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June, 2003

Golden Gate Transit to Slash Services
By Carol Sterritt


   It is an institution, much of it on wheels, with more than 320 million dollars in assets. It employs countless people, everyone from secretaries to welders and painters, structural engineers, and of course, its drivers. You may think of it as your ride to work, or your ride home from a friend's when you're too tired to drive. It is the Golden Gate Bridge District, and its fleet of buses and ferries.
   Recently thousands of people in Marin and Sonoma were shocked by the Bridge District's recent announcement. Due to a $202 million budget crisis, significant cuts in service are being considered. Since the Marin County Transit Board contracts the services of Golden Gate Bridge District to provide our County with its transit system, the Bridge District's forlorn financial system is our loss, too. According to proposed scenarios, the transit cuts could total as much as $20 million. Familiar and traditional routes would be slashed back. Some routes would go from every half hour to once an hour. Others would simply be axed.
   These cutback decisions will involve a large and varied group of riders. People in Sonoma trying to make their way into San Rafael or points south, including San Francisco, are now at a loss as to how they will commute. There are West Marinites, immigrants from the Canal, Belvedere executives and Marin City college students all shaking their heads and asking, "What do I do now?" The story is a familiar one-a public agency, bloated through the good years now desperate and struggling to survive. (Does anyone else remember that multi-million dollar bridge party the District threw back in 1987?)
   Various rationales from the District Board have been made: insurance premiums that skyrocketed in the wake of 9-11, decreased ridership on ferries and buses due to the economic decline, expensive seismic retrofitting along with renovation of bridge cables, the $14 million purchase of the Mendocino ferry, and the purchase of 14 new buses for Marin County, etc. Which of these items is truly responsible for bringing the transit service to its knees is questionable. Some commuters feel the obvious answer is not one or even several of the above but a larger issue-poor management.
   We might try and examine the last audit, concluded in December of 2002. Hashing through the numbers, most individuals would end up pulling at their hair. The common operating procedure at Golden Gate seems to be to spend $3 for every $1 that is taken in as revenue. For instance, during 2002, bus fares gave the District a whooping $16.5 million in operating revenues. However, operating expenses came to an even more impressive $66.7 million. Fortunately, the state and Federal governments made grants totaling over 15 million dollars. So the actual ratio of spending comes down to $ 2 for every $ 1 dollar taken in.
   Details of spending for bus transit operations were quite similar in 2001. The District took in 17 million in fares and spent 62.3 million. The state and Federal monies totaled over 13 million for that time period. As I examined this report, a puzzle emerged. Bridge officials have been quoted as saying that it is falling revenue from both bridge tolls and from the decline in ferry and bus passengers that are financially impacting the District so negatively. But the audit figures show that in 2002 a significant increase in state and Federal monies just about makes up for this decline. The Bridge Officials don't mention that offset.
   Furthermore, although the numbers of people coming across the Bridge fell in 2002, the fact that the bridge toll is now at $ 5 took up some of the slack. Still we must consider the major expenditures. Sixty-one million dollars were made available for the seismic retrofitting of the Golden Gate bridge itself. Included in those monies are the bills for renovating the bridge cables. Mendocino obtained a ferry; Marin County obtained 14 new buses. It can be argued that the ferry was needed. But I question if the buses were needed, at least in the current configuration as gas guzzling behemoths.
   For as we examine the cutbacks, a significant trend emerges. Some of the mid-day bus routes are not high in ridership. Across America, small college towns and cities with more savvy to their planning now have shuttle-sized buses (really, nothing more than oversized vans.) These cost a lot less to purchase, and also cost a great deal less to operate. I rode the Route 20 home from San Rafael to Sausalito on May 20th. I did this during one of its mid-day runs. At no time were there more than twelve people on the bus. By the time that the bus rode through my home city, there were only three of us. A van could have done this job a lot, lot cheaper.
   Later that day, I sat through one of several scheduled public hearings. This meeting was attended by most of the nineteen Golden Gate Bridge District Board members. The public eagerly filled the San Rafael City Council Chambers to overflow capacity. The meeting began at 7 p.m. and was still going when I left at 10 p.m. Many community members signed up to speak and each person was allowed three to four minutes to convey their thoughts on the coming crisis.
   Here's what almost all of these people agreed upon: this is a crisis that will affect nearly everyone who lives in Sonoma, San Francisco, or Marin. It will affect not just transit patrons but anyone who even occasionally uses surface streets or the freeway. Once the proposed cuts are in place, countless people will be forced back into their own cars or the cars of a carpool. Many of the people now using commuter buses, filling them to overflow during rush hour, will soon be on the road in individual vehicles. This means increased gridlock, starting as far north as the city of Sonoma, and extending into San Francisco itself. As one part of the cutback policy comes into play, commuters who still ride the few routes not affected by outright elimination will find that their buses will no longer go all the way into the city of San Francisco. Rather, on the new schedule, they will be required to transfer to Muni transit buses at the Bridge toll plaza. This will cost each rider a great deal of time, and the additional fare for the Muni.
   Likewise, Sonoma commuters who previously stayed on their buses from Sonoma all the way into San Francisco will have to transfer at San Rafael. Many speakers addressed the fact that these changes will add as much as an hour to a commute that is already an hour long one way.
   A constant theme of speakers at the May 20th hearing was that bus and ferry fares should simply be raised. Indeed, the fare system in Marin County that Golden Gate has employed for years has never kept up with inflation. Along with raising the fare, the idea of raising bridge tolls came up. Mention was made that in New York City, bridges are now $9 a vehicle to cross into the city. One of the reasons that officials there took that step was to limit traffic-which now chugs along Manhattan boulevard at a resounding 7 miles an hour.
   Another theme was that of social justice. If fares were raised, this should affect only those willing and able to pay for such an increase. Other patrons, and among them we can include college students, the disabled, and low income people, should have a discount card, much like seniors do, in order to still afford their transportation needs. 
   One or two speakers addressed the severe financial neglect that the transit system has been battered by. "Did this two hundred million dollar deficit really spring out of nowhere overnight," several community attendees pondered out loud. "And why," asked one speaker, "didn't the District Board ever consider the possibility of selling bonds as a remedy to the situation." Other public agencies do things like issuing bonds. Why not Golden Gate?
   There were countless pleas from speakers on behalf of residents too poor and intimidated by the system to come and speak for themselves. Many of the bus cuts would heavily impact the immigrant population found mostly in the San Rafael Canal district. Buses would still be operating at 5 o'clock in the evening. (Although under the new proposals, they will be severely overcrowded.) So workers would still get to work. However, the buses to take them home when their shifts end six or seven hours later would no longer be running. This impact will affect not just the workers but the restaurant and hotel businesses, their patrons, and many other service-based industries. The immigrant population simply does not earn enough money at these jobs to allow them to live in Marin and to afford a car. 
   The next scheduled hearing on this issue will be on May 29th, two or three days before this paper goes out. In June, the staff recommendations will go to the Transportation Committee on June 12th. The Board will take final actions on June 27th. In July, the new bus schedules and driver assignments will occur.
   Try to be part of the solution. Be Pro-Active now, rather than Re-Active later. Call or write the Golden Gate Bridge District. (Their website, which has comment forms available, is "goldengate.org".)
   Also now is the time to contact your Supervisor. Since the County contracts out our transit services to Goldern Gate, it is a wise idea to think of taking control of the transit issue. With local control, perhaps we would see things like smaller sized shuttle vans. And we might no longer see thing like the speeding bus blinking its "Not in Operation" sign at you, as you stand, like a character out of Ionesco, vainly waiting for Godot.

 

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