Thursday, July 23, 2009

Catchup week on the blog -- Part 3: SamTrans now faces fare hike

Ian might have to wait a little longer -- and pay more -- for his next SamTrans bus.

There was no good news for riders at this month’s SamTrans Board of Directors meeting. In fact, the bad news from last month was piled upon.

For the first time, transit directors spoke of the potential need – beyond the potential 15 percent service cuts already announced – to raise fares by 25 cents, just months after another fare increase and weeks after SamTrans officials said that no increase would be sought in these troubling times. SamTrans CEO Mike Scanlon said he had heard from some riders that they would prefer a fare increase to serious service cuts.

“It’s a distasteful (idea), but perhaps a little less distasteful than others,” Scanlon said while addressing the Board. “It would be another tool in the toolkit. Whether you use it or not is up to you.”

Scanlon suggested that a fare increase would potentially reduce the need for some of the more harsh service cuts proposed and would translate into a $2 basic fare for SamTrans, with passes going up by the same ratio as cash fares. Scanlon said his “worst dreams” do not envision the fare going beyond $2 at this point.

The proposed cuts (most of which I discussed last month) will be discussed at a series of community meetings (including July 27 at the South San Francisco Municipal Building at 6 p.m.) and a formal public hearing during the Aug. 12 regular Board meeting at 2 p.m. The SamTrans Citizens Advisory Committee (of which your blogger is a member) will also discuss options at its meeting on Aug. 5 at 6:30 p.m.

When the previous fare increase was announced near the end of last year, I had wondered – I admit I do not recall if I raised the possibility with anyone else verbally – whether we should just raise fares to $2 then in order to build a reserve and prevent a situation like the one the District is facing now. It now seems like that would have been a good idea. Oh well, hindsight is 20-20.

But I almost feel Scanlon’s fare proposal is a cynical attempt to either increase fares and say “Hey, at lease we preserved service,” or to have the Board not adopt the fare increase, but make cuts and say, “Hey, at least we kept fares down.”

It’s not helping that SamTrans management’s actions are worrying the rank and file. The District recently made an offer to spare about 20 jobs to the union if it would forego a scheduled pay raise. But, as the details were extremely vague, the proposal was not voted on at the June union meeting.

With as many as 70 layoffs on the table in the fourth quarter of this year, it’s no wonder one operator told me that “people are scared” and another admitted, “We see the economy; we see concessions; we are not without reason.”

But there’s another worry. This recession will not last forever, and times will improve. Ridership tends to rise and fall with the economy (we saw it in the last dot-com bust and boom cycle and, illustratively, SamTrans ridership is down 4.6 percent from this time last year) and it will one day improve – meaning the need for more service and more maintenance staff and bus operators. A little more long term, this is an environmentally conscious county, with more and more people turning to “green” transportation like mass transit. The District will need the staff to serve those people and I worry that mass reductions in staff will make it all the more difficult to increase service when needed.

Of course, that scenario may not come for a long time, and a nearly $30-million deficit now needs to be addressed. Do I have answers? No, not really.

I do think cutting the full 15 percent and eliminating express routes is out of the question (and I say that as an exclusive rider of local routes, BART and Caltrain). Maybe having some more-attractive service, like a limited-stop line on El Camino Real, will help draw riders and funds. I also think some line consolidation, minor service cuts, some modest union givebacks and, yes, the fare increase may be necessary. But a line needs to be held after this. We need to preserve transit professionals’ jobs with a view toward a busy transit future and need to do things with a mind toward attracting riders, not scaring them off.

There were also some interesting Caltrain facts presented at the July 8 meeting: a rash of Caltrain suicides have been in the news lately, but staff pointed out that there are an average of nine suicides on the Caltrain tracks annually – that’s nine out of about a 250 annual suicide average in the three-county service area (or 3.6% of people who decide to kill themselves in San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties). Chuck Harvey, Caltrain and SamTrans' COO, also said about 40 people have been taken into custody in recent months for their own protection.

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