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

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Inadequate commentary on inadequate transit

The Sacramento Bee has an editorial today, "Light-rail parking fees: Sensible, alas," about Sacramento Regional Transit's plans for a $1 daily charge at park-and-ride lots. It's an unfortunately typical editorial, an uninspired regurgitation of the district's press release and The Bee's slothful news story.

A paper that can't publish news until two days after an event
can't be expected to produce much in the way of inspiring commentary, but what is really troubling are the comments attached like so much litter to the document.

Rip out the tracks, pave over the railbeds and convert them to high speed express bus lines. High speed bus can be quickly adapted to meet the changing commute patterns. Wherever Light Rail has been introduced in this country it has never paid its way. Another anchor on the local taxpayers neck...
Why do tax dollars that could be used elsewhere provide subsidized transportation? If light rail was a benefit I would think it would be returning a profit to the investors (the taxpayer)??
Transit is no less important than parks or libraries. Shall we require that all parks meet self-sustaining budgets with mandatory fees? In January, RT recouped 28 percent of its operating costs with fares. (You can read the report here.)

The post-WWII infatuation with suburban sprawl would have died decades ago were it not for the massive federal subsidy in the form of the federal highway system. In these tough economic times, people realize the value of transit. That's why ridership continues to increase even after fare hikes this year.

If The Bee wants to advocate for something, it should advocate for a secure funding source for transit that would enable Sacramento Regional Transit to meet the needs of residents within its service area.

The American Automobile Association, not exactly an unbiased observer, puts the cost of operating a vehicle at between $7,100 and $9,160 a year on average.

Imagine if RT were able to expand service enough to make it possible for families to get by with just one car, rather than today's much more common two and three cars per family? It would cost a fraction of the $7,100 to $9,160 a year that these families would save.

The need for expanded RT service and the requirement for reliable funding are what The Bee should be advocating, not resignation to the inevitability of nickle-and-dime charges necessary to prevent a woefully inadequate system from collapsing into irrelevance.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Flying a transit agency on a wing and a prayer

Below is the article I wrote for the from tonight's meeting of the Sacramento Regional Transit District board.

I spoke before the board on the topic of making more district documents available online. Speaking before elected officials is a strange feeling for someone steeped in the school of journalism that forbade such open advocacy. But it wasn't exactly new for me. I'm reasonably certain my failure to toe the line between journalist and advocate was the principal reason I ended up on top of the list of people laid off at The Sacramento Bee last June.

It was surprising that the budget problems and the proposal to charge fees to use park-and-ride lots didn't generate a larger crowd. There were more RT board members on the dais than there were RT customers in the audience.

Anyway, here's my take on the news of the night . . .

Sacramento Regional Transit will soon nickel and dime people who want paper copies of district documents and likely this year start charging to use light rail park-and-ride lots, but none of that will be worth a penny if RT doesn’t get at least $14 million in federal stimulus money.

In the past 12 months, RT has had to deal with an $18.3 million reduction in state funding. A number of cost-cutting moves have been implemented and this year RT resorted to raising fares.

Last week, the state took another $3.9 million that RT had been banking on, and next year there will be nothing from the state.

RT staff presented a grim budget outlook. Last year’s revenues totaled $149 million. This fiscal year will end with $145 million in revenues. The 2009-2010 fiscal year revenues, with zero help from the state, will total just $131 million.

That’s where the federal stimulus comes in. Federal regulations governing the stimulus funding require that at least 50 percent be spent within 180 days. That will buy preventive maintenance on buses and light rail cars, improvements to light rail stations and a number of other things. But more important than that, it will make it possible for RT to carryover a like number of dollars into the next fiscal year. That carryover and the second installment of $7 million in federal stimulus funds will bridge the $14 million gap between anticipated revenues and operating expenses.

And that is on top of what will amount to a pay freeze for employees. Wiley said any increase in employee pay or benefits will have to be paid for by an increase in efficiency that covers the cost. In other words, no extra money will go to salaries in the next budget.

RT’s plans depend on the cooperation of SACOG and the other transit agencies served by the Sacramento Area Council of Governments. Wiley announced that SACOG has postponed a decision on how to allocate the stimulus funds while RT seeks support for its plan.

The staff will be back before the board on March 9 for approval of an itemized list of cost-cutting moves that will be necessary.

One anticipated source of new money will be fees for parking. After staff made its presentation, every board member commented. It was clear that if the vote were today, a majority would support charging a dollar to park all day in a park-and-ride lot.

Only one RT board member, Sacramento County Supervisor Don Nottoli, flatly ruled out supporting charging parking fees. Nottoli represents Galt, Isleton, Elk Grove, and Rancho Cordova, all areas that, if they use transit to get to downtown Sacramento, are likely to rely on park-and-ride lots.

The biggest concern for board members was the impact of commuters who attempt to avoid the new fees by parking on nearby residential streets or in neighboring shopping center parking lots.

The staff had originally anticipated bringing a resolution approving the fees to the board on March 9. However, the need to investigate how to mitigate the impact on RT’s neighbors will force a delay until the end of March.

The staff also had said in an issue paper that no public hearing was required, but the board made clear that a hearing will be needed.

The earliest that parking fees could be implemented would be the end of July, but staff said it is unlikely to start before late September.

What’s going to cost more next month will be paper copies of district documents. Effective March 1, copies of public records will be 25 cents a page. The large budget documents will be $25 each. Fees for audio and videotapes, postage, online purchases will all cover the district’s costs.

The staff Issue Paper on the fees mentioned that meeting agendas would be available online, but made no mention of any other documents being made available.

I spoke to the board on this topic and said that any document that RT will charge for should be made available online. I also suggested that the fees should be postponed until the system for getting the documents online is operational.

Although the resolution creating the fees effective March 1 was in no way changed, the staff said no fees would be charged until all documents are available online.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Paying to park at RT's 5 & Dime store

Two separate money-making ideas will be on the agenda of the Sacramento Regional Transit board of directors meeting Monday evening -- charging to use RT's park-and-ride lots and charging for copies of documents.

The parking fee is a rerun of the idea shot down late last year when the board was deciding how it would fill the hole in the budget left by the state's thievery. Whether or not it will receive a better reception now is anyone's guess, but the state's theft of still more money RT had been banking on surely increases the need to do something.

Tonight's discussion on the parking fee is an informational item focused on two areas:

1. If RT charged a fee to utilize the park and ride lots will it discourage riders? If so at what fee level do we minimize ridership loss?

2. If RT implements a fee program what methods of payment are more desirable?

The tentative schedule has the board approving parking fees at the March 9 meeting. Procurement of the vending machines would happen the next day and the park-and-ride fees would take effect Sept. 1. No public hearings are required. The board just needs to give its OK.

RT paid Transit Marketing, LLC to conduct a pair of focus group polls.
"The two focus groups were presented with multiple fee options for parking at light rail park and ride lots. These included various daily rates; a single price or different prices at various stations; discount rates for longer terms; including the fee in each ticket; and other methods of charging," according to the Issue Paper accompanying agenda item No. 15. "Both of the focus groups concluded that charging a fee of $1 per day would not discourage riders from utilizing the park and ride lots."
Staff estimate that a $1 daily fee would generate an additional $1 million annually. Startup costs are estimated at $210,000.

The focus group report makes interesting, if not surprising, reading.

The document copying fee on the agenda isn't intended to generate extra money. It is just supposed to cover the costs RT previously absorbed. According to the Issue Paper for agenda item No. 16, the district would charge 25 cents a page for agendas and agenda packages, issue papers, ordinances, resolutions, contracts, standard operating procedures and other district records.

Those charges add up. A copy of Monday's 29-page general manager's report would $7.25. The 19-page focus group poll for the parking fees would be $4.75. Another issue paper here, an ordinance there, and pretty soon you're talking serious money.

Staff propose a $25 limit for annual reports such as the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report and annual budget documents.

RT would also recover the actual cost of duplicating audio and video tapes, postage and online sales processing fees, returned check charges and fees to certify documents.

The issue paper suggests that charging fees will not hinder public access.
"Public access to Regional Transit's Board or Committee agendas will not be impaired as the result of the proposed charges where in addition to reviewing these documents at the District's offices, the documents will be made available for review on-line at Regional Transit's public website in a PDF format for the period of one year from the date they are published. Likewise, the audio and video recordings of Board and most Committee meetings will also become available at no charge on-line for a period of 1 year from the date of the event."
While it is nice that the audio and video recordings will be online, the close reading of that paragraph suggests that only the agendas will be online, not the agenda packages or the issue papers or the ordinances or the resolutions or the contracts or the standard operating procedures or other district records. If so, that needs to change.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The best of times, the worst of times

Sacramento Regional Transit General Manager Mike Wiley has plenty of good news to give the district board of directors at Monday evening's meeting. But it's just not enough to make up for the bad news coming from the economy in general and the state in particular.

Wiley reports in his "FY 09 -- Key Performance Report" that systemwide ridership is up 10.2 percent counting year-to-date and up the same margin when compared with last January. Light rail is up 7.1 percent on a year-to-date scale and 11.54 percent compared with last January. The bus ridership year-to-date is 13.6 percent higher and compared with last January up 9.07 percent. Bus riders continue to outnumber light rail riders in January.

Unmentioned by Wiley's report is that this increase comes in the face of January's fare increase. Fears that higher fares would discourage ridership haven't been borne out, at least not yet.

That increase in fares in part accounts for the good news on fare recovery.

"For the month of January, RT's fare revenue is above $3.1 million," Wiley reports. "January's fare recovery ration is at 28.1 percent. Compared to the same period last year it is 8.1 percent higher."

As a result of this increase, the district has adjusted its budget, one of the few positive shifts RT is anticipating.

Sacramento Regional Transit GM Report 2009 02 23

At Monday's meeting the board will receive a report on the budget underlines the double-whammy that's slapped the district -- local economic decline shrinking the sales tax revenue and state banditry stealing what was left of the state's assistance to public transit.

On the positive side of the leger, RT expects the Sacramento Urbanized Area to receive $41 million from the federal economic stimulus package.

"This could mean additional funding for RT's preventative maintenance costs up to $6.8 million if all formula requirements are met," reports an Issue Paper that accompanies Agenda Item No. 14.

2009 02 23 RT budget report

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The cuts to come -- Will Sunday service, free parking end?

The final deal that state lawmakers forged the other day is slightly -- only very slightly -- better for transit agencies, but it won't stop the bleeding. Sacramento Regional Transit has begun talking to unions about mandatory furloughs and the end of Sunday service. On Monday, the RT board will consider ending free parking at RT park-and-ride lots.

Transit agencies normally receive quarterly payments from the state. Last year, these State Transit Assistance funds amounted to $306 million, which were the paltry leftovers after $1.8 billion in transit-dedicated funding available for 2008-09 was raided to patch other holes in the state general fund. Sacramento Regional Transit's share of that pie: $5.6 million.

The budget adopted back in September included a 75 percent cut in the STA funds. Essentially, the agencies could keep what they got in the first quarter, but nothing for the remainder of the year.

Under the new budget, transit agencies will receive their second-quarter payments -- about $77 million -- but the third- and fourth-quarter are eliminated. Next year, the agencies will get nothing. The entire STA fund has been zeroed out.

Back when the governor first proposed that the STA funding be eliminated, RT General Manager Mike Wiley said in a press release, "If this proposal is approved by the Legislature and the STA funding is eliminated, the result will be an additional $5.6 million hit to RT's current budget and a 16 percent reduction in RT's annual operating budget going forward. RT will be forced to cut productive bus and light rail service at a time when people are turning to transit more than ever before."

RT has already been pushed to the wall by the state and forced to respond with a large fare hike this year.

"During the past two years," Wiley said, "the Legislature and the Governor have diverted nearly $3 billion in transit funds to address the state budget shortfall, which in turn has impacted RT's ability to provide the necessary service to our growing region."

According to one insider, RT has already begun talking to its unions about cuts being planned. This morning, this comment was posted on this blog:

MCEG staff were told last Friday that furloughs and decreased benefits will begin early March and continue through 2010.

AEA employees will endure the same furloughs and cut in benefits - but have not been told as of yet. No amount of secrecy will turn the tide in this situation.

ATU & IBEW employees are under furlough consideration but no plan has been announced. Speculators assume loss of service one day per week - possibly Sundays?
A request for comment from RT's press office failed to generate a response.

Alane Masui, Assistant General Manager of Marketing and Communications Sacramento Regional Transit District, replies:
For FY 2009, the state has already taken $18.3 million from RT and we expect an additional $3.9 million reduction. With projections of continued declines in sales tax revenue and the elimination of State Transit Assistance funds (FY 2010 - 2013), RT is facing a potential budget deficit for FY 2010. RT is working with management and administrative employees to identify cost containment measures and find ways to control labor-related costs.

Regarding MCEG and AEA employees, there are ongoing discussions.

Regarding ATU and IBEW employees, there are no plans for furloughs.

Regarding service, there are no plans for reductions. RT does not want to cut service and reductions would be the last option that would be considered
The agenda for Monday's RT board meeting includes these items:

14. Information: Mid-Year Status Report on Operating Revenues and Expenditures with Projects to Year-End; FY 2010 Revenue Outlook; and Further Re-Balancing Strategies for FY 2009 (Brookshire)

15. Information: Charging for Parking at Light Rail Park and Ride Lots (Mattos)

16. Resolution: Establishing a Schedule of Fees and Charges (Mattos)
The board last year vetoed the idea of charging for parking, but that was before the state action. Now it appears far more likely that the board will be forced to acquiesce.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Google's Transit Map Overlay

For some time now, Google Maps has offered transit riders in Sacramento the opportunity to plan point-to-point trips using Sacramento Regional Transit. Now Google has added a new feature: Transit system overlays.

UPDATE: Google announced today (Feb. 19) that the Transit Map Overlay is now available in Davis, too.

UPDATE March 12: New video blog post here.

Warning: Shameless self-promotion

Since my full-time gig in Oakland devolved into a part-time job that I do from my home in Sacramento, I've been working on marketing my talents. I've started with a simple Flash-based introductory site. I'll be adding a demonstration Drupal site and another example using CMSimple.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The bad news Bear

I suppose there's some grim humor in this. California lawmakers will apparently throw transit agencies under the bus in order to steal the last pittance of state support in order to balance the budget. It's shameful.

Here's the text of a press release from the California Transit Association:

'Armageddon Scenario' Has Arrived

If the new proposal to bridge the state budget gap is adopted, public transit providers will be finished commiserating over ongoing state budget cuts.

That's because the latest plan to emanate from the "Big 5" budget negotiators doesn't just cut public transportation funding - it eliminates it.

Already saddled with an 85 percent raid on available state funding sources via the budget adopted in September, transit operators throughout the state are now bracing for what has long been considered the "Armageddon" scenario - the abolition of the State Transit Assistance (STA) program, the only ongoing source of state funding for day-to-day transit operations. STA accounts for as much as 70 percent of the operating budgets of transit agencies in California.

Expected to be taken up during legislative floor sessions on Friday or over the weekend, the plan calls for $536 million in transit cuts, achieved through the cancellation of the remaining $230 million due to transit agencies from the September budget's STA allotment of $306 million and the eradication of the entire $306 million in fiscal year 2009-10. The $306 million was established as a baseline figure after $1.8 billion in current-year transit-dedicated funds were diverted to fill non-transit holes in the General Fund.

Democratic leaders had originally sought to preserve the STA at a bare bones $150 million level, as contained in their December version of the budget. But the most recent reported agreement reveals an apparent capitulation to demands by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Republican leaders to completely eliminate the program.

"Are Republicans and the Governor that bent on destroying public transit that this one last crumb of funding is really seen as making a significant difference in the budget crisis?" wondered Joshua Shaw, Executive Director of the California Transit Association. "And why after indicating all along that they understand the dire circumstances faced by transit providers throughout the state did the Democratic leadership ultimately cave?"

Shaw noted that transit agencies throughout the state have already enacted or contemplated a combination of fare increases and service reductions to cope with the $3 billion in state funding that has been raided in just the last two years alone, and warned that more such drastic measures are on the way. "We will see fare increases. We will see service cuts. We will see layoffs," he predicted. "I can say that with certainty simply because we've already seen those things happening even before the state apparently decided to abandon its responsibility to fund public transportation."

There are a number of other documents at here.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The DNA of Sacramento Regional Transit

Sacramento Regional Transit has launched a new website devoted to the Downtown-Natomas-Airport light rail line at

During last week's web chat, RT General Manager Mike Wiley said RT is advancing the time schedule for the DNA line completion:

"The RT Board of Directors directed staff to accelerate completion of the Downtown-Natomas-Airport (DNA) project as much as possible. We have therefore sped up planning for the project, with an anticipated completion date in 2017 for the connection to the Airport. This would coincide with the completion of the Airport's Terminal B expansion. As a "down payment" on this commitment, RT just this week released a Request for Qualifications for the design and construction of the first phase of the DNA, from 7th Street to Richards Boulevard. The projected revenue operation date of that segment is October 31, 2010."

Monday, February 9, 2009

Stimulating transit

Fears that the U.S. Senate would gut the stimulus money for transit in the "American Recovery and Reinvestment Act" appear to have been unfounded. The Senate is preparing to vote on bill that essentially maintains the House-passed funding levels. The Senate final vote is expected by Tuesday, with the House and Senate conference starting soon after.

According to the American Public Transportation Association, "Transit funding is expected to remain at $8.4 billion and high-speed passenger rail funding will remain at $2 billion. Transportation programs in the Senate bill are funded as follows:

  • $8.4 billion, urban and rural transit formula;
  • $27 billion, highway formula;
  • $5.5 billion, intermodal/discretionary program;
  • $2 billion, high-speed rail corridor investments;
  • $250 million, intercity passenger rail grant program;
  • $850 million, Amtrak;
  • $60 million, ferryboat discretionary grants;
Last week Sacramento Regional Transit General Manager Mike Wiley explained the importance of the stimulus package to RT during his monthly web chat.
"RT has been working closely with our funding partners, the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, other transit agencies, and Caltrans, to identify projects that will benefit from the economic stimulus program. These projects are intended to provide improvements in our light rail and bus operations, improve transit user information systems, and help us accelerate service improvements such as limited stop (express) services. We are still unsure about how much funding will be provided, but RT is ready to 'hit the ground running' when the funding becomes available. We anticipate that the stimulus package will be signed by President Obama before February 15."

Friday, February 6, 2009

Sacramento Regional Transit General Manager entered cyberspace for an hour Friday for his monthly web chat. The full text of the session can be found here. Over at the SacramentoPress I've put together a personalized summary of what I consider the more salient points. Read it here.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Stimulating transit and safety, not sprawl

Last week, the House passed its $819 billion version of the "Economic Recovery Act." In the Senate this week, New York Sen. Charles Schumer is pushing to add another $6.5 billion for mass transit to the $819 billion U.S. economic stimulus package, calling buses, subways and trains the “lifeblood” of the nation’s biggest city. But the highway lobby is pushing back.

The San Francisco Streetsblog has post detailing how California Sen. Barbara Boxer is being pressured to boost highway expansion projects. Rather than resist, she is apparently considering handing the highway lobby the purse holding $5.5 billion discretionary fund for transit projects.

Here are the priorities that should guide decisions on where to spend transportation money:

  1. Give preference to projects that reduce vehicle miles traveled, like transit, bike or pedestrian projects.
  2. Fast Track Highway Safety projects that improve efficiency and reduce congestion, like bridge maintenance and improved signalization.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Books, buses and unicorns

Damn, I'm addicted to the bus. Or I'm just incapable of focusing on reading for more than three minutes without the rolling jostling of a ride on Sacramento Regional Transit. Either way, I enjoyed a little jaunt down to the SacramentoPress offices this afternoon.

Since my full-time job in Oakland got downsized to part-time work from home, I haven't been out of the house much. If it weren't for the class I'm taking Wednesday evenings at American River College, I'd have no reason to ride a bus at all.

I did a lot of reading during the six-hour plane trips to and from the memorial service for my father, but nothing since. That's why it seemed such a luxury to have the hour "alone" with my book on light rail and the bus today. If I don't find a job that allows me to commute on the bus, I'll have to find another excuse to ride. Maybe I'll set up shop in one of three Starbucks on the No. 82 route.

Today's relaxing transit reading was the bread on either side of the meet of the day with Ben Ilfeld, one of the entrepreneurs behind If you haven't visited this community-generated community news site, do so. Ben and his partner, Geoff Samek, have this fascinating vision for community journalism on a microlevel. And after having been discarded by my employer after 28 years of macrolevel work in journalism, finding anyone who is still enthusiastic about journalism and the value quality journalism provides for a community is a rare treat. Probably as rare as seeing unicorns nowadays, I suppose.

Howard Weaver, a onetime supervisor of mine before he was elevated to lofty heights of vice president of news for McClatchy Newspapers, has an excellent post today on his blog entitled "Who knows where babies come from?" Weaver, who retired this year from McClatchy, should chat with Ben and Geoff and the staff at SacramentoPress. Maybe together there is a way to salvage journalism before it really does become as rare as unicorns.