About 10 minutes after 9 a.m. Friday, the No. 51 bus heading south on Stockton Boulevard barreled right pass the man waiting at the bus stop near 14th Avenue. Almost an hour after the morning rush, the buses along that heavily traversed route between downtown and the Florin Road mall were still overflowing, or nearly so.
I was standing at a bus stop on the other side of Stockton with Sacramento City College student Ajay Lawson, a 2011 graduate of Hiram Johnson High School, a regular bus rider and a member of the youth group that is lobbying Regional Transit for better service. Fortunately, when our northbound bus arrived minutes later, it was only three-quarters full. We didn't have to wait for the next bus.
Young riders like Lawson middle school pupils, high schoolers and college students make up about 15 percent of RT's ridership. Service cuts over the past several years have hit them hard. School districts no longer provide transportation for students beyond elementary schools, so older students are dependent on public transit.
Route 51 regularly serves students from Sacramento High, Hiram Johnson, American Legion and West Campus. C.K McClatchy High School is a short light-rail transfer away. When the buses are full and pass them by, or when they are late, students can't get to school on time. When routes are eliminated and several have been in recent years getting to school at all becomes a challenge.
So as RT makes plans to restore a portion of the service cuts it made in 2010 when it faced a $25 million recession-driven revenue reduction, student riders are demanding a voice.
They are not just pounding desks. They have formed coalitions, surveyed classmates, inventoried bus stops and established their list of priorities.
Armed with reams of useful data, they've testified at RT board meetings and at the various forums where restoration plans are being formulated. To their credit, RT officials have embraced the student transit lobbyists.
Regional Transit General Manager Mike Wiley says the system's restoration plans have been modified to meet students' concerns. For example, service along the Stockton Boulevard's Route 51 will be increased from every 15 minutes to 12 minutes, and efforts are underway to make sure the buses run on time.
Unfortunately, RT does not have the money to restore all service on Bus Route 83. It used to run along 14th Avenue from Oak Park to Hiram Johnson High School but that was eliminated two years ago. Students want it restored.
Complete restoration is impossible, Wiley says, but he is considering plans to resume service for at least a few hours in the morning when school opens and the afternoon when it closes.
While budget woes have eased somewhat, RT is still short of money.
Officials predict it will take five years to get back to 2010 service levels. As they restore service, they struggle to satisfy competing interests. Students who want to get to school on time in the morning are one constituency, but so are the working poor who work swing shifts or night shifts in hotels or retail shops. They need buses that run late at night and on weekends.
All riders want improved security and better bus stops with seats and shelter against the rain, among the amenities students have lobbied for.
With the recession easing and gas prices on the rise, transit ridership is expanding in Sacramento and beyond. RT has lots of loss ground to make up.
Young riders are in a position to help them make gains. Their advocacy could be crucial. They need to take it beyond RT to the Legislature and eventually even to Congress.
Why not invite local representatives to get out of their cars and ride the bus with a student? I guarantee they will learn a lot.