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MTS Hopes Bus Route Overhaul Will Buck Ridership Decline

A stop on the 83 bus route sits next to a multi-story mansion in Mission Hill...

Photo by Andrew Bowen

Above: A stop on the 83 bus route sits next to a multi-story mansion in Mission Hills, Sept. 15, 2017.

Few people in San Diego have been active in transportation issues longer than Maria Cortez. The longtime City Heights resident has been advocating for better public transit for well over three decades.

So when Cortez learned of plans by the Metropolitan Transit System to increase bus frequencies to several routes serving City Heights and the greater Mid-City area, she felt vindicated.

"For years, we have been on MTS to increase transportation here," Cortez said. "Thank God MTS is finally listening to us."

The increased frequencies are part of its so-called Transit Optimization Plan, a comprehensive update to its bus network meant to improve the system's overall performance and efficiency. The MTS board of directors will vote on the plan Thursday morning. If approved, the changes would be phased in next year.

RELATED: San Diego's Public Transit Growth Hits Speed Bump

MTS has seen declining ridership for the past two years. In fiscal year 2017, which ended June 30, MTS logged 88.2 million passenger trips — 4.5 million fewer than the previous year. The problem has plagued mass transit systems across the country, as low gas prices and competition from ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft make cars more accessible to a greater number of people.

A graph shows changes in MTS ridership from 2005 to 2017.

The ridership decline poses a particularly grave threat to San Diego's efforts to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, more than half of which come from transportation. The city's Climate Action Plan aims to more than double the share of commuters who get to work via the bus and trolley by 2020.

But for MTS, perhaps the most serious day-to-day consequence of falling ridership is money. The drop in passenger fare revenue has left the system with a $5 million budget deficit for the current fiscal year.

MTS CEO Paul Jablonski said he saw two options for getting out of the budget hole: cutting services or growing out of the problem. The transit optimization plan aims for the latter, investing more resources in the system's most productive bus routes while changing or cutting the least productive. Several transit systems across the country are working on similar plans.

"I want (the system) to be productive, and to make sure that we can never be accused running around empty buses," Jablonski said.

The proposed changes have met with resistance: Santee Mayor John Minto wrote MTS a letter protesting the cuts to bus routes in his city. Riders of the 83 bus, which connects downtown with Middletown and Mission Hills, also wrote in and spoke at MTS board meetings protesting the route's proposed discontinuation.

Still, it is hard to argue with the numbers: The 83 attracts a weekday average of 128 riders, a fraction of the system's average. Much of its Mission Hills segment serves low-density residential streets with homes worth well over $1 million.

Most of the routes originally on the chopping block, including the 83, have since been spared in MTS's recommended changes, though many are still seeing reductions in service.

"Anytime you take away service, there's some people that are impacted," Jablonski said. "We understand that, we care about that. That's why we outreach, that's why we listen. That's why we go through great lengths to try to do compromises."

Those compromises are not free. The revised service changes involve an investment of $2 million, which MTS staffers say will come from the state's increase to vehicle fees and the gas tax. But a campaign to repeal those increases is underway, meaning the funding could be short-lived.

"It is a little bit more of a gamble," Jablonski said. "But, you know, it's the old adage: Sometimes you have to spend money to make money. And with us, it is about making money, because we only have so much to spend and we want to maximize service."

Cortez acknowledged that the added services in City Heights were coming in part at the expense of less productive bus routes.

"It concerns me because … what affects one community, it affects us all," she said. "But if there's not that many people that are riding the bus, then they do need to increase more frequency in the others, like with us here. We are riding the bus a lot and we have a lot of ridership."

MTS Hopes Bus Route Overhaul Will Buck Ridership Decline

GUEST:

Andrew Bowen, metro reporter, KPBS News

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