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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 Hills, Sept. 15, 2017.
Andrew Bowen
A stop on the 83 bus route sits next to a multi-story mansion in Mission Hills, Sept. 15, 2017.
MTS Hopes Bus Route Overhaul Will Buck Ridership Decline
MTS Hopes Bus Route Overhaul Will Buck Ridership Decline GUEST:Andrew Bowen, metro reporter, KPBS News

This is KPBS Midday Edition I am Maureen Cavanaugh . Public transit ridership in San Diego has been falling the past two years and some parts of the gas prices and with cars and trucks being the region's biggest greenhouse gas emitters falling transit ridership poses a big challenge to local and state efforts to combat climate change and the Metropolitan transit system is hoping to buck the trend with a plan to reroute dozens of buses cutting services that are unproductive in boosting others that are performing well. Our Metro reporter Andrew Bowen says it is something of a gamble and there are winners and losers. Reporter: If you go to meetings on public transit often enough there are a handful of people you almost always see. One of them is Maria Cortez I have been working on the transit project since 1985 and I have been really involved with it for 35 years I met Ortez at a bus stop in city Heights and she has lived in this neighborhood for more than 40 years We are on the corner of University and Marlborough and the seven runs frequently. Ortez rides the bus almost every day and she says transit at City Heights is a lot better than it used to be in the neighborhood is a relatively low rate of car ownership which is one reason why the bus routes serving the area are so successful. A lot of people depend on them. US it shows MTS is caring about what happens to us here. Under the MTS transit optimization plan several bus routes serving City Heights and that greater midcity area are getting more frequent service and some rounds are being shortened or split into two segments so delays do not happen as often. Cortez says she is thrilled. Thank God MTS is finally listening to us because for years we have been on MTS to increase transportation here. Not only just here but throughout San Diego. With the increase in transit that will be great. I think it is awesome and we need to start somewhere. New birth - bus services are free, cuts to routes not as popular will happen and one of them is bus 83 which connects downtown with Mission Hills and that route has seen ridership plumb in the past decade and much of the route now serves a low-density neighborhood with homes more than $1 million. Some advocates say the buses remaining writers do depend on it. Anytime you take what services there are some people who are impacted. Paul Jablonski is the CEO of MTS. That is why we care and outreach and listen and that is why we go to great lengths to try to do compromises where we can still keep it. With fewer people writing transit MTS is getting less revenue from passenger fares. Jablonski says he saw two options for getting out of the resulting budget deficit. Cutting services or trying to grow out of the problem. With our clientele I always want to do those fare increases as a last resort and I want to keep transit a good value for people but I wanted to be productive and we sure we can never be accused of running around with empty buses. This was a look at that. Beyond cutting just less productive services MTS plans on using funds from the state gas tax increase to fund the plan and that money may not last long, there is a campaign to repeal the gas tax increase. Still with growing ridership is the end goal Jablonski says it is the right thing to do. It is a bit more of a gamble but it is the old adage, sometimes you have to spend money to make money. With us it is about making money because we only have so much to spend and we want to maximize service. Maria Cortez acknowledges the added service partly comes at the expense of less popular bus route. It concerns me even though I live here in The city Heights, I also care about what happened in San Diego because what effects one community affects us all. But if there's not that many people that are riding the bus, they do need to increase more frequency in the other areas, like with us, where we are riding the bus a lot. The MTS board of directors decide whether to approve the MTS plans Thursday morning. Joining me as Cape PBS enter reporter Andrew Bowen. Welcome. What bus routes will benefit from the transit optimization plan? To name a few there is the to 35 rapid bus which follows is a 15 court or through Escondido and it has a strong ridership and its midday frequency is going up from every 30 minutes every 15 minutes. There is also the 950 bus which serves the overtime is a border crossing which is very strong ridership numbers which is getting 10 minute frequency in the morning peak. In the evening service is also being extended and it is worth noting that some routes are getting Sunday bus services which were cut and the great recession and a report on that last year. You mentioned low performing routes like bus 83 had an average of 120 writers a day and what is the average bus route ridership? I don't have the numbers for an average bus route but the date of the MTS is made public many routes are in the 2000 and 4000 average passenger ships per week to and some are as high as 9000 and so bus 83 is on the very low end. Part of that as a result of the existing frequency. The 83 route doesn't run all that often, it is hourly and the fewer trips you run the fewer writers. Does MTS have estimates on how additional shops like high density areas in city Heights will affect ridership? It is not venturing a guess how all these changes would affect ridership as it would be difficult to quantify but it has been like this before, and 2004 and 2005 MTS did what it called the comprehensive operations analysis and the bus routes and the system had not been looked at for decades. What MTS did is a lot of the same things are doing now, changing frequency and routes, from 2005 immediately after the plan was passed, until 2009, the annual bus ridership in the entire system grew about 20%, so this transit optimization plan is far less abrasive than what was done more than a decade ago. Obviously there many external factors affecting ridership like the economy but MTS is hoping for another time of growth after this if approved. Public transit usage in San Diego seemed to have peaked around 2014 and 2015, gas prices were low and Hoover was around back then as well, what might the additional reasons for the fall often ridership that we are seeing now? Gas prices were high in 2014, 2015 is when they started falling and that is around the time that mass transit systems across the country started seeing I declining ridership. The changes in the economy and the effects on mass transit ridership is not immediate and so a bus rider may keep riding the bus even though gas prices are lower, there still saving for a car or maybe they have not found a job, just about other factors other than gas prices, the economy is also grown a lot, more people are employed and more people can afford a car in interest rates have been low for quite some time to people able to finance the cars if they cannot pay for them in cash, and Uber is more pervasive than two years ago and where we are with transit ridership now as a result of many years of economic is at work. What is MTS say service changes could cost to main dollars, cannot they just add the discontinued bus routes with buses to the increased service routes? They are doing that as well on the original proposal was to do only that is a to be entire cost neutral all the additional services were going to come from cuts to other services but after feedback from MTS board members and the public MTS backed off some of the harsher cuts and we heard from Paul Jablonski he likes to propose compromises, we keep some degree of service so the writers a certain routes are not completely left in the lurch. The gas tax passage earlier this year by the state legislature authored a new revenue opportunity for MTS and that is how they ended up with this additional $2 million in funding. There has been a move to reveal that gas tax and how likely is that effort to succeed? I would not dare speculate with the first hurdle they had to cross his gathering 5080 signatures and this would be a constitutional amendment and not just a law, they want to repeal the gas tax and vehicle fee increase past by the legislature and they also want to require future gas tax increases to get a two thirds majority from voters. No one likes paying higher gas prices. If the measure exit to the ballot it could essentially lock in the current gas tax for generations. What more could be done to pair city bus routes with the people who will really use and benefit from public transportation. There are a lot of factors that go into whether or not a bus or trolley route is successful, one is density, having more people living or working close in a compacted area makes it easier to serve the area with mass transit. Also income levels and where people can afford to live, having affordable housing which often serves transit dependent people near the services is important. It is not always done to the greatest effect in San Diego, the Rio Vista's top and the greenline has very dense apartments but the apartments are luxury apartments and the cost up to $1800 per month for a one-bedroom apartment. I also went along the 83 route which serves Mission Hills and I saw a for sale sign on the route and I look at the flyer and asking price was more than $1.6 million. This is not the land use the next transit successful. I have been speaking with Metro reporter Andrew Bowen, my thinks - my thanks.. My pleasure.

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.
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."