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

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Transit transformed from lifeline to lifestyle

Below is the slideshow of the Sacramento Regional Transit Master Plan from the presentation given to the Sacramento Regional Transit board of directors executive committee workshop on March 2. This is a preview of what to expect on April 13, when the final plan will be presented to the board.

There's a line on slide No. 4 that says it all for me: "Moving transit from 'lifeline to lifestyle'."

Once upon a time, planners looked at transportation as roads and bigger roads and giant roads. Do you suppose we've finally reached a point where transportation planning can include a prominent place for transit and the concept of complete streets illustrated on slides 32 to 34?

The final slide shows what the region would get with this vision and what it would cost.

Slide 58

I would be more than willing to pay an extra half-cent sales tax and $180 a year in property taxes in exchange for trains and buses every 5 to 10 minutes and hours of operation that extend beyond commute hours.

While the RT board and staff are enamored with the light rail extension to the airport (see priorities on slide No. 47), bringing real transit service in the form of streetcars to Citrus Heights and Rancho Cordova is far more important, especially when it comes time to vote on tax increases.

The document below is a summary of the discussion that took place during the March 2 committee hearing.

RT Transit Master Plan committee discussion
(This comes from the executive committee agenda packet for the April 6 committee meeting.)

UPDATE: An April 16 version of the TransitAction presentation, complete with audio, is available here.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Stimulating RT while fanning the flames of budget wars to come

Sacramento Regional Transit received some welcome news from the Sacramento Area Council of Governments today. SACOG has set aside $22.24 million in federal stimulus money for RT's use. But the largesse may just add fuel to a growing dispute between RT and the Paratransit board, not to mention undermining efforts to force cost-cutting concessions from RT employees.

SACOG announced the distribution of $76 million for transportation projects in Sacramento, Sutter, Yolo and Yuba counties. The SACOG press release said this is in addition to $32 million authorized in February for road rehabilitation. The amounts are based on the region’s estimate of funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act signed by President Obama in February.

Specifically, RT is scheduled to receive $946,296 for preventative maintenance and another $13,053,704 for preventative maintenance or, in other words, exactly $14 million for preventative maintenance. In addition, RT will receive an additional $8.24 million for "UTDC light rail train retrofits."

RT has been hammered by the loss of state funding over the last two years. Despite raising fares this year, RT is looking at a $14 million budget deficit over the next two years.

On Feb. 23, Sacramento Regional Transit staff announced at a board meeting that the district's plans to balance this year's budget and next year's rely on getting at least $14 million in federal stimulus funds, with at least $7 million arriving this year and a like amount next.

RT's budget balancing relies on the stimulus funds displacing current expenditures, thus allowing the carryover into the next fiscal year of $7 million. That $7 million carryover plus the second year's federal stimulus allotment will paper over the deficit in the district's 2010 budget caused by state cutbacks in funding.

Meanwhile, Steve Robinson-Burmester, Paratransit's chief financial officer, has been making noises about getting a cut of that federal money to shore up Paratransit's operation. He wants ADA funding increased 8 percent in the 2010 fiscal year.

According to a March 9 memo from Dee Brookshire, RT's chief financial officer, to Laura Forester Ham, the director of accessible services, Burmester has been told that there will be no increase in ADA funding in the 2010 fiscal year over the 2009 level. Brookshire characterized Burmester's assertion that an increase in ADA funding is due as "false, misleading and contradictory to the information he has been provided directly and in writing . . ."

Burmester had suggested RT was in line to receive $28 million in stimulus money. In the March 9 memo, Brookshire responded:

"RT is working with SACOG on a methodology that we believe will yield a total of $14 million in preventive maintenance funding in FY 2009 and FY 2010, not $28 million. If successful, this effort will go toward bridging RT's funding shortfall of $4-5 million in FY 2009 and the additional funding shortfall of $13 million in FY 2010."

So did RT get an extra $8.24 million in federal stimulus funds beyond what they require?

Alane Masui, the assistant general manager of marketing and communications for Sacramento Regional Transit, says, "No, SACOG staff recommended $8,240,000 for UTDC retrofits at the SACOG board meeting in March."

According to RT documents, the district acquired 21 used rail UTDC cars from the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA). RT envisions using the UTDC cars as a cost effective solution for RT’s light rail fleet expansion requirements, allowing RT to complete the midlife overhauls for the 36 Siemens light rail vehicles and also cover the South Sacramento Phase 2 light rail extension.

According to SACOG documents, RT requested $1.125 million for retrofitting the 21 UTDC light rail vehicles to add automatic audio and text train announcements and CCTV surveillance systems. Another $6.3 million would pay for UTDC fleet midlife refurbishment.

Based on the premise that RT would only receive $14 million in federal stimulus plans, Brookshire said RT would require that everyone tighten their belts.

"[I]nternal cost cutting measures include freezing wages, increasing benefit costs to employees, and furloughing staff for at least 12 days over the next 21 months. In addition, all contracts for service such as those with Paratransit Inc. and Sacramento County will be frozen, with no increases, through FY 2011."

On March 9, the district board implemented changes in the wages and benefits for management and confidential employees. At RT's March 23 meeting, the board will amend the contracts of RT's top two employees -- General Manager Mike Wiley and Chief Legal Counsel Bruce Behrens. They will be required to take 12 furlough days between March 16 and Dec. 31, 2010. They will receive no "upward salary adjustments during the same period."

Monday, March 16, 2009

Alert! Alert! New feature at Sacramento Regional Transit

Sacramento Regional Transit has quietly opened an email alert system for the Neighborhood Ride bus routes.

Do you want to know if your Neighborhood Ride bus is delayed before you walk to the bus stop? With RT’s new Transit Alert service, all you need to do is enter your travel schedule and contact information to receive notification by e-mail or mobile phone about disruptions that may affect your trip.

Transit Alert is a free subscription service that will quickly notify you by e-mail or mobile phone if your Neighborhood Ride route is affected by schedule changes or service disruptions. Information will only be sent about the Neighborhood Ride routes you choose, when you choose.

Transit Alert subscribers will receive text message notifications as soon as RT learns that a route has been disrupted. In addition, subscribers can sign up to receive other RT information and updates, including service changes and RT news.
According to Mike Mattos, chief of facilities and business support services division, the new service is known as the "CBS Transit Alert System," and RT's marketing staff will launch its information campaign next week.

When asked if the system will eventually be available for the other fixed bus routes and light rail, Mattos replied, "Staff will be presenting our future plans and reporting on the CBS implementation of the alert system at the 13 April board meeting. At that meeting or subsequent to it, staff will provide details regarding our future plans."

On the drawing board, according to Mattos, are telephone automated next bus/train information, e-mail transit alerts and passenger information signs at light rail stations.

The Neighborhood Bus alert system has a number of "nice" features. For instance, you can specify when you need to receive the alerts.

Click on the image to see the details. In this example, I've requested to receive information weekday mornings and weekday evenings and at a special period Wednesday evening. Couple this with the rest of the fixed-route service and you will have a very useful service.

These are the routes currently available for alerts:
9 - Carmichael - Walnut Ave (A.R.C. - Manzanita/Fair Oaks)
10 - Carmichael - Dewey Dr (A.R.C. - Manzanita/Fair Oaks)
16 - Del Paso Heights - Norwood Ave (Norwood Center - Arden/Del Paso)
18 - Del Paso Heights - Bell Ave (Norwood Center - Marconi/Arcade)
33 - Dos Rios (Richards to D & 12th)
37 - Tahoe Park - 21st Ave (Sim Park - 39th St Station)
47 - Phoenix Park (Florin Mall)
85 - McClellan Shuttle (Roseville Road - Luce & Peacekeeper)
94 - Citrus Heights - Mercy San Juan (Citrus Heights - Auburn Blvd.)
95 - Citrus Heights - Antelope (Citrus Heights - Antelope Rd.)
The direct URL of this service is

The "welcome" page is here.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

More Google Transit maps overlay fun

Clicking on a bus stop while looking at a Google map, now displays the individual bus route as an overlay.

Here's a video I made demonstrating this:

Google is also color coding the stops, but I have not found any explanation or map key explaining what each color means.

The first video on this topic is here.

Kindle 2 on the bus, too

OK. I admit it. I don't ride the bus much. It's not for want of trying. But when my full-time, four-day-a-week gig in Oakland was turned into a half-time work-from-home job, my excuse for getting out of my sweats and on the bus disappeared. My Wednesday evening class at American River College is my lone bus trip and that is only one way because my class gets out after the last bus.

Late last year, when I was still riding RT to the Amtrak station and Amtrak to and from Oakland's Jack London Square, the wife decided to combine birthday and Christmas gifts and buy me a Kindle. At the time, Amazon was still selling the original Kindle, but the wife had heard a new version was coming, perhaps in March. So I got a gift-wrapped IOU.

And late last month I received my Kindle2. Now I really wish I had a commute longer than the walk from my bedroom to my home office.

I've finished one book so far, and I'm on my second. There are shortcomings you have to accept when reading a book on a Kindle, but the overall experience certainly makes this gift a keeper.

For those unfamiliar with the Kindle, the device has a black and white screen that displays text and images. This is not an LCD display. Instead, the Kindle uses a process that genuinely duplicates a printed page. As a result, you can read the Kindle in bright sunlight while waiting for the bus. Try that with your netbook pc. I have experienced none of the eye fatigue that I get when I'm using a computer for long periods.

As the above image illustrates, the Kindle is a comfortable size. My absolutely favorite aspect of reading on the Kindle is the ability to lay it down and eat a bowl of oatmeal and not have to worry about the pages turning by themselves. If I were using this on the bus, my most favorite feature would be the fact that no matter how big the book, it is never bigger than the Kindle. There were times when I was commuting to The Bee and reading a 600-page book that I could really have used the Kindle.

I can imagine that people who skim when they read will find the comparatively small reading area a distraction. There is a noticeable delay as the Kindle draws each page of type and pressing "Next Page" repeatedly is a slow process. But for me, someone who tends to read one word at a time, the smallish area is a distinct advantage, and I find it much easier to concentrate on my reading.

Buying books is too easy if you're on a budget and can't resist temptation. You can browse Amazon's site from the Kindle using the built-in cellular wireless connection. The wireless service is free and always on. (The paranoid among us can turn off wireless.) You can also log into your account from any computer and send books to your Kindle.

The books arrive shortly after you buy them. You can even read a sample section of a book for free and decide when you are finished to buy the book. (Feature request: The Kindle2 does not make it easy to go from the place where you left off in the "free" copy to the same point in the actual book.)

The Kindle2 makes it possible to "bookmark" and take notes, even highlighting and saving sections of text. Unfortunately, you can't use the wireless connection to email those back to yourself. You have to connect the device to a USB port on your computer. The files are stored as .TXT files. I haven't actually tried this yet, but the manual makes it sound like pulling files off any other USB thumb drive.

In theory, the keyboard makes it possible to enter your own notes, but this keyboard is not designed for fingers, at least not for touch-typing. This is thumb-country and I suspect people who text on Blackberrys will be more impressed with the keyboard than I have been.

The price of the Kindle is steep -- $359 -- and I doubt I would have ever purchased one for myself. However, I'm glad the wife bought this.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Cash benefits of taking transit

The American Public Transportation Association is out with its latest calculation of the money that transit riders save over ordinary commuters.

"A public transportation rider can achieve an average annual savings of $8,498 by taking public transit instead of driving, based on March 5, 2009 gas prices and the unreserved parking rate," according to the March 6 press release.

In addition, employers who offer cash incentives for workers to ride transit can now increase that benefit from the previous maximum of $120 a month to $230 a month, thanks to the "stimulus" package passed by Congress and signed by the president. That increase brings the transit "benefit" to parity to the maximum "parking" benefit that employers are allowed to give.

The $708 a month that APTA suggests transit riders save is based on the cost of parking and the March 5 gas price of $1.933 as reported by AAA.

The gas price here in Sacramento is about 20 cents a gallon greater, so the savings is that much more. The problem is that parking is too cheap in Sacramento.

APTA's calculation is based on a $143 monthly rate for unreserved parking. Monthly parking in downtown Sacramento ranges from $185 to $115, with early bird daily rates as low as $4.

The fact that parking is comparatively cheap in the city of Sacramento and essentially free in the unicorporated surrounding region greatly undermines the incentive for people to leave their cars at home.

My favorite solution remains a "fee" on all parking spaces that would be assessed against the owners of the spaces. These businesses would be free to charge for parking to recover the fee or eat the cost as an incentive for people to shop their business. But the income from the parking fee would be used to pay for transit operations and improvements in bike and pedestrian safety.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Digital paper chase

Two weeks ago, Sacramento Regional Transit directors authorized the district to start charging for paper copies of documents. I wasn't especially hopeful when staff promised that all of the documents would be available for download. Well, I'm happy to say that RT has posted the entire agenda package for Monday's board meeting.

This is an important public service and RT is to be congratulated for making the effort to make these public records available for free. Now it will be interesting to see if the availability of this information improves public participation in the meetings.