Illustration by Tom Clary

The Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit Department (SCMTD) is asking the difficult questions before redesigning the bus system’s operating routes.

“How do you balance serving as much of the county and at the same time providing service in those areas where you really know that you are going to have high ridership?” said SCMTD’s Schedule Analyst Carolyn Derwing. “These are two competing entities.”

This year, SCMTD will cut $5.4 million out of its system, said SCMTD CEO Alex Clifford. After nearly exhausting its reserve — an unsustainable one-time revenue source — Clifford labeled the current state of the Metro a “capital and funding crisis” in an appeal to Congress in July. Currently, the discussion regarding route changes or cuts is on pause until research is done.

“Our hope is that the process, as we go through it, will reveal ways that we can reallocate our service and increase ridership,” Clifford said. “But we are talking about significant service reductions to this service that we provide the community.”

After receiving a state grant, SCMTD hired a consultant group, Transportation Management and Design Inc. (TMD), to help collect information needed to redesign the routes.

Kristina Svensk, a senior associate at TMD, said the consulting group will examine the county’s demographic profile, housing conditions and number of jobs in an area. Survey takers will perform a ride check on a limited number of bus routes to see who is taking the bus and where they are getting off.

Svensk and other representatives will also facilitate conversations with the community at “pop-up” meetings in busy local areas to address concerns of county residents. This will provide a more detailed picture of ridership before entering the redesign process.

On Oct. 23, Svensk and civil engineer William Chow met with UC Santa Cruz students at the Science Hill bus stop for UCSC’s first “pop-up.” At this meeting, the seventh in the county, Svensk and Chow asked students how they would direct Metro money if they were in charge, what changes would result in them riding the bus more often and what they found to be successful. The major complaint from students is packed buses.

Svensk, who has worked in land use and transportation planning for over 10 years, said she has a personal connection to Santa Cruz’s redesign project. She grew up visiting an uncle who was quadriplegic and traveled using the Santa Cruz Metro from his home in Aptos.

“I have seen how difficult it can be to move around,” Svensk said. “We want fixed routes to be accessible to people with disabilities.”

The teams at SCTMD and TMD are working to make existing routes as efficient as possible to increase accessibility and ridership. Svensk added this would include examining topography and difficulties due to dilapidating sidewalks which make stops hard to reach, especially for those with limited mobility.

SCTMD will not, however, change its ParaCruz service — door-to-door service for people with mobility impairments — which increased fares and changed hours in September. The department did acknowledge that any change could impact those with limited mobility.

“When you possibly start talking about cutting service then it can be very emotional thing for our passengers, especially if they are transit dependent,” said SCMTD’s Schedule Analyst Carolyn Derwing.

Derwing also said riders are mostly understanding regarding the recent $2 increase of the Highway 17 Express fare and the limited number of Metro buses that loop through the UCSC campus. She speculates the department’s large skew of service toward UCSC could become a problem for local riders when cuts are made to Metro services.

“When the campus is in session [the students] are approximately 50 percent of our ridership — that’s significant,” said SCMTD CEO Alex Clifford. “We want to make sure we spend quality time hearing the student opinion.”

According to a 2012 study, 80 percent of SCMTD’s ridership do not own vehicles. Even though the amount of students using public transportation is already high, Transportation and Parking Services (TAPS) Director Larry Pageler said his department is still trying to promote alternatives to driving.

“The more we discourage people from parking, the less we make,” Pageler said, noting the irony in the department’s strategy. TAPS is facing financial woes and carries an annual deficit which Pageler says is approaching $2.5 million overall.

Both SCMTD and TAPS are struggling with outdated technology and an increasing demand for transportation from students. The Transportation Fee hasn’t been raised since 2008 to match the increase in operational costs like salaries, benefits and fuel. The fee covers student use of the shuttle buses, Metro buses, disability van and bike shuttle.

TAPS Assistant Director Susan Willats said while there hasn’t been a proposal to raise the student fee since tuition increases in 2009, the department will potentially propose a fee increase in the spring campus-wide election.

Both transportation departments face uncertainty going into the next year. There are hopes to modernize by updating old equipment and implementing GPS tracking, but before that can happen, both departments must address their debt and promote an increase in ridership.

“We can’t keep riding this rollercoaster of financial instability,” said SCMTD CEO Alex Clifford, in a note to the public this fall.