Thursday, March 12, 2009
Public transit systems throughout California were some of the biggest losers in the state’s financial crisis. In an effort to balance the $150 billion budget lawmakers eliminated all state funding for public transit. Locally, that leaves San Diego’s Metropolitan Transit System with a $14 million gap. KPBS Metro reporter Katie Orr has the story as part of our ongoing series Rough Water: Navigating San Diego’s economy.
(Photo by Flickr user LA Wad )
The Fashion Valley Transit Center isn’t very crowded this Saturday morning. But 17-year-old Brittany Boldin is in the middle of a trip from Chula Vista to La Jolla which she says will take a few hours. She’s not excited about proposed cuts and changes which could affect 41 percent of MTS routes.
“A lot of people use public transit and to cut funding would mean to cut bus routes,” she says. “And that would make it harder to get to certain places. And me, I don’t have a car, so I take the bus everywhere.”
But Boldin may have to get used to her trip taking longer and costing more. State legislators have eliminated support for the State Transit Assistance fund for the next five years. The STA fund provided operating money for transit systems around California. At San Diego’s MTS, Rob Schupp says the 14 million dollar budget shortfall will require some unpleasant decisions.
“We don’t want to raise fares. We don’t want to cut service. But I think, in terms of keeping as much service on the road as possible, we want to explore the possibility of yet another fare increase,” he said. And Schupp says riders have indicated they’d rather pay more than see service reduced. So, Schupp says MTS will recommend $4.5 million in service cuts to its board, instead of the nearly $11 million it originally planned. But that means fares will have to go up.
MTS does get money from local sales taxes and a projected 45 percent of next years $212 million operating budget will come from fares. Schupp says MTS is better positioned than many other local systems to weather the loss of state funding. But he says, from the industry’s perspective, it’s time for the government to start looking at other areas for cuts.
“The state has taken a lot of money, three billion dollars over the last three years from public transportation,” he says. “So it’s like, we’ve given our share, look for some place else to try and balance your budget.”
But State Senator Christine Kehoe says there is no where else to cut. Kehoe sits on the State Senate Transportation and Housing Committee. She acknowledges the cuts are a major setback for transit users and are a move in the opposite direction from where the state should be heading. When gas prices where high last year MTS saw ridership increase 15 percent on busses and 7 percent on trolleys. But Kehoe says the budget process was about making choices that would be the least painful.
“One of the big problems is that we have been in a cutting mode for the last three to five years. And, as each year goes by, we keep pretending to ourselves, oh we can find some more cuts here and there. The fact is we are getting down to basic programs,” she says.
Kehoe says San Diego must follow the lead of cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco and explore more ways to fund transit locally.
And there are other transit models being proposed for San Diego. Alan Hoffman is a local transportation consultant. He says the system in Brisbane, Australia, which consists of separate roadways for public transit buses, has seen increased ridership and operates with little or no public subsidies.
“Of all the cities in the first world, Brisbane has achieved the largest share of growth in transit ridership. Especially because transit ridership had been decreasing in that city until they implemented their new strategy,” he says. “And the results have been absolutely spectacular.” Hoffman has proposed a similar system for San Diego.
But in the meantime, MTS must find ways to generate more revenue. Solutions include implementing hiring freezes and renegotiating ad contracts.
Katie Orr, KPBS News