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, July 27, 2009

Why free parking is just not affordable any more

Perhaps what I had to say had some influence. But the only thing going for my point is the desperate position the Sacramento Regional Transit District finds itself in.

My topic was the pilot program that will require a $1 fee to use the RT parking lots at the Watt/I-80, Watt West and Roseville Road light rail stations, the final lots on the Blue Line.

Letting anyone park for free is just not fair. Subsidizing commuters who drive to ride light rail wasn't fair in April, when the board failed to break a tie, killing a staff proposal to institute parking fees at all RT lots. And under the district's new "no transfer" fare system, free parking is now doubly unfair.

Here's what I tried to explain in my three minutes before the board Monday.

The new fair structure will work like this: A person who takes a bus to light rail, will pay $5 for a one-way trip. A person who drives to the RT lot and catches the same train, will pay just $2.50.

The roundtrip charge for the park-and-ride user is $5.

The roundtrip charge for the person who leaves a car at home and takes the bus is $10. Since a daily pass, which allows unlimited rides for a calendar day, is just $6, that's what the district expects to collect from those people who either choose not to drive or can't drive.

So RT will be paying people to drive to the lots in order to save a buck.

Most of Monday's meeting was taken up with a public hearing on proposed service reductions. Ten percent of the system was targeted, including elimination of train service after 9 p.m.

Nothing will be finalized until next month, when the staff will present the board with its interpretation of the direction it received Monday. And that meeting will likely turn into a bargaining session like last month, where board members will trade someone else's service in order to protect the service of a constituent.

Parking just can't be free when cuts as deep as have been proposed are on the table. Yes, charging for parking may move people into neighboring streets or into commercial parking lots to avoid the fee. But the district can't let scofflaws be the deciding factor here.

Do Don Nottoli and the other board members so adamant about not charging for parking appreciate the alternative? Is it possible for someone who doesn't ride transit, who already sees Sacramento's system as inadequate for their transportation needs, to appreciate why charging for parking at every lot must come first before any cuts in service?

I made my pitch to the board. The board unanimously ignored me.

Steve Cohn offered that the parking fee proposal might come back before the board. I think I'd buy a lottery ticket before I'd bet that this board can find a majority of votes needed to charge for parking. I'd certainly have more chance with the lottery.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

From bad to worse: RT just can't get a break

What's Sacramento Regional Transit to do? There's just no good news. That at least is the conclusion to be drawn from the agenda package for Monday's board of director's meeting.

General Manger Mike Wiley tries to paint a rosy tint on his Key Performance Report to the board.

"Despite the economic challenges imposed by declining tax revenues and state budget cuts to public transit funding, the District's financial statistic report closing out fiscal year 2009 is positive ($6.6M*)," Wiley says.

Yes, but...

Take away the largess of the Obama administration and Congress' efforts to stimulate the economy -- $8 million more than RT had counted on in its budget -- and that $6.6 million evaporates. (Read the full Key Performance Report)

As it is, the preliminary year-end report for 2009 has the district less than $700,000 in the black.

The district management managed to save nearly $2.2 million by trimming expenses from the 2009 budget and the federal government tossed in nearly $7.5 million more than the budget anticipated, but that only slowed the hemorrhaging.

Despite rate hikes in January, fare revenues were down $4.25 million below the budgeted target. And then there was the $4.1 million loss of local sales tax revenue.

And now we learn that matters are getting worse.

The 2010 budget adopted last month was balanced in part with the promise that service would be cut in January enough to save another $1.1 million.

"Since the FY 2010 Operating Budget was adopted on June 22, 2009, economic conditions have worsened," RoseMary Covington, the assistant general manager for planning and transit system development, explains in an issue paper prepared for Monday's meeting.

"RT has been notified that the Sacramento Transportation Authority will reduce its FY 2010 sales tax based, Measure A, projection by 3%," Covington reports. "This will reduce expected RT revenue from this source by $932,000. In addition, SACOG staff has advised there will be a further reduction in RT's Local Transportation Fund (LTF) allocation of approximately $1.5 million, also due to the decline in expected sales tax revenue."

The district had hoped that recently adopted federal legislation allowing transit agencies to redirect 10 percent of their stimulus money to operating expenses would help, but that won't be enough.

"Current estimates indicate that in addition to the $1 million in January service cuts already factored into the FY 2010 Adopted Operating Budget, an additional $1.4 million must be found in order to re-balance the budget," Covington reports.

Covington anticipates that staff can back fill some of that $2.4 million shortfall with cost reductions, but at least $1.4 million in service reductions will still be necessary.

"Since January is half-way point of the fiscal year, in order to realize $1.4 million in savings, it is necessary to make service reductions amounting to $2.8 million on an annual basis," Covington explains.

For anyone who is unfamiliar with RT's efforts to cope with the economic downturn and the outright theft from the state, I suggest reading "Attachment 2" from Covington's report. "Sacramento Regional Transit District Actions To Meet State Budget Revenue Shortfalls" itemizes the more than 30 steps taken since 2008.

The question of which combination of route elimination, reduction and realignment will balance the budget will be the subject of discussion at Monday's meeting. Here's a link to the staff's preferred option.

"Based upon the public comments, further direction from the Board, and any changes to RT's funding situation, staff will return to the Board for final approval on August 24, 2009," Covington said.