Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Public hearing on SamTrans cuts brings out crowd

Just a part of the crowd at Wednesday's SamTrans Board meeting regarding service cuts.

Note: This post was live-blogged from inside the SamTrans Board room as the meeting progressed. Apologies for it seeming disjointed.

SAN CARLOS, Calif. — A packed house offered their opinions about the proposed cuts to SamTrans service at the District’s Board of Directors meeting Wednesday afternoon.

The proposed cuts were blogged about in this post.

Comments from the numerous speakers at the meeting will be added to 1,436 comments made at community forums, CAC meetings and mailed, e-mailed and telephoned comments to District officials over the past two months. The Board will make its decision on the level of cuts at its September meeting.

The relatively limited capacity of the Bacciocco Auditorium was quickly reached, with a line of standees along the back of the room. There was an announcement that the nearby SamTrans cafeteria was wired to carry the sound as well, and about 40 people took up the offer.

SamTrans Chief Operating Officer Chuck Harvey said, "The agency is in an financial crisis," noting that the district is facing a $28.4 million deficit. Thus far, prior to any service cuts, SamTrans has saived: $750,000 with a freeze on administrative raises; $250,000 by reorganizing; $1.75 million with a hiring freeze; and $1 million in fuel hedging.

Harvey noted that there had been many calls to raise fares to entirely cover the deficit, but such a measure would not be enough. "The problem is we’d have to raise the fares to four times what they are today, because we only get 20 percent of our operating costs through fares."

Fifty-one speakers addressed the board over the two-hour open comment section of the meeting. Highlights included:
* “SamTrans is the best part of my life,” said one elderly woman who asked that the eligible discount fare not be raised and that line 391 be allowed to continue to downtown San Francisco.
* One rider said she lives in San Jose and works at a Redwood City school and begged that line 270 be retained. Besides Caltrain passes, she also buys VTA and SamTrans passes (perhaps unaware that a two-zone Caltrain pass is taken as local fare on both VTA and SamTrans).
* Half Moon Bay’s interim City Manager, Michael Dolder, stated that SamTrans did not properly take into account greenhouse gas emissions as mandated by the California Environmental Quality Act.
* Howard Cohen, superintendent of the South San Francisco Unified School District, pleaded for the directors to not cut youth service: "Young people do not leave their constitutional rights at the school gates. I believe they do not leave them at the public bus doors as well."
* CAC chair Wayne Kingsford-Smith outlined CAC opinions outlined at last week's meeting. (My thoughts from last week are presented below).
* Dave Taylor, who claimed he “represents labor and working class” argued against a fare increase: "Handicapped and seniors have no increases coming up in their paychecks." (Well neither do the rest of us right now, I reply.)
* One lady, arguing for the retention of line 17 on the San Mateo County Coast, noted through a Spanish translator that, “It’s better for seniors to take the bus than have seniors driving.”
* “For the love of God, what is Schwarzengger doing to us?” said an angry supporter of the 295, drawing approvals akin to a revival meeting from several members of the audience. The California governor cut state transit subsidies for the next three to five years after a number of budget initiatives failed in May's special election.
* Menlo Park councilmember Andrew Cohen said that cutting bus service at the same time large infrastructure programs are planned to take place on the Caltrain/California High-Speed Rail tracks 300 feet from his home is like “telling the poorest members of our community to eat cake.”
* SamTrans bus operator Pat Ketcham cautioned against wholesale cuts, stating that his bus is packed after 10 p.m. He said operators are concerned for the low-income riders who utilize the service and that operations staff is aware of the gravity of the financial situation. “The strength of a country is in how it treats its poor,” Ketcham said. “Our drivers are open, we understand reason. We are not closed-minded.”

After closing the hearing, the Board went into a brief recess prior to its regular meeting. As is typical at public hearings, board members were not permitted to discuss the issues related to the public hearing. Redwood City Councilman Jim Hartnett, a member of the SamTrans Board, did make one point in the regular session -- the Board does not have the technical skills to handpick which routes to save and will probably need to pick from the tiered alternatives.

"It's not what choices we have, it's what level we pick," Hartnett said. "From a financial point of view, we could easily justify a 15-percent cut or more. The real change that has to occur is a structural change. We don't have the money in the best of times to provide the level of service we do."

My opinions, as I expressed them at last week’s Citizen’s Advisory Committee meeting:

• Agree with (others) that a centralized, consolidated express bus from Belmont with an additional stop at Hillsdale/101 would be a good cost-saving idea. Though I must state for the record that I do not agree with proposals for having KX skip the airport and have those riders take BART (I have a long-standing disapproval of plans where a higher-priced alternative to SamTrans is promoted until and unless those routes [Caltrain or BART] accept SamTrans fare media).

• I have long favored reducing frequency over absolute cuts, back to the 193 and 282 eliminations a few years ago and the first time the 17 was slated to be eliminated. In particular as relates to the Pescadero to Moss Beach route 17, we cannot cut off our poorest, most-needy customers on the coast.

• I believe that 10 p.m. is absolutely much too early to stop El Camino Real service, even on weekends. Too many of our traditional demographic riders must work unconventional hours. Our downtowns and SFO are open well past midnight. When I was a dispatcher, I know we kept a lot of potentially unfit drivers off the road by suggesting a convenient SamTrans bus.

• I do believe route consolidation might be able to get us some of the savings we need. I do, however, worry that longer routes will mean more fatigue for our operators and want to confirm that they would get appropriate rest for both their safety and ours.

• Symbolism is important – to the public, the operators and mechanics, and to me. If SamTrans administration is going to get any wage concessions from its employees and/or lay them off, it would be a bold, affirmative step if there was an equivalent cut in administrative costs, either through wage cuts or redundancies.

• Finally, this process seems to have moved along haphazardly. To say the district needs to cut costs by an undetermined point and then leave it up to the board to make decisions has, I believe, left the public a bit befuddled and made it more difficult for transit advocates to respond. If we had had a definite plan to respond to, rather than a series of “what ifs,” it would have been easier for community groups to come up with a workable alternative. The issues have been too diffuse for my tastes. It almost feels like a cynical attempt by the administration to pick, say, a middle proposal and then have them be able to go to the public looking for congratulations by saying “Hey, we didn’t cut it as much as we could have.”


randomlife said...

What are your thoughts on the upcoming BART strike?

John C. Baker said...

Oy. Obviously it disappoints me tremendously. I generally sympathize with the union, being a former public employee myself. But I think the BART ATU is not gauging the complete lack of public support it will have if the strike takes place. I think mass transit is a vital public utility and these operators are shooting themselves in the foot by going forward with it.