Sacramento RT faces critical year for ridership, revenue

Sacramento police Officer Gus Johnson checks for valid tickets on a light-rail train on Feb. 8, 2015, at the 65th Street station.
Sacramento police Officer Gus Johnson checks for valid tickets on a light-rail train on Feb. 8, 2015, at the 65th Street station.

Hit hard nearly a decade ago by the recession, Sacramento Regional Transit has never quite recovered financially. Now, the county’s main bus and light rail agency faces a reckoning. The board of directors on Monday will consider raising fares 20 percent in increments over a year to balance its budget.

It’s a dramatic step, but just one among many in what is shaping up to be a critical year for the agency, including a top leadership change and a potential ballot request for money in November.

Complicating the discussion of fare hikes is a harsh reality for RT leaders: The system doesn’t stack up well against similar-sized transit networks in other cities. A recent analysis by the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, comparing RT to nine other transit agencies, shows RT rates at the bottom in cost effectiveness. Sacramento’s system spends more money per mile driven and more money per passenger than its “peer” agencies.

Those agencies are in Portland, Ore.; San Diego; Salt Lake City; Charlotte, N.C.; St. Louis; Minneapolis; Buffalo, N.Y.; and Phoenix. They struggled during the recession, as well, making service cuts and suffering ridership dips. But most are recovering.

In contrast, RT’s ridership numbers dropped more than 20 percent from 2009 to 2011 and have not recovered. In starkest terms, fewer riders see the transit system as effective or affordable. The ridership drop happened after RT drastically cut service and increased fares during the recession. That lack of riders and revenue, in turn, has been a drag on the agency’s effort to rebuild since the recession.

RT leaders are scrambling to boost the system’s image – and customer experience – before the October opening of the city’s new sports and entertainment arena. The arena is expected to bring thousands of people downtown for Sacramento Kings games, concerts and other entertainment. With congestion and rising parking costs, many are expected to try transit for the first time.

If RT performs well, the agency could boost its bottom line and relevance among residents throughout the region. If service is poor, RT risks alienating riders who may never give transit a second chance.

RT General Manager Mike Wiley sounded optimistic in a speech last week at the Hyatt Regency. His agency is laying plans for more muscular service on game nights, cleaner stations and more security, he said.

“When Golden 1 Center opens, RT will be ready,” he said.

Wiley said his staff is even looking at ways to allow anyone with an arena ticket to ride the train or bus to the arena for free. RT is soliciting corporate sponsorships for game nights to underwrite the cost of transit service. The goal of the free rides, Wiley said, “is to get people hooked on the system.”

The agency faces another major change in the next few months. After nearly 40 years of service, Wiley is retiring. RT board Chairman Jay Schenirer said the agency is talking with a handful of “very qualified candidates,” and hopes to have a new general manager by July 1.

With dwindling ridership and higher costs, RT has had to dip into its reserves in each of the past two years to cover costs. Agency officials say if they don’t increase fares, they will exhaust their reserve account this summer and won’t be able to balance future budgets.

The fare increase under discussion would come in July, followed by another increase in July 2017. The price for a basic, single-fare ticket would go from $2.50 to $2.75 in July, then to $3. The proposal includes increasing the price of daily passes from $6 to $7 and then to $7.50. Monthly passes would increase from $100 to $110, and then to $120. Discount passes for students, seniors and disabled riders would be increased similarly.

Longer term, RT officials have joined other Sacramento County leaders in exploring a November ballot measure asking voters for a half-cent sales tax increase to provide an ongoing source of revenue for RT, as well as to pay for non-transit transportation improvements around the county.

It would not be a panacea. But, Wiley said, it could give the agency the boost it needs to stabilize and eventually increase service.

RT also is engaged in efforts to make less-expensive improvements to entice riders to return to the system. Officials announced last week that they will hire 30 fare checkers to crack down on riders who board without paying. That would put a fare checker on almost every train, which is intended to reduce the number of freeloaders and create a more comfortable environment for other riders.

Developer David Taylor, a member of a business group that challenged RT last year to step up its performance, said he’s pleased, but watchful.

“That is the kind of move they need to make,” he said. “Is it enough? I don’t think we’ll know that for a while.”

The talk about the arena and fare increases has upset some members of the social services community. Pam Haney of the Wellspring Women’s Center in Oak Park said she worries that RT is giving short shrift to its role as a service provider for people with no other options, including the young, elderly, jobless and homeless.

“Your most loyal and vulnerable customers see RT sparing no expense for the arena and the ever-elusive ‘choice’ rider,” Haney wrote to RT. “Meanwhile, their routes are abandoned and their backs are breaking under the burden of paying for choices they didn’t make.”

As momentous as this year is for the agency, RT’s actions in the next few years will be key for the region as a whole, said SACOG Chief Executive Mike McKeever. The Sacramento Area Council of Governments wants to reduce commute times, congestion and pollution by encouraging new housing, businesses and stores to be built near light rail stations and major bus stops.

If RT can’t expand the reach and frequency of its trains and buses, and improve the customer experience, the agency may continue to lose ridership, he said.

“That takes us back to a sprawled-out region where the only way you can get around is in cars, and we know that is a failed model,” McKeever said.

Sacramento police recently converged on light rail trains to check fares. Most of the time, though, there is nobody on trains making sure passengers have valid tickets. It has led to widespread fare evasion.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059

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