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, 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.

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