Whether it’s checking out the Del Mar’s latest midnight flick or relaxing on the beaches of Davenport, Santa Cruz citizens have always relied on their city’s buses to get them there. Recently, however, the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District (SCMTD) board of directors announced possible cuts to the Metro Station’s bus operating routes. The proposed cuts include the merger of routes three and seven, along with termination of the 27X and Night Owl routes. If made official, the September cuts are predicted to alleviate the Metro’s growing deficit.
“With the economic recession, there are fewer people going to work,” said Mike Rotkin, Santa Cruz City Mayor and Metro Director. “Unemployment continues to hover at around 15 percent in Santa Cruz.”
For years now, the SCMTD has faced budgetary constraints and concerns. Despite the passage of Proposition 42 — legislation that was meant to assist funding public transportation across the state — the SCMTD has yet to see any substantial amount of money reach them in the eight years it has been in effect.
According to Rotkin, if it weren’t for the administration’s prudent choices in years past, the Metro could be facing an even larger deficit with even more serious cuts to be made.
“Problems got serious a few years ago,” Rotkin said. “Large cuts had to be made in 2003 in which we got rid of all of our underperforming routes.”
Now, similarly, the underperforming routes face the chopping block.
A route’s performance is determined by the average number of riders the bus receives per day. Routes with high ridership rates, such as the ones that go up the hill to UC Santa Cruz, are not likely to face any cuts in the long term.
However, a low ridership route may find itself with fewer buses, be merged with another nearby route, or even face termination.
Raising fares as an alternative to the cuts was also considered by the board of directors, and was found to be implausible. Rotkin said raised fares would likely cost the SCMTD more money in the long run from riders lost. In addition, the funds collected from the fare boxes account for just 22 percent of the SCMTD budget, with the majority of the district’s funds coming from the local and state governments.
Mayor Rotkin referred to the cuts as being relatively moderate. Besides the routes and fares, few other drastic measures have been taken. There are no intentions to lay off any personnel, nor deny service to any parts of the county currently being serviced.
“We are trying to have enough buses going to provide a seat to everyone who needs one,” Rotkin said. “No route is totally cut — the stop might be moved a block or the wait might increase a while, but the county will still have its buses.”
Still, the planned budgetary cuts have encountered resistance within the Santa Cruz community. UCSC Transportation & Parking Services Director Larry Pageler sees hope in at least saving the Night Owl route.
“The Night Owl service has been open to campus students and faculty for years,” Pageler said. “Our intention is to keep the program running, hopefully for seven days a week.”
With a rate of over $70 per hour per bus, Pageler hopes to keep the Night Owl service afloat by cutting out the last operating hour. In addition, funds that would go towards paying the 27X — upwards of $40,000 a year — could go towards sustaining the Night Owl route.
Pageler was also optimistic about replacing the 27X.
“Historically, we’ve had problems fitting a bus schedule to students’ Monday, Wednesday, Friday courses [compared] to their Tuesday, Thursday ones,” Pageler said. “With somewhat more sophisticated scheduling software, we might be able to arrange for a more appropriate route.”
A Metro bus operator, who wished to remain anonymous, expressed frustration with the plan.
“At the moment, we’re down 15 people from attrition,” said the bus operator. “We’re all having to step up to work overtime as it is.”
Besides consistently having to work overtime, Metro bus operators also find themselves working with outdated and aging equipment. Some of the buses themselves, with a slated operating lifetime of about 12 years, have been in operation for “30 or more years,” Rotkin said.
“Truly, what’s kept us from having to make further cuts and layoffs has been the Metro’s workforce itself,” Rotkin said. “The bus operators’ commitments to overtime, everyone’s sacrifices to make do with antiquated computers and old desks … they’ve all done an amazing job with saving money.”
The bus operator, however, remained wary about the board of directors’ proposed cuts.
“Watch — privatizing the Metro by bringing in an outside company to run it is next,” the bus operator said. “It’s a union-busting ploy.”
With the next SCMTD Board of Directors meeting scheduled for April 23, the board will soon begin opening up the discussion over the proposed Metro cuts with the Santa Cruz community. There, people who share the sentiments of TAPS Director Pageler and the bus operator may voice their opinions.
“It’s all been done with Band-Aids,” said the bus operator. “It’s tragic.”