Trains, buses face declines in ridership and revenues
By Mike Rosenberg/MediaNews Group
"After enduring the most brutal year in the history of Bay Area public transit systems, train and bus operators are barreling down a track toward bankruptcy, 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 public transit has entered a death spiral.Vallejo has had to cut services and raise fares, he added.
For the first time, fewer riders are boarding the Capitol Corridor train service, resulting in a recent 13 percent decline, Halls said.
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
Six major agencies have lost at least 7 percent of their riders in the last year. Some officials fear they'll never get them back.
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 6 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 rising costs, vanishing state subsidies and declining tax revenues are shared by all 28 of the area's transit agencies. Without fundamental changes, they 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 report by the regional Metropolitan Transportation Commission concluded, their current track leads to bankruptcy.
One of transit's main problems these days is simple, brutal arithmetic. The average Bay Area commute is 24 miles round-trip. In 2008, someone who drives a car that gets 24 miles a gallon was saving $1.57 on gas each day by taking public transportation. But most daily transit tickets are 50 cents to $1 costlier now, so the saving are sharply dropping.
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 have seen their routes vanish.
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.
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 by nearly 7 percent starting Monday.
Caltrain recently faced such dire money woes that its board declared a fiscal emergency.
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.
For all, a long-term deficit remains.
"I think this is by far the most difficult time we've seen in public transit," said AC Transit Board Vice President Chris Peeples. "We've had ups and downs with changes in the economy, but this is the worst. the chickens are coming home to roost." With nothing in reserve and a bigger deficit, Caltrain has cut eight of its 98 weekday trains to stay afloat.
The circumstance is hardly unique.
"This is certainly the biggest deficit that BART has ever encountered in its over 37 years of operations," said BART spokeswoman Luna Salaver, referring to that agency's four-year,$310 million budget gap."