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

Friday, May 29, 2009

The art of pruning transit services

On May 11, Sacramento Regional Transit's board of directors set in motion the machinery required to reduce service levels. The first look at what that machine has wrought will come Monday at the board's executive committee meeting.

The staff operate under ground rules established by the board back on Aug. 29, 2001. Bus routes have to meet certain criteria and those that fall below the standard are subject to remedial action.

Those rules worked well enough during service reductions mapped out in 2006 and 2008, but not this year.

"Using the 2001 Guidelines as the strategy for recommending reductions at this time would affect routes which currently maintain a relatively healthy ridership base, while preserving other routes that have low performance but are within their group averages," the staff explain in an issue paper. "This could leave some areas of higher ridership without access to service."

So instead of taking a chain saw and lopping off whole limbs from the tree of service, and perhaps threatening the tree's survival, the staff has set about with pruning sheers. It is deeply regrettable that any cuts are necessary, but clearly thoughtful pruning is to be preferred to the alternative.

The proposed service cuts have been split into two blocks. The first would take effect Sept. 6. The second in January. Whether the January cuts would be necessary would depend upon the state of the budget in September.

The staff's pruning has targeted for the first round of cuts those low-performing routes where alternative service is available. In addition, reducing service on routes rather than eliminating them and modifying routes to minimize the impact of changes are also guiding the pruning shears.

Even with the use of shears rather than chain saws, the preferred option would cut nearly 10 percent of bus service and displace roughly 40 drivers. An estimated 800,000 annual passengers would be affected.

Here's the proposal. Click to enlarge. Pay attention to the notes.

Eliminating the No. 9 community shuttle on Walnut Avenue in Carmichael and modifying the No. 82 to cover much of that route on every other trip will leave me with hourly bus service since I live inside the area likely to be skipped in order to cover Walnut.

The elimination of the No. 73 in Rancho Cordova will discomfort the wife's already uncomfortable bus to light rail to bus to work and back daily commute. Instead of having a choice of overlapping hourly buses -- in effect a bus every half-hour -- she'll have just one chance each hour to make her connection.

If, in September, it looks like more cuts will be needed, RT may have to pick up that chain saw and whack evening or late night and weekend bus and rail service. Alternatively, or maybe even in addition, the community bus service and the express routes could disappear.

Or maybe the board can break that 50-50 tie and finally start charging for parking. Third time's the charm, as they say.

Here's the full issue paper

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Sacramento Regional Transit's budget woes

In January 2008, Sacramento Regional Transit cut bus service 5 percent in order to balance the 2008 fiscal year budget. To balance the 2009 budget, RT eliminated the free rides for Paratransit-qualified riders, raised the price of monthly passes from $85 to $100, daily passes from $5 to $6 and single fares from $2 to $2.25.

Now for 2010, RT is again standing in a budget hole looking for a way out.

Monday evening, RT staff will present its proposals for balancing the coming year's budget and get some direction from the district's Executive Board Committee on whether any of these ideas will fly when the issue gets a public hearing before the full board on June 8.

The fare increases that took effect in January aren't generating as much cash as staff had hoped. It is now estimated that fare revenues have fallen $2.6 million below the levels anticipated when the fare increases were adopted. Fare revenue in 2010 could be as much as $3 million below earlier projections.

The decline in RT's share of Measure A sales tax revenues combined with the fare shortfalls has dug a $9.0 million hole in the coming 2010 budget.

What to do? Fare hikes and other potential changes are in the works, including the possible elimination of the lifetime pass, the free ride RT offers to residents who are age 75 and older.

First the handicapped and now the elderly. Children next?

Actually, RT hasn't given up its efforts to balance the budget on the backs of the handicapped. Staff are suggesting that the monthly Paratransit pass either be eliminated or the cost significantly hiked. Staff point out that the Paratransit monthly pass is not required by federal ADA regulations. And in the 18 years that the Paratransit monthly pass has been offered, there has been just one price increase – from $80 to $100 in 2003. During the same period, the single Paratransit fare has risen from $1 to $4.50. It's no wonder sales of monthly Paratransit passes have quadrupled since 2003.

I admit it's a cheap shot to suggest RT is picking on the handicapped and the elderly. None of RT's riders will be spared as staff look for ways to fill the budget hole. Well, that's not completely true either. Staff haven't tried to resurrect the twice-rejected parking fee proposal. But everyone else will have to contribute if RT is going to balance its budget.

Staff are proposing single fares increase from $2.25 to $2.50 and the discount fare from $1.10 to $1.25. The daily pass would go to $6.50. Only the monthly pass would remain unchanged. RT wants to encourage riders who stopped buying the monthly pass after this year's price increase to start buying the monthly passes again.

But even those fare increases won't be enough to cover the 2010 shortfall. RT estimates $7.2 million in service reductions and other cost-containment options – a continuing hiring freeze and no wage or benefit cost increases in pending union contracts – will still be necessary.

The service cuts proposal deserves a separate discussion. Staff are proposing some interesting choices for the board.

Here's the staff budget report to the board

Monday, May 18, 2009

Clean energy without transit? Craziness in Washington

Limousine liberal ... is a pejorative North American political term used to illustrate perceived hypocrisy by a political liberal of upper class or upper middle class status, such as calling for the use of mass transit while frequently using limousines or private jets...
So that's what I think best explains what's going on in Washington, D.C., right now.

Last week, Rep. Henry Waxman introduced H.R. 2454, the “American Clean Energy and Security Act.” As William Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association points out, the bill provides investment and transition assistance to numerous private industries but ignores public transit.

As Millar points out:
"Public transportation use last year prevented the emission of more than 37 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide. Those emissions savings are equivalent to the electricity used by 4.9 million households. Our nation’s transportation system produces one-third of all carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the U.S., and transportation is the fastest growing domestic source of greenhouse gas emissions, yet public transportation receives zero allowance value in ACESA.

In contrast, the electricity sector will receive up to 35 percent of ACESA annual allowances.

Public transportation use in America saves 4.2 billion gallons of fuel each year and helps Americans reduce their commuting costs by escaping the high costs of gasoline and car ownership. In fact, riding public transportation can save an individual an average of $8,691 a year based on recent average gas and parking prices, yet public transportation receives zero allowance value in ACESA.

In contrast, oil refineries will receive up to 2 percent of ACESA annual allowances.

Expanding public transportation is a proven strategy to make our transportation system more efficient and our roads less congested. Transit use saves more than 541 million hours in travel time and hundreds of millions of gallons of gasoline by preventing congestion each year. According to the Center for Clean Air Policy, growth in vehicle travel will negate much of the emission savings from improved vehicle economy and new fuels. Even with a fully electrified transportation system, public transportation will be needed to fight congestion and expand mobility, yet public transportation receives zero allowance value in ACESA.

In contrast, the automotive industry will receive up to 3 percent of ACESA annual allowances to develop advanced automobile technologies."
This is just too dumb to believe. Waxman's committee is in the process of marking up this bill. APTA is encouraging its members to contact their representatives. Everyone should do so.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Going down the spiraling road of bus service cuts

Without a word of discussion, the Sacramento Regional Transit District board Monday evening unanimously approved a staff request to start the process required to cut bus service. Thirty-six weekday, Saturday and Sunday routes face reduction, realignment or elimination. The first round of bus service cuts could begin as soon as Sept. 6, followed by a second round Jan. 3, 2010.

The consent calendar item seeking board approval for the public hearing on the service cuts didn't even merit a separate vote.

This is the same board that couldn't find a majority to support charging suburban drive-and-park light rail commuters for parking, but it's unanimously in favor of discussing, and most likely approving, significant bus service cuts.

The first service cut hearing will be held June 8. On June 22, the board will be asked to adopt specific changes. At that June 22 meeting, the board will be asked to set a hearing for the January 2010 bus service cuts. That hearing would be held July 27 and the changes would go to the board for adoption on Aug. 24.

On July 10, the district would take the September changes to its union, the Amalgamated Transit Union. On Oct. 2, the January changes would be delivered to the ATU.

The first cuts would take effect Sept. 6 and the second round on Jan. 3.

(For specifics on the routes in danger go back to this post or read this staff report.)

The district doesn't want for customers, just money. At the board meeting, General Manager Mike Wiley announced that systemwide ridership was up 3.51 percent in March over March of last year, and light rail ridership was up 13.48 percent. The wet blanket was bus ridership, which increased over February but fell 5.05 percent below the heights of ridership last year in March.

Looking at 12-month rolling year comparisons -- April 2008 to March 2009 compared with April 2007 to March 2008 -- overall ridership is up 9.4 percent, rail is up 15.5 percent and bus ridership is 3.5 percent higher.

On average more people now ride the trains each month than take the bus, and that is significant for the district because it costs just $2.85 per passenger for train riders, while average cost for bus riders is $4.90.

Wily explained to the board that the increases in year-to-date ridership was likely to level out or even decline in coming months. Last year at this time was when gas prices started to shoot up and the Interstate 5 rebuilding disrupted normal commute patterns. RT even did a little marketing that Wiley credited with increasing ridership.

None of those incentives to ride transit exist today, and the two-edged sword of the economic downturn -- an incentive to save money by taking transit balanced against the loss of sales tax revenue caused by the weak economy -- is bleeding RT more than helping.

Here's the complete March 2009 Key Performance Report from tonight's agenda package.

Sacramento Regional Transit staff proposing service cuts

The Sacramento Regional Transit District board will decide tonight whether to schedule a hearing June 8 that could lead to bus service reductions across the city as soon as Sept. 6.

"State funding in the Public Transportation Account (PTA) has been reduced, and RT's State Transit Assistance (STA) share of funding has declined to zero beginning in Fiscal Year 2010. This will continue into future years. At the same time, Local Transportation Funds and Measure A funding have also declined due to the reduction in sales tax receipts. RT's revenues have therefore been reduced substantially in the Fiscal Year 2009 and Fiscal Year 2010 preliminary budgets, meaning that RT may no longer be able to provide the same level of service as in Fiscal Year 2008."
On the block are 18 weekday routes, 12 Saturday routes, six Sunday and holiday routes and four supplemental routes.

These routes do not meet productivity standards. The standards are based on boardings per revenue hour. A route that's below 70 percent of peer routes is considered failing.

And that's not the worst of it:
"Due to the severity of the budget situation, staff is preparing to make an additional service reduction in January 2010 as well."
Weekday routes on the chopping block this year:


Saturday routes:


Sunday routes:


Supplemental routes:


The agenda item from tonight's meeting is available here.

Video inspiration

"Built to Last" examines the impact of our built environment on the natural environment. This video was the winner of the Congress for New Urbanism CNU17 video contest.

The filmmaker's website.

Alert! A look at RT operations

I'm a great fan of Sacramento Regional Transit's efforts to alert riders to system outages or other disruptions. You can subscribe to the news feed and see all of the alerts, or you can sign up for individualized email. (See my earlier explanation.)

These alerts are only available currently for the "Neighborhood Ride" service. The alerts obviously won't be really useful until the system is expanded to cover all bus and rail routes. Still you learn a lot about the system, the district's priorities and stuff RT probably wouldn't brag about.

For example, read between the lines of this alert:

Sacramento Regional Transit

May 11, 2009 12:14 PM

Route 10 is going to be canceled from 4:46 pm to 7:20 pm due to operator availability. We apologize for the inconvenience.

Can you imagine a light rail route cancelled for the entire evening commute because the operator called in sick?

TransitAction on the dog and pony circuit

Sacramento Regional Transit is taking an abbreviated version of its TransitAction dog and pony show on the road again. Click on the image to see the schedule. RT's 30-year plan for the future of transit in the community will be on the agenda of several community groups. These meetings will be more convenient for working transit users, with evening meetings all starting at 7 p.m. RT's earlier effort at scheduling the full dog and pony show had problems.

The first meeting is tonight at 7 p.m. at the Neighborhood Services Community Partnership Meeting (Council Districts 1,2 and 3) at Joe Mims, Jr. Hagginwood Community Center 3271 Marysville Boulevard, Sacramento.

Friday, May 8, 2009

New starts and Sacramento's south line extension

The Annual Report on Funding Recommendations by the secretary of transportation was released today and it includes good news for Sacramento Regional Transit.

The Federal Transit Administration has identified Sacramento's south line extension from Meadowview to Cosumnes River College as one of five projects recommended for Full Funding Grant Agreements and Early System Work Agreements in the 2010 fiscal year.

California: Sacramento South Corridor Phase 2
The Sacramento Regional Transit District (RT) is proposing to implement an extension of its existing South Corridor light rail transit (LRT) line from its current terminus at Meadowview Road south and east to Cosumnes River College (CRC), near the intersection of State Highway 99 and Calvine Road. The four-station, 4.3-mile project would operate in an exclusive, primarily at-grade right-of-way requiring six street crossings along the alignment. The proposed extension will use existing RT vehicles and operate on 10-minute peak-period frequencies. Approximately 2,700 park-and-ride spaces would be constructed at three of the four proposed stations as part of the project.

The capital cost for the project is $270.00 million, with a proposed New Starts share of $135.00 million, or 50 percent. Congress has appropriated $11.34 million for the project through FY 2009. FTA recommends $40.00 million of New Starts funding for the project in FY 2010.
Here's the description of the South Corridor Phase 2 from the Annual Report on Funding Recommendations

The race for the cure from the bus

Here's another invitation to help the wife raise money for breast cancer research. The two of us will be walking in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure this Saturday.

Last year, the wife endured 16 weeks of chemo, then two surgeries, and finally seven weeks of daily radiation therapy. If it were not for the deadly consequences of doing nothing, one could make a reasonable case that for breast cancer, the cure is worse than the disease.

The wife is back on the bus and working, and now she wants to help others by raising money for breast cancer research.

To help the wife with a donation, click here.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

A tiny idea with big problems

Of all the wrong ways to solve our traffic problems, putting twice as many cars on our highways certainly sounds the most wrong.

You can read more about this at I'm all for electric cars, but this idea needs more thought:
The Tango's ability to maneuver through traffic is second to none. Like a motorcycle, it can change lanes to gain advantage in traffic better than any car in history. Unlike a motorcycle, it is safe, dry, climate controlled, and can securely carry a reasonable amount of cargo. Where lane splitting is permitted (i.e., driving between lanes of stopped or slow-moving traffic), such as California, Europe, and Asia, the advantage can be staggering. In extremely heavy traffic, a Tango or motorcycle can travel in 20 seconds the distance that cars travel in 20 minutes.
I can just see the suburban moms in their SUVs squashing these things like bugs in June.

Worse yet is the suggestion that a sea of these cars running in 6-foot half-lanes "can make the traffic jam a fading memory."

Bus drivers (not) doing the right thing

As I mentioned the other day (really, go see for yourself here), the wife is back riding the bus after taking a break from relying on Sacramento Regional Transit while she coped with the even more annoying task of battling breast cancer. High-fives all around for the wife surviving cancer treatment and not losing her desire to ride the bus and the train and the bus and walk to work and walk back to the bus to the train to the bus to home all the while leaving her car at home.

Anyway, as you might imagine, a person of such strong fiber has rather high expectations when it comes to bus drivers. Here's a little tale from the little lady:

I began riding the bus and train to work in March of 2008, suspending my commute in August to start medical treatment and resuming almost exactly a year later, with Spring blooming and a "new lease on life."

During my previous fling with transit I did not find much to remark upon - probably a good thing, except that I still feel bus drivers should get monthly recognition for good passenger service (and we need cup holders on the bus!). Good service includes ensuring that the elderly and others who have challenges can ride the bus in reasonable convenience and comfort. That didn't happen the other day, to RT's shame.

Some drivers are quiet and formal, others are relaxed and sociable. Either way is fine. What's important is to feel that your driver is competent, alert, in control of the bus. You want to feel confident that the driver will enforce rules, and not allow misconduct. That's one advantage over light rail. On the train, the driver is detached, remote; you're on your own. But at least it does have that ramp, and people know to leave the seating area behind the driver at the front of the train free and clear.

There are occasions when I or other passengers will gratefully sink into the only empty seat in the front of the bus. But I, and most people, reseat ourselves immediately when an elderly or disabled person or someone with a shopping cart or baby cart gets on.

So I was aghast and outraged the other day when a small, elderly woman with three grocery bags got on the bus as three young students sat glued to the seats reserved for seniors, and the driver did nothing. The woman had to squeeze herself and her three bags into the window side of another seat around a very large and uncooperative woman who appeared offended that she had to accommodate this woman and her bags.

Now, I won't mention the young woman in the single seat behind the driver, intently reading her book and looking up defiantly as passengers boarded. A mother with a baby carrier, a stroller, and a bag got on the bus. She wasn't disabled, but she may as well be if she has to travel with all that gear -- it's hard enough with a car. I doubt she was one of those "choice" riders out for jaunt to Nordstrom. That seat behind the driver would have been a practical and considerate convenience. Instead, she was able to sit next to an accommodating lady (facing the sullen girl) so that she could park her stroller and hold the carrier in her lap.

I figured even though the girl was crass, the mom was reasonably situated. The large lady was large enough to need the disabled space in front, so I couldn't fault her for sitting there, although she could have been less belligerent.

However, on the front bench facing the driver appeared to be two college students, one girl with cropped hair and lip piercings, a young man of moderate dress; that is to say, not in baggy pants and various hats and bandannas, but jeans and shirt and jacket: clean cut. They smirked as the little old lady, about 4' 10", struggled to get around the large woman and situate her three bags. She was obviously an immigrant, powerless and mute: stockings rolled up to her knees, kerchief around her white wispy hair. (Most elderly Americans who ride the bus wouldn't think twice about kicking someone out of their area, and vocally.)

I waited for the driver to turn around and instruct the students to move. After all, there were plenty of empty seats towards the back of the bus. The signs say the area is reserved for seniors and the disabled, right? Isn't the driver the captain of his ship? Isn't he there to ensure that passengers conform to basic rules of conduct on the bus, for the convenience of all?

I stared at the driver, then at the students, then at the old lady, and the mom, and back to the driver, and out the window; contemplating my cowardice. In a younger day, I would have said something to the kids, or gone up to the driver and asked him why he didn't make the young people move.

Now I'm like most people, worn down and nonconfrontational.

But I can still let RT know this driver was wrong and offensive. It's another reason why people don't ride the bus. My thought as a passenger is that if someone is bothering me or otherwise offending society, this driver is going to be a lump and do nothing.

I hope I never see that again.

(The bus was the #84 that stopped at Folsom and LaRiviera at 6:20 pm,
Monday evening, April 27.)
We'll give the wife a pass on not knowing her bus number. It was actually the No. 80. She takes the No. 84 in the morning. The two hourly buses covering different areas of North Highlands overlap to provide half-hour service between Watt/I-80 and Watt/Manlove.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Preserving transit service with federal aid

The campaign to convince Congress to help prevent transit service cuts continues to look for support. Illinois Rep. Daniel Lipinski is circulating a dear-colleague letter in support of allowing transit districts to use federal funding for system operation costs. Normally federal funds can only be used for capital expenses -- new buses, extending light rail lines -- and in normal times that makes sense. But in the current economic climate, transit districts need the flexibility to shift these funds to operating expenses if they are to weather the current economic downturn.

Sacramento Regional Transit is one of dozens of transit providers whose operating budgets has been hammered by the economic recession. (See this post and this RT staff budget report) You can help by sending a letter to your representative supporting Lipinski's efforts. If you don't know what to say, use this form.