Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Interesting night...

Well, I got back from the RTA's "public hearing" on the proposed fare hike about an hour ago, and I'll talk about that in a minute, but first let's talk about how I got there.

First off- the way the routes are set up in my area, getting from my house to RTA headquarters moves perpendicular to most travel patterns, and either involves changing buses a few miles away downtown or walking two blocks over from a bus stop. Considering I have a foldable scooter, I chose the latter. So I got on the #51 Crest Cruiser and rode it 'round to Iowa and Blaine, where the bus book clearly indicates (with one of those little "T" symbols) a transfer between the 10, 14, and the aforementioned 51. Pull the stop cord... Sign lights up... bell goes "ding!"... driver speeds right past the stop. Tells me that they don't stop there, per her supervisor/contracting company, and that her next stop is at Massachusets. (That's a LONG block away. Probably two and change standard city blocks.) She's nice about the whole thing, but I'm still a ways away from where I want to be, watching the #10 roll away without me on it. Ah well... it happens. So I scooter on down Blaine to RTA headquarters.

Get to RTA... it's deserted. I'm about a half hour early, so I expect that. What I didn't expect was that it would stay that deserted throughout the entire public comment period. (1800h-1900h)

That's right. I was the only person to show up in all of Riverside. 250,000 people, thousands of boardings a day in this city alone, flyers littering every bus... and where were you, Riverside?

Anyway, so I essentially had a personal audience with the agency's CFO and Director of Marketing. Nice guys, very friendly. I get the feeling that a lot of their meetings are either as empty as tonight, or worse. They also articulated a strong case, from the agency's perspective, for their fare increase. Matching my points from the earlier post point-for-point:
  • RTA's already more expensive than other major operators: The agency says that pretty much every other operator is implementing a fare increase as well, as they're all in essentially the same boat. Furthermore, RTA, unlike most other major SoCal operators, has a large rural footprint that is more expensive to maintain than urban/suburban service.
  • Ridership increases should have driven revenue growth: They have... but not enough, and possibly not reliably. A lot of the new riders have been riding under programs like CityPass or UPass, which provide significantly less revenue to the agency. Furthermore, new riders are fickle- growth like this is unprecedented, and so can't be reliably factored in to projections. If the bottom falls out of ridership and there's no money for fuel, life at a bus company starts to get real bad, real quick.
  • Service hasn't improved: According to the Agency, yes it has. It's just harder to notice. Because of traffic patterns, more buses have to be added to even maintain the current schedule hours. This may not translate into visible service extensions, but it does translate into more costs in the form of wages, pensions, healthcare, and fuel. Furthermore, I was assured that late-night and reverse commute service may be on the way soon, as part of some new federal pilot program grants.
  • Why aren't there ads on buses?: Because the Board hasn't approved them, but keep watching the meetings. They might. The program that I earlier reported was rejected has, after all, not been rejected. (Sorry!) They're just taking a long while with bids. We should see some movement on the issue in December or January. Hopefully it'll be movement towards ads... but at least some movement is movement.
  • Where's my BRT?: The Agency said that BRT's in the plan, and they'll implement it the moment they can find funding for it. Let's hope they find it soon.
  • What about sales taxes/state/federal money?: Basically, I got two impressions here. One, that they'll take all the state and federal money the can get, but it's just not rolling in. Two, Riverside County's Measure A sales tax is a pittance compared to other regions' similar taxes, and it's not RTA's decision where it goes, but RCTC's. Coming soon on RiR- going to the RCTC public meetings and asking them why Malfunction Junction gets billions while RapidLink gets buried. Stay tuned.
Lemme say that I'm still not stoked about the fare increase. However, I can at least see the Agency's rationale. Hopefully some more money will flow to public transport under President Obama, and hard decisions like this won't be necessary at RTA again.

And then, as an interesting anecdote to end the night, I scootered back over to University to catch the #16 home, got to the bus stop and was greeted by the sight of five RPD's and two RFD's at the stop. Don't know what happened, didn't ask, don't care... but you see such an interesting side of the city riding the bus, don't you? (Please note that this shouldn't be an indictment of public transport safety... there were like 10 cops there, dealing with one angry woman. Probably was the safest place on University Avenue at that moment. It still made me chuckle.)

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