It’s hard for the old-guard left in Santa Cruz and local students to agree on many things, but the local bus agency certainly brought them together this year.
A 30 percent cut in bus service infuriated the community when information on how severe the changes would be became public, and the agency began to seek input on vital routes.
In their outreach effort, METRO leaders like Barrow Emerson, the agency’s planning and development manager, provided an opportunity for other partners to step forward in the search for new funding sources. Two local colleges eventually did, chipping in more than a combined $1 million.
The METRO board has since approved a far-less-than-expected 10 percent service cut—still nothing to celebrate—which goes into effect Thursday, Sept. 8.
“This was the most dramatic thing I’ve ever been involved in,” says Emerson, who has worked for 14 agencies across the country during his 38 nomadic years in the transportation field. “Thirty percent was going to be as bad as you would ever have seen at a public transit agency. Ten percent is bad, but it does happen at times at bus companies, because you deal with the ebbs and flows of economies and external funding sources.”
Emerson, a self-described “geography geek” sporting a red-white-and-blue Grateful Dead tie, says he plans to finish his career in Santa Cruz over the coming years and retire here.
The new funding comes from a few different places. Some dollars will come from Cabrillo College, which is kicking in $944,000 annually to preserve routes like 91X that are crucial to the college, and allow students to take the bus by flashing their student IDs, just as UCSC students do.
UCSC, meanwhile, has agreed to put an extra $600,000 a year toward METRO, which was recently looking to cut as much as $6.5 million from its budget. Emerson and Alex Clifford, the METRO agency’s CEO, also scoured budgets to eliminate inefficiencies, cutting vacant positions and incentivizing early retirement. Lastly, a countywide transportation sales tax measure hits ballots in November that would provide an extra $2.75 million dollars in transportation funding if approved by a two-thirds majority.
Still, some of the bus supporters aren’t ready to cheerlead the METRO’s direction.
“Little by little, they are reducing services,” says activist Ernestina Saldaña, a member of the Santa Cruz Bus Riders Association. “Last year it was the services of ParaCruz. This year it was the services to some areas. And they are talking already about increasing the fare for next year. So, this problem is not solved.”
Saldaña is at the downtown farmers market on a hot Wednesday afternoon, a pale blue “Bernie 2016” sticker plastered to the back of her electric wheelchair. She’s handing out fliers for Santa Cruz City Council candidate Drew Glover, partly because he’s promised a “fully funded” METRO. Saldaña, like Glover, opposes November’s comprehensive transportation measure because she wants to see a more complete bus system, one with expanded service and affordable fares for low-income people.
Glover’s plan—and Saldaña’s too—is to create a different measure in a few years that gives no money to the Highway 1 improvements, and prioritizes buses instead. It’s a gamble that would hurt local transportation, at least in the short term, because it’s hard to say when, or even if, county leaders and voters would support such a measure.
But Saldaña wants METRO to make a serious overhaul of its system and update its schedules—something it hasn’t done since 1996—making it easier for people to get to places on time and meet connections.
“Look around you—how much the city has grown, how much the county has grown. And we’re still using the schedules that were designed for 20 years ago,” she says. “Of course, we need to update that. You get on the 71 thinking it’s going to take you one hour to come to Santa Cruz? In reality it’s one hour and a half, one hour and 45 minutes.”
Emerson says that should the agency come across more money, its biggest goal would be to improve service—extending hours of operation and trip frequency. Ideally, that would make it possible for someone working late at a service job to get back home to South County, for instance, he says, an issue Saldaña also worries about.
That network, Emerson adds, also makes it more enticing for white-collar workers to ditch their cars and get around on public transit. “Ultimately, it’s just that the person says, ‘The bus system in this county is good enough. I can make all my trips—or the majority, or any amount of my trips—on the bus,’” Emerson says.
Transportation experts have other visions farther down the road, as well. METRO just landed a grant, along with Monterey-Salinas Transit, to study bus-on-shoulder transit, which could move forward an idea allowing buses to drive on the shoulder of Highway 1.
Other struggles may loom ahead. METRO’s five-year plan predicts a deficit three years from now. Emerson says the agency should be able to weather that through smarter marketing—like more advertising inside and outside of buses and the retail spaces for lease at the bus stations. “We’ll keep looking at how we run the service—nipping and tucking, not this massive thing that we just did,” Clifford says.
When looking at November’s ballot measure, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what the success or failure of the measure means for the bus agency, which just won two competitive grants to buy new electric buses.
According to the METRO board’s minutes, leaders would lay off four drivers if the measure fails in November, meaning route cuts. If it passes, there will be extra money—more than enough to erase the deficit three years from now.
The board has not yet signaled how much of that cash would go to operational costs (like restoring service), capital costs (like replacing its aging fleet) or supporting reserves, which are now thinner after the board depleted them to maintain service, while revenues declined through the Great Recession.
“This board has always had a high degree of sensitivity toward retaining business on the street,” says Clifford, who’s been with the agency for two years. “That’s the business we’re in. And nobody knew in 2008 that this was going to be the Great Recession.”
For more information, including most recent schedules, visit scmtd.com.