A recent decline in bus riders and the state’s budget deficit have created a perfect storm that could lead to massive changes in California’s public transportation system, which trickles down to how local communities are served.
“Some of the things we’re going to have to look at are the least-used routes and cutting frequencies,” said Dene Bustichi, board chairman of the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District and a Scotts Valley councilman. “Some of those routes are Santa Cruz to Scotts Valley routes, which would affect Scotts Valley residents.”
Countywide, there has been a
5 percent dip in ridership this year — 60,854 fewer people getting on the bus than last year. This slump is attributed to gas prices and unemployment.
“But when you look at public transportation over the last five years, ridership has actually grown,” said Erich Friedrich, Metro provisional transit planner. “It’s just, compared to last year during the higher gas prices, it’s down.”
Fewer jobs, fewer bus riders
The unemployment rate in Santa Cruz County is 10.7 percent, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said last week. Statewide, the unemployment rate is 12.5 percent.
“The services are designed to take people to and from work, but the jobs just aren’t there and people aren’t traveling,” Friedrich said. “But more than anything, the strain of losing state funding is what really put public transportation in a bind.”
When the year’s state budget was passed in February, the $24.6 million Santa Cruz Metro expected to receive over the next four years was all but eliminated to help fill the $14 billion state budget hole.
In October, however, the California Transit Association successfully sued the state for illegal diversion of voter-approved funding meant for public transportation. The CTA argued that the state had misallocated $3.4 billion approved by voters for transportation statewide.
But getting back the money already taken by the state looks like a long shot.
“You have a state that has no money,” Metro general manager Les White said. “In my opinion, the likelihood of getting it back is close to zero. The money is just not there.”
Anemic sales tax totals and the loss of state funding have heavily affected public transportation, White said.
“We can’t continue to have public transit sandwiched between a weak economy and a predatory state that steals transit money,” he said. “The ultimate result is service reduction and fare increases, which we don’t want to do.”
Routes on the chopping block?
Riders could start seeing changes to routes and rate increases in late 2010 and early 2011, White said.
Service cuts are on the table but no decisions have been made, Friedrich said. “Nothing is on the board officially yet,” he said. “We’re not just looking at sheer numbers either. We try to put a face to who uses the routes.”
Route 31 — which travels from Santa Cruz and makes a loop in Scotts Valley — is one of the least-used routes in Scotts Valley.
The route is designed to serve student riders in the city, but is does not operate often enough to be fully used, Bustichi said.
“But we don’t have the budget to increase the frequency of the route,” Bustichi said.
Friedrich said it’s a classic case of the old chicken-or-the-egg conundrum.
“It’s hard to know if a route does not have enough frequencies or if the riders are just not there,” Friedrich said.
Bustichi said everything is being analyzed right now and no concrete decisions have been made. But he urged residents to use local buses before they are lost.
“We want people in Scotts Valley to continue to use public transportation,” Bustichi said. “It’s a use-it-or-lose-it situation, and we’re going to be in jeopardy of losing some of the routes.”
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