Metro faces widespread changes to close budget gap
Rubi Cuevas rides Metro buses almost every day. She works the late shift at the Capitola McDonald’s, and, until last year, she took the 68N home every night just five minutes after finishing her shift. However, after Metro cut 10 percent of their service last year, Cuevas was forced to take another less convenient bus home.
“Sometimes I have to wait 40 minutes for a bus,” she says. And while she occasionally can leave work before her shift is over and catch an earlier bus, she often has to stay until the end of her shift, which means a long wait. “I don’t have a car because gas is expensive, but there are no buses either,” she says.
The Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District (Metro) provides an important lifeline for many members of the Santa Cruz community. Cuevas and other residents rely on the Metro to get to work, UC Santa Cruz students ride the buses to school, and many people—including seniors and the disabled—depend on the Metro to get to doctors appointments or to run important errands.
However, the economic recession is taking its toll on the Metro’s ability to provide convenient, frequent buses to a wide range of areas within the county. Metro’s staff and board are currently struggling to close a budget deficit of $3.8 million, and there are no easy solutions.
Why Metro Is Seeing Red
Since 1978, the Metro has been funded in part by a half-cent sales tax. Before the current recession, this tax provided a reliable source of revenue for the bus system. In 2007, $17.6 million of Metro’s $40.9 million operating revenue was funded this way.
However, the economic downturn has decreased the amount of revenue the Metro is able to collect from taxes. Empty storefronts and struggling businesses around town have translated into fewer local sales. Everyone is hurting, and Metro’s tax revenue has decreased every year since 2007. In 2010, it collected only $14.3 million from sales and use taxes.
State and federal governments are also struggling, and cities are feeling the impact. “The last couple of years of budgets have been very difficult on transit statewide,” says Santa Cruz County Supervisor and Metro board member Mark Stone. “The state has tried to get out of the business of funding transit, which is a difficult decision to understand because while we’re moving toward trying to be more responsible about greenhouse gas emissions and sustainable communities, the cornerstone throughout the state of those efforts is public transit.”
It is one of those unfortunate ironies of government: cuts tend to be made to municipal services during economic times when those services are needed the most.
Potential Service Cuts
Earlier this year, Metro staff proposed a 30 percent service reduction to the bus system that would have eliminated all service to the county’s North Coast, among other route cuts. Metro board members pushed for a less dramatic reduction in service and urged Metro staff to try to find a way to make cuts while preserving broad geographic coverage.
On Friday, April 22, Metro board members and staff met to discuss a proposed 12 percent service reduction that could eliminate six routes by September 15 of this year. Most of the remaining Metro routes would be modified in some way; however, Paracruz services would not be affected.
The cuts are anticipated to save Metro $1.44 million in labor costs, but unfortunately, most of these savings come from layoffs. Bonnie Morr, chairperson for the United Transportation Union, expects Metro will lose 18 bus drivers because of the cuts. Metro bus drivers typically receive a 3 percent raise each year for cost of living increases, however, the union will forego raises this year. “Everybody’s trying to hold on. And, where we are, we want to save the company,” Morr says.
For many, the 12 percent reduction in service is seen as a less draconian proposal and a way to ensure access to public transit for many residents in outlying areas. “If we were doing this strictly on business terms, we’d keep the highest [ridership] routes and cut all the minor routes,” Supervisor Stone says. “But the folks we are stranding, if we do that, are some of the folks who need it the most.”
The 12 percent service cut would preserve routes to Davenport, but eliminate service on Highway 1 between Cement Plant Road and Waddell Creek. Davenport residents are understandably relieved not to be cut off from Santa Cruz.
Django Brezinger, a fourth grader at Pacific Elementary School, wrote a letter to the Metro board thanking board members for keeping bus lines running and offering his own advice for balancing the budget. “You might increase productivity if you put a vending machine on the bus because so many kids would buy snacks,” he wrote. “Or you could change the rectangular shape of the bus to more of an oval shape to use less gas and less metal.”
Some UCSC students are wary of proposals to cut late night bus services up to campus. “I think it’s dangerous for kids who are most likely intoxicated to not have a safe way home,” says UCSC senior Hailey Sinder.
Other students worry about the impact of service cuts on class attendance. “It’s already hard to catch the bus at certain times, so cuts would discourage kids from going to class,” says community studies major Michelle Joel.
Beginning May 11, Metro will be holding hearings to receive public feedback regarding the service reduction.
Solutions on the Table
During Friday’s meeting, the Metro board also considered a fare increase of $.50 on the base fare with corresponding fare increases for all other fare categories. Metro’s last local fare increase was in June of 2003, so the fees are arguably due for a raise.
“When we had our last meeting a month ago, it was surprising how many members of the public said they could handle a rate increase,” says Metro board vice-chair Lynn Robinson.
Fare increases are projected to generate half a million dollars per year for Metro, even though Metro staff anticipates an 8 percent decrease in ridership because of the higher fees.
Another proposal in the earliest stages of consideration is a potential merger between Metro and the Regional Transportation Commission. Proponents of the merger argue that joining the two agencies would reduce inefficiencies and create a more holistic approach to transportation in the county. Proponents point to the experience of other cities in generating savings by merging transportation agencies.
However, many Metro members and RTC members are concerned that a merger would jeopardize the half-cent sales tax, thereby making the funding situation even more dire. They point out that the Metro and RTC each fulfill different responsibilities and question the ability of RTC to assume the running of a bus system. There is also concern that even investigating the specifics of a merger—what the new agency would look like, potential savings of consolidation, etc.—would be a drain on scarce resources.
Overall, boardmembers, staff, and the union are holding on for better days. The Metro will probably be forced to use $1.5 million in reserves to fully balance the budget—a solution that will not be viable in the long term. But if the economy improves, the revenues from local taxes should rise and state and federal budgets would be less strained. If this happens, it would be a lot easier for buses to get back on the road.