Sunday, November 20, 2011

SamTrans plans radical service adjustments in 2012

Most SamTrans lines are beneath industry standards for both amount of trip subsidized and boardings per hour, according to officials at the transit system.

SamTrans, San Mateo County's mass transit authority, has been bleeding financially for years. In 2009, the agency cut service by about seven percent (down from the 15 percent initially proposed) and raised fares by 25 cents each way in order to trim about $7 million from its budget.

Even so, the cuts have not been enough. SamTrans has been running a "structural deficit" (one in which even in good economic times, expenditures exceed revenue) for almost a decade. This past fiscal year, that deficit initially amounted to nearly $30 million, leading to -- among other things -- a two-thirds cut in the District's contribution to Caltrain (which almost doomed the latter agency). SamTrans Chief Executive Mike Scanlon told me last year that while reserves had covered losses in previous years, it was "only a couple" more years until those reserves were depleted. Some have even theorized that SamTrans is on the brink of dissolution because of its poor financial state.

So it's no surprise that the agency is looking to completely revamp its service. The district is formulating what it calls the "SamTrans Service Plan," using a combination of professional planning, consulting and public input at a series of public workshops along the Peninsula.

The objective, according to SamTrans documents is to identify both service strengths and areas for improvement, as well as seek to improve ridership over the next five to 15 years. Ultimately, the agency seeks to become a more "market-responsive" entity.

"Our goal is to increase ridership and respond to the different markets in our community," said SamTrans planner Marisa Espinosa to about 20 members of the public and a number of transit officials gathered Wednesday at SamTrans headquarters.

SamTrans facts:
Vehicles: 399
Bus stops: 2,564

Bus operators: 294
Mechanics: 90
Administrative*: 301
Total: 685
*(Shared with Caltrain and San Mateo Transportation Authority)

Each weekday, according to the National Transit Database, more than 51,300 trips are taken on SamTrans -- less than one-tenth the number handled by San Francisco Muni. Passenger fares cover only about 18.6 percent of SamTrans' operating costs (actually an above-average figure for a suburban bus district), meaning that each bus rider's trip is subsidized about $5.14 from tax dollars.

In a series of public meetings culminating in a Wednesday workshop at the District's headquarters in San Carlos, officials gauged public reaction to three different alternatives for SamTrans' future. SamTrans planners and consultants briefed attendees about the process, including a summary of recent ridership studies, and collected instant feedback from clicker devices supplied to audience proposals about a series of proposed service adjustments.

The first alternative was simply to leave service more or less as it is now. While most of the audience liked that such an alternative would not drastically cut service, a full 50 percent of those voting thought the biggest drawback of that scenario was that it reduced opportunities for investment in new or productive service. Support for the "stand pat" alternative was lukewarm, with only 23 percent of the voters strongly supporting it.

Scenario number two would drastically increase service on the heavily traveled routes on El Camino Real, to as little as 10 minutes peak service between Daly City and Redwood City and 15 minute (all day) between Redwood City and Palo Alto. But such an increase would come as the price of reducing service on local, cross-town routes in San Mateo County. Some poor-performing routes (specifically lines 53, 58, 72, 132, 141, 280 and 294) might face elimination altogether.

While 73 percent of those voting thought that more-frequent service on El Camino Real would be the best outcome in this scenario, 7/12ths of those voting were not happy with the trade-off of cutting service to other routes. Only 19 percent of the voters strongly supported scenario number two, while 50 percent either somewhat or strongly did not support the scenario.

The problem with an El Camino Real emphasis, in my opinion, is that it is based on a false premise. Certainly the ECR routes are the most crowded, but that's because service is already so geared to serving the ECR corridor -- going back to at least the 1998 reorganization of SamTrans' service, which forced most service onto El Camino Real. I believe that if SamTrans is to attract the discretionary rider, it needs to have significant service near people's homes then get them onto ECR or to a train station for a longer commute.

The third scenario may be the most revolutionary, and potentially shows the most promise. This scenario would invest in the productive El Camino Real corridor, but also invest services in the "core market" areas (where housing denisty and transit use are greatest) of Daly City, South San Francisco, San Mateo, Redwood City and East Palo Alto. While some areas of the county might see reduced service (sorry Belmont) and there would be less service into downtown San Francisco, other services would gain.

To me, the best part of this plan is a service I have long advocated for: a limited-stop bus along El Camino Real. For nine years on the SamTrans Citizens Advisory Committee, I told administrators that it shouldn't take almost two hours to get from Daly City to Redwood City on the bus (some rush hour trips hit this mark). A bus that stops only once a mile or so (instead of the 1/4-mile between most stops) would cut a significant portion off that time. Santa Clara County VTA's line 522, which I took frequently while working in Santa Clara over the summer, has been a great success.

Besides the limited stop service, the frequency of regular buses on ECR would increase and important cross-town routes, like the 130 in Daly City/South San Francisco and the 296 (from East Palo Alto to Redwood City), would also come more often. Fully 58 percent of the audience somewhat or strongly supported scenario three (I was in that latter group).

Based on public input during the recent workshops, planners are scheduled to come out with a preliminary proposal over the winter. Following another round of public comment, a final proposal for service adjustments should be before SamTrans' Board of Directors in Spring 2012. SamTrans officials said they welcome continuing public input. Comments can be made online at, SamTrans on Facebook, or by calling (650) 508-6338.

Some of SamTrans' most heavily subsidized routes may face elimination under new service proposals. The route with the largest subsidy, Line 38, is used to transport homeless individuals to the Safe Harbor shelter near San Francisco International Airport.

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