In the distance I could see the crowd of passengers waiting for the train.

I had made it. Imagine that.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

It's the music

The difference between riding Paris Metro and light rail in Sacramento:

It's the music.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Chatting with Mike

Participated today in the second monthly online chat held by Regional Transit General Manager Mike Wiley. The questions were supposed to be limited to a discussion of the district's Transit Master Plan proposal. I'm not a big fan of this format since you ask a question and get an answer but you don't get a chance to follow up. Still, it does provide some insight into current thinking at RT, or at least Wiley's thoughts.

I asked two questions.

1. Sacramento, CA: Besides a sales tax hike, what NEW revenue source does RT plan to seek to pay for the expansion?

Wiley's Reply: This is a good question that is being asked by many of our community workshop participants. As part of the TMP process, we have a panel of transit financing experts who are assisting us as we evaluate both traditional and innovative sources of funding. A wide range of funding sources have been presented and reviewed including public grants and subsidies and private revenues such as developer fees and benefit assessment districts. You are correct in assuming that the sales tax is one funding source that is being evaluated, but it is only one of more than a dozen, including gasoline sales taxes, benefit assessments districts, and public-private partnerships. More information will be available on the TMP web site as we complete our technical work. The TMP will contain recommendations on how to fund future services and projects.
I found this response encouraging. With the state Legislature likely to raise the sales tax as a means of attempting to balance its budget, I fear that voters will be unlikely to jump at the chance to raise sales taxes still further. With California's screwy law requiring a two-thirds approval for the increase, I'd put the chance of a successful effort somewhere between slim and none. RT is going to need that innovation in financing if it hopes to attain the goals of the TMP.

2. Sacramento, CA: The new Obama administration and the Democratic majority in Congress plan to craft a jobs stimulus package that includes funding for transit projects that could be under way within 90 days. Are there any elements of the Transit Master Plan that could be started if new federal money were available?
Wiley's Reply: There are several aspects of the Transit Master Plan that could be implemented very quickly without raising operating costs unduly. For example, RT would seek funding for hybrid-electric vehicles for our community bus service division, and for our non-revenue vehicle fleet (Police and maintenance). This would both improve our environmental profile and lower our fuel costs. RT would seek funding for an automated passenger information system, which would tell our riders when the next bus or train was due to arrive. We could also seek funding to enhance the Gold light rail line in order to operate limited stop express trains and to extend the trains that currently turn around at the Sunrise station to the Hazel station. RT could also seek funding for our next major projects, such as the South Line Phase 2 - every year that we can save on construction reduces our cost by 5 percent or more.
Some background here: Three weeks before the election, the organization I work with found itself with an opportunity to help write a transit-oriented jobs stimulus bill. What we needed was a list of transit projects that could be offered as examples of what could be done within 90 days after funding. I called Caltrans and chatted with the state official who heads the train program and I chatted with a guy who will remain nameless at RT. Both said they'd get back to me. The RT guy said he'd get back to me and then said it again. Neither ever did. I suppose they don't believe in Santa Claus or free money. While the transit lobby fiddled, the highway lobby submitted lists of billions of dollars in roadway projects that could be started. Is it any wonder that transit only receives 20 percent of the federal transportation funding pie?

The rest of the chat can be read here.

Sticker celebration

MoveOn.Org is giving away free stickers. Yes, it's just a junk-mail scheme, but I'm still going to order one of these as a souvenir.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

News values and the price of riding Sacramento Regional Transit

A week and a half ago, Sacramento Regional Transit announced it would end its free rides for many disabled riders in December and raise everyone's fares in January. It wasn't until Monday, Nov. 3, that The Sacramento Bee offered a single word on the topic.

If you missed it, you can be excused. It was buried in the middle of a "Backseat Driver" column headlined "Drop in gas prices has little impact."

Of course, for some reason, even Sacramento Regional Transit has had difficulty owning up to the news. RT's press office didn't announce the change until today.

Has the measure of what constitutes "news" really moved this much? Maybe I'm old school, but something that will affect this many people should be prominent news, both for the organization implementing the change and for news outlets that profess to serve the community.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Regime change -- Finally!