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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Running on empty: Bay Area transit in crisis

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After enduring the most brutal year in the history of Bay Area public transit, train and bus operators are barreling down a track toward bankruptcy, the San Jose, Calif., Mercury News reports. The near-inevitable result will be costlier and longer commutes for all, whether they ride or drive.

From BART to Caltrain to the Valley Transportation Authority, every Bay Area transit agency has increased fares and reduced train and bus service to plug deep budget holes. But the changes have produced fewer riders and even less revenue - leading some to worry that the transit system has entered a death spiral.

Already, more than a million riders are spending extra money and time each day just to get around. And a staggering 66,000 daily riders have abandoned Bay Area transit in the past year - twice the number of drivers that go through the Dumbarton Bridge toll plaza every day.

Six major agencies - BART, VTA, Caltrain, SamTrans on the Peninsula, County Connection in the East Bay and Golden Gate Transit - have lost at least seven percent of their riders in the last year. Some officials fear they'll never get them back. While the Bay Area may be facing an especially alarming situation, transit agencies nationwide have lost six percent of their riders in the past year as they struggle through the recession.

And transit agencies are warning that the worst may be yet to come.

Consider the plight of BART. The agency's financial hole has only deepened since it recently phased out 100 jobs, hiked fares more than six percent, upped parking rates, and started running three trains an hour instead of four on weeknights and weekends. BART has lost $32 million in sales tax revenue in the past 12 months, and it has seen $129 million in state subsidies disappear in the last three years.

The problems of rising costs, vanishing state subsidies and declining tax revenues are shared by all 28 of the area's transit agencies. Without fundamental changes, these Bay Area transit agencies project a cumulative budget shortfall in 25 years of $8.5 billion, and a capital projects deficit of $17.2 billion. In other words, as a recent report by the regional Metropolitan Transportation Commission concluded, their current track leads to bankruptcy.

Transit agency officials began fighting back in late 2009 by joining forces with regional transportation officials and outside experts to form the Transit Sustainability Project, which may lead to transit mergers, more efficient service and new taxes by 2012.

The effects of the transit crisis reach far beyond those who ride buses and trains. Dozens of transit executives, transportation experts, commuters, business leaders and politicians interviewed for this series agree: The trouble facing Bay Area transit is certain to pack more congestion on roads, cripple the region's ability to rebound from the current recession, increase the region's contribution to global warming and disrupt the lives of those who rely on public transportation.

One of transit's main problems these days is simple, brutal arithmetic. The average Bay Area commute is 24 miles round-trip. Someone who drives a car that gets 24 miles a gallon is saving $1.57 on gas each day compared with the peak in 2008. Most daily transit tickets, in contrast, are 50 cents to $1 costlier than last year, even with discount bulk passes. That's a swing of about $2 to $2.50 each weekday - or an annual hit of $520 to $650 for the transit

El Cerrito resident Katie Murphy, 50, has her own version of that equation. She began vanpooling to work at the University of California-San Francisco in October, having grown tired of the BART and Muni fare increases and the time-consuming commute. Three days a week on the van is saving her $60 a month, and it's adding up for her family.

Beyond cost, commuters are also finding it less convenient to take trains and buses. Because of recent funding problems, BART weeknight and weekend riders now have to wait up to 20 minutes for a train to arrive. Non-commute time Caltrain riders can find themselves stuck on platforms for an hour. Thousands of bus riders in the East Bay, South Bay, Peninsula and San Francisco, including many elderly and low-income residents, have seen their routes vanish.

Even commuters who take the area's most transit-friendly trips may now find driving a more efficient option.

Eight Bay Area News Group reporters recently took four commutes into downtown San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland and Walnut Creek, with one reporter driving and the other taking transit. In each case, the driver arrived at least a half-hour earlier. Other than the trip to downtown San Francisco, which was much costlier for the driver because of the price of parking, the trip price varied by only a few dollars.

The problem is that as the region's economy strengthens over the next few years, its highways are certain to jam up again. But it is an open question how many of the transit options that commuters abandoned will still be around, awaiting their return.

The pace of the developing transit crisis accelerated recently and continues to gain steam. Bay Area transit operators began losing local revenues because of the recession and have been stripped of $532 million in state aid during the past three years, including $77 million at the VTA and $60 million at AC Transit. California is now one of 15 states that provides no state subsidy for transit.

Transit operators responded by taking routes away from riders and charging them more, resulting in fewer riders and even less revenue.

The VTA, which saw its budget gap quadruple to $98 million in just four months last year, is cutting bus service by 8 percent and light rail operations by nearly 7 percent starting.

Caltrain recently faced such dire money woes that its board declared a fiscal emergency. It could have tripled fares and still faced a shortfall. SamTrans eliminated all but one express route and increased fares by 25 cents, but it reduced its $28.4 million deficit by just $7.3 million.

AC Transit, trying to overcome a $57-million deficit, will slash 8.4 percent of its bus service in March to save $9.6 million. County Connection has lost one-fifth of its revenue and eliminated one-fourth of its service. Muni changed nearly half its bus routes in December and raised round-trip fares by a dollar. For all, a long-term deficit remains.

Authorities agree that the current fiscal crisis, and the way transit agencies have had to react, is unprecedented.

"I think this is by far the most difficult time we've seen in public transit," said AC Transit Board Vice President Chris Peeples, a 12-year board member and 30-year transit rider. "We've had ups and downs with changes in the economy, but this is the worst. With a serious recession and the state taking away local transit money, the chickens are coming home to roost."

Early last decade, in the wake of the dot-com crash and the post-Sept. 11 recession, Caltrain ridership plunged. Still, the agency had enough money to invest in more service to raise revenues. The operator began construction on an expansion in 2002. It introduced the baby bullet train in June 2004, then quickly began running 22 of the zippy trains per day. That service is now Caltrain's most popular and economically efficient.

Officials say that strategy was not an option this time around. With nothing in reserve and a bigger deficit, Caltrain has cut eight of its 98 weekday trains to stay afloat.

Even the most optimistic transit officials say they won't return to better financial footing until ridership rises and taxpayer subsidies return - and that will take years.

And it might not be possible without new taxes and investments, plus more efficient service. So far, none of the major transit agencies has been able to figure out how to get there.

"I'm not sure that the Answer, with a capital A, exists," said Metropolitan Transportation Commission spokesman John Goodwin.

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