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San Diego's Sunday Bus Services Still Lag Despite Economic Recovery

Lijon Russells looks out the window while riding an MTS bus, Aug. 28, 2016.
Richard Klein
Lijon Russells looks out the window while riding an MTS bus, Aug. 28, 2016.
San Diego's Sunday Bus Services Still Lag Despite Economic Recovery
San Diego's Sunday Bus Services Still Lag Despite Economic Recovery
During the Great Recession, San Diego's Metropolitan Transit System was forced to raise fares and make sweeping cuts to bus and trolley services — most of them on Sundays. As the economy has recovered, however, funding for public transit is lagging behind.

Think of all the things that people do on Sundays. Errands, church, visiting family, the park or the beach and work. Doing all that without a car and San Diego can border on the impossible. KPBS Metro reporter Andrew Bolin caught up with the woman who wants that to change. Hi, nice to meet you. The first thing I noticed when I met her is her lipstick. It is a muted metallic plum if you can picture that. Her hair is pulled back into three long braids. 437-year-old mother of three she is pretty hip. Born and raised. She let me tag along on her Sunday commute home from work at a Home Depot in the Mountain View neighborhood. There are a couple of different bus routes she can take each with different transfers and timetables. She's checking the arrival times on her phone. Should we wait here for We can wait here. The other one is 20 minutes. One of the biggest problems getting to and from work on a Sunday is the buses that run frequently enough. If she is seconds later when bus it can take her a half-hour longer to get to work plus buses stopped running earlier on Sundays meeting she can't work late shifts. None of this would be a problem if she could afford a car. She lives in oh Park and her job is only three miles away. It takes me an hour to get home. Sunday bus schedules used to be better in San Diego. Starting in 2007 to state and federal governments became -- began slashing their subsidies to public transit which was the Metropolitan transit system to raise its fares. In 2010 and made sweeping cuts to services, most of them on Sundays. We are here to discuss service adjustments related to a fiscal crisis. This is audio from a 2009 board meeting things got emotional during public comment. Here is a woman named Jacqueline Wilson took On Sundays bus 11 is the only Bostick gets me to church. It takes me three hours but at least it's there. I don't know anyone with a car. Sorry. How am I supposed to get an education? How am I supposed to get a job? There is no transportation. When they propose because they said they hoped they were temporary until the economy recovered. The economy has mostly recovered but subsidies to MTS are still below pre-recession levels. It has been able to bring back only 60% of the services that were cut last year MTS saw its first overall decline in ridership in several years. It is now doing surveys to see how it can run the existing network or efficiently. Transit advocates say there is -- NTS has a tough job. It is especially tough because MTS gets a smaller chunk of local tax dollars than public transit in other cities.: Parent's policy counsel for the nonprofit circulate San Diego that There are difficult choices between efficiency and cost-effectiveness rights in the social equity concerns and making sure people who don't have an ax -- people who don't have access to a car have access to public transit. These are both important. You have to balance them both. About an hour after leaving her work we arrived at her apartment. As we talk outside she sums up the problem. They ask you if you have reliable transportation when you fill out your job application. Most people put yes because that's what you have to do to get a job at there's still on public transportation. Is not reliable. San Diego has an ambitious plan that expects thousands of San Diego's to quit driving and start taking part like transit. Unless public transit gets the money to improve it risk losing the riders it has now. I want a car. Right now, yes I do. Just because it would be easier. It would be easier. It would make my life so much easier.

One of the first things you might notice when meeting Lijon Russell is her lipstick. It's a muted metallic purple, fitting with her infectious laugh and radiant smile. The 37-year-old mother of three works as a cashier at Home Depot in the Mountain View neighborhood. Her home is about 3 miles away, a quick drive on state Route 94 and Interstate 805.

"If I had a car, it'd take me like five to 10 minutes to get home," Russell said on a recent Sunday after finishing work.

Instead, her Sunday commute home takes about an hour.

Russell is one of thousands of San Diegans who, because she cannot afford a car, is dependent on public transit. She and a number of neighbors recently petitioned the Metropolitan Transit System, which operates buses and trolleys in San Diego, to restore Sunday service to the 916 and 917 bus routes. Those routes stop directly in front of their low-income housing development in Oak Park, but run only Monday to Saturday every 30 to 60 minutes.

They said the added Sunday service would save seniors and disabled residents from having to make the uphill walk to their homes. On Sundays, many are running errands, visiting family or going to church.

MTS held a meeting with the residents in April to discuss options, but said it cannot afford the changes the residents want because they wouldn't generate enough new passenger trips.

Recession forces cuts

It wasn't long ago that Sunday bus services were better in San Diego. But starting in 2007, the cash-strapped state and federal governments slashed subsidies to public transit. Local sales tax revenues also fell, leaving MTS with a substantial budget gap.

To cope with the deficit, MTS raised fares and eliminated free bus transfers in 2008. Then in 2010, MTS made sweeping cuts to several bus and trolley routes. Most of the cuts affected Sunday services.

Ridership on Sundays tended to be lower, MTS said, and passengers said their trips on Sundays are usually more flexible than weekday trips. MTS said focusing the cuts on Sundays would affect fewer people than across-the-board cuts.

The slashed services were discussed at the Dec. 10, 2009 meeting of the MTS board of directors, which is made up of elected officials from across San Diego County. The meeting saw about 50 people speak during public comment, nearly all of them urging MTS to reconsider their plans.

"On Sundays, the bus 11 is the only bus that gets me to church. It takes me three hours, but at least it's there," Jacqueline Wilson said at the meeting, fighting back tears. "My livelihood is going down the tubes. How am I supposed to get an education, how am I supposed to get a job if there's no transportation?"

A meager recovery

In its presentation of the service cuts, MTS said it hoped they would be temporary.

"With this economic crisis being the driver behind a lot of our budgetary crisis, our hope is that as the crisis eases and we start seeing more sales tax subsidy coming in, we'll be able to … rebuild the Sunday network," said MTS chief of staff Sharon Cooney at the 2009 meeting.

But those hopes have been dashed. Subsidies for the 2017 fiscal year are still about $20 million below pre-recession levels, when adjusted for inflation.

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Recent local sales tax revenues have been higher than expected, MTS said, allowing them to operate several "rapid" bus routes with limited stops and faster service. But the slow recovery of state and federal dollars has held back the full restoration of the many bus and trolley services that were cut.

"The cutting and ultimate restoration of services has been very methodical and strategic," MTS spokesman Rob Schupp said in an email. "Sixty percent (of the routes cut during the recession) have been restored or partially restored, primarily as warranted by ridership demand."

MTS says its job is especially tough because it gets a smaller chunk of local tax dollars than public transit in other cities. For every dollar spent in San Diego County, one-sixth of one cent goes to public transit.

Last year MTS logged its first overall decline in ridership in several years, largely due to cheap gas prices. The transit agency is currently conducting surveys of riders' habits and preferences to ensure it's operating the network efficiently.

A bar graph shows the loss and recovery of local, state and federal subsidies to MTS since 2007.
Metropolitan Transit System
A bar graph shows the loss and recovery of local, state and federal subsidies to MTS since 2007.

Difficult choices

Some transit advocates say chronic underfunding forces MTS to make tough decisions about when to invest in services that get high ridership, and thus bring in more money; and when to provide services that may see lower ridership, but that serve the most transit-dependent riders.

"There really are difficult choices between efficiency and cost effectiveness for rides and these social equity concerns, and making sure that people who don't have access to a car are able to get around using public transit," said Colin Parent, policy counsel for the nonprofit Circulate San Diego. "It's not that one or the other is totally the most important thing. They're both important, and you have to balance them both."

It's the urgent need for more public transit funding that led Circulate San Diego to endorse Measure A, a half-cent sales tax on the November ballot that would give about 42 percent of its money to public transit. The added revenue would allow MTS to increase bus and trolley frequencies and build new routes.

Many other environmental groups oppose the tax because it does not give enough money to public transit, and expands freeways in low-income areas that already suffer from bad pollution. Some conservatives oppose the tax because the share of money given to freeways — about 14 percent — is not enough.

'It's not reliable'

As Lijon Russell arrived at her home about an hour after leaving work, she reflected on how difficult life without a car is in San Diego.

"When you're filling out an application for a job it asks you, 'Do you have reliable transportation to and from work?' Most people put 'yes' because that's what you have to do to get the job," she said. "But they're still on public transportation. And it's not reliable."

San Diego's Climate Action Plan, passed last December, expects thousands of San Diegans to stop driving cars and start taking public transit. But without the money to improve its network, MTS risks losing some of the riders it already has.

Asked whether she would like a car, Russell immediately said yes.

"I do want a car," she said. "It would make my life so much easier."