The Public Eye

Sacramento Regional Transit digging for new funds, hoping for better service

A Sacramento Regional Transit train arrives at the 16th Street station downtown in April. A consultant says changes can help RT generate more revenue, allowing the agency to improve service.
A Sacramento Regional Transit train arrives at the 16th Street station downtown in April. A consultant says changes can help RT generate more revenue, allowing the agency to improve service. jvillegas@sacbee.com

Struggling to provide adequate transit service and bruised by negative public perception, the Sacramento Regional Transit bus and rail agency turned a few months ago to a financial fixer with a national reputation for digging up dollars to help bus agencies get back on their feet.

That man, transit consultant Douglas Carter, has finished his initial analysis, and some RT officials say it could be a game-changer.

In a report to be presented to the RT board on Monday, Carter and RT executives have identified $25 million to $56 million in potential annual savings and new revenue for the agency.

RT board chief Jay Schenirer says Carter’s findings, and other work the agency already is doing, could mark a turning point for an agency that has been “just trying to make it through the day” at times in recent years.

“This is the moment in time,” Schenirer said. “We think we have an opportunity to really raise the level of service. This is very exciting. This is exactly what we’re looking for.”

Carter, based in the Washington, D.C., area, has worked as a transit consultant for more than three decades and is credited with helping improve the finances of agencies in Chicago, Austin, Los Angeles and elsewhere.

In his Sacramento report, Carter said RT is well-managed, with a capable staff, but one that has had to resort for too long to a do-more-with-less philosophy. Employees are “battered and somewhat overextended” and “tired of trying to defend (the) system condition to neighbors/friends.”

RT has taken several notable public relations hits this year. In January, downtown business leaders, including the Sacramento Kings, issued a report saying they fear RT is not ready to handle the expected added transit demand when the downtown sports and entertainment arena opens in fall 2016. The transit agency has since been working with those leaders on ways to improve service, clean up stations and increase security.

Last month, many Elk Grove residents who ride that city’s e-tran buses into downtown said they do not plan to switch to RT when the agency opens a light rail extension to Cosumnes River College. Some made a point of saying they think RT trains are inconvenient and unsafe.

Some riders continue to complain about a lack of cleanliness at stations. “A leaf blower would be a good start,” rider John Holland wrote to RT and The Bee last week in an email that includes photos of litter at train platforms.

Carter, in his report, will list several dozen possibilities for improving the agency’s financial situation and improving service. They include suggestions on how to catch more fare evaders on light rail and encouragement to offer free Wi-Fi on trains and longer-distance buses.

He suggests RT step up its efforts to become entrepreneurial, including encouraging the agency’s early efforts to sell carbon credits, sell compressed natural gas and lease RT’s underground fiber optics to companies along the light rail line.

The biggest likely cost savings involve changing the work schedules and policies for bus drivers, potentially saving $12 million to $19 million in annual expenses alone. That represents a substantial chunk of the agency’s $148 million annual operating budget.

Ideas include switching drivers to longer, four-day workweeks, creating disincentives for unscheduled absences and bringing back part-time bus drivers. Carter and RT executives also are talking about bringing back retired employees to help new riders at stations during special events, like concerts or Kings games at the downtown arena.

RT General Manager Mike Wiley said that he is pleased with the variety of options Carter suggests and that RT had already begun working on some of them before contracting Carter. Wiley agreed that the agency staff is suffering from having to do more with less, mainly prompted by the recession, but he said staffers would be energized if the agency can come up with money to expand and improve service.

“We’ve been in a state of ‘cut here, trim there, do more with less, including layoffs, furloughs,’” he said. “Our focus needs to shift from just getting by to how we can grow the ridership. We have an opportunity for a lot of new riders and to make their travels comfortable, safe, on time.

“That will create more opportunity for our employees, with more challenges, but more excitement. Growth creates a different atmosphere and culture.”

The agency’s board is expected to review Carter’s initial findings on Monday, then instruct him and RT management on which suggestions seem worth pursuing. Agency officials will analyze those further and bring formal recommendations to the board later.

Success, though, will depend on the agency getting sign-on from the bus drivers union and other RT labor groups, Wiley said.

Ralph Niz, president and business agent for the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 256, which represents drivers, declined to offer an opinion of Carter’s ideas but said he plans to make a simple point to the RT board on Monday.

“They can discuss whatever they want,” he said. “These are negotiated items, what they are reviewing. We have a contract. These items have to be negotiated.”

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