Only a few major transit systems in America increased ridership last year, and the top two, Seattle and Houston, have one thing in common – they completely redesigned their bus routes.
So you can hardly blame Sacramento Regional Transit for hoping that will be the secret to its success, too.
It had better work, because RT’s ridership plummeted by nearly 31 percent, from 35 million in 2008-09 to 24.3 in million 2015-16, and has declined each year since 2013.
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But the comprehensive bus routes study the agency plans to launch this summer could take as long as two years. And it won’t succeed without more money – and that will happen only if voters approve a second try at a sales tax hike, likely in 2018.
RT is still reeling from a big blow last November, when county voters narrowly rejected Measure B, a half-cent sales tax increase that would have given it $950 million over 30 years for operations and expansion.
The measure fell only 8,000 votes short of the two-thirds majority required, and nearly 46,000 voters skipped it on the ballot. RT’s well-publicized customer service problems didn’t help the cause; a controversial retirement deal for outgoing General Manager Mike Wiley probably didn’t, either. Some critics wanted the plan to include more money for transit and less for roads. And the man who bankrolled most of the opposition lived along the route of the Capital SouthEast Connector project, a major highway linking Elk Grove and Folsom that developers covet.
Whatever the reasons for Measure B’s defeat, the damage turned out to be even worse because Donald Trump was elected the same day. His support for public transit is questionable at best, and to boost the defense budget, he’s calling for cuts in domestic programs. RT, which gets more than one-fifth of its $163 million operating budget from the feds, is bracing for potential cuts.
While federal funding is out of RT’s control, one thing it can do is keep its customers by improving service. As part of its “journey to excellence” started last year under new GM/CEO Henry Li, it has scrubbed stations, added security officers and customer service staff and made it easier to post complaints and questions on social media.
Much of the focus has been on making light rail more popular. Pushed by downtown business leaders, RT has offered free rides and discounts to lure suburbanites onto light rail for Kings games and concerts at Golden 1 Center.
But the agency can’t neglect bus riders, who rely on RT to get to work or school. While nearly as many ride buses as light rail, ridership is dropping faster for buses than for light rail.
Figuring out optimal bus routes is long overdue. They haven’t been substantially changed for 30 years, even as the region has developed and commuting patterns have changed. The 69-route system still centers on downtown Sacramento, which draws about 102,000 daytime workers, but there are also growing employment hubs in Folsom and Rancho Cordova.
RT plans to hold community meetings and talk to businesses and others on how bus routes can best serve job centers, hospitals and shopping malls. If funding is available, the study will also look at better coordination with neighboring bus systems. It’s about time for that, too. There has to be a better way than six different bus lines bringing workers into downtown – from Elk Grove, Galt and El Dorado, Placer, Yolo and Yuba counties.
To make a new route system work, however, RT also says it needs to at least double its 192-bus fleet to take people where they want to go, feed into light-rail stations and cut average maximum wait times from 30 minutes to 15 or 10 minutes.
Still, smarter bus routes may not be enough to reverse the ridership slide. Service cuts forced by shrinking budgets during the recession haven’t been fully restored. Fares were increased last July for the first time since 2009. And like other transit systems around America, RT is being buffeted by broader forces, including lower gas prices and competition from Uber and Lyft. There are also declines in two key demographic groups who traditionally have used public transit – baby boomers, who are retiring, and immigrants, who are moving to the suburbs and buying cars.
Ridership has dropped noticeably in most major transit systems across the nation, including nearly 8 percent in 2016 in Los Angeles and for the first time since 2009 on New York’s subway. That’s why the exceptions in Seattle and Houston, apparently driven by bus route overhauls, are getting so much attention in transit circles.
Seattle, where ridership jumped 4 percent last year, added overnight service on popular routes and linked buses to new light rail. The transit agency in Houston, where overall ridership increased by 2 percent last year, redesigned its bus network in 2015 for more frequent service and expanded weekend and night service. Columbus, Ohio, will launch its new bus routes, designed by the same consultants as in Houston, in May. After a 12 percent drop in ridership last year, the transit board in Austin, Texas, voted unanimously last week to cut low-ridership routes and increase frequency on others.
Sacramento appears headed down the same road. So whether you ride RT or not, we should all be rooting for a similar bus turnaround. Failure would be terrible for the region – longer commutes, dirtier air and slower economic growth. RT’s success is even worth paying a little more in taxes.
Sacramento Regional Transit’s ridership has declined by nearly one-third since 2009 (in millions):
Source: Sacramento Regional Transit