THE SUTTERTOWN NEWS
Volume XVIII, Number 47
February 18 - 25, 1993


TRANSIT MAN AND THE BUDGET OF DOOM

By Bill Kirk

Note: When we checked in last (September 12, 1991 issue), Transit Man, aka Tom Matoff, was basking in the glow of three straight years of ridership increases. Regional Transit's general manager had been on the job, in fact, just three years, and both he and RT were riding high on the success of light rail, which had grown to account for one-third of all transit miles traveled.

Matoff, who has lived and breathed transit his entire adult life (he was the first student manager of UCD's bus system and later helped start up light rail systems in Portland and San Jose), seemed well on the way toward turning RT into a big-city transit system. The buses no long stopped running at 7 p.m.

Bolstered by Measure A sales tax funds and new policies that shifted more of RT's resources to major transit routes, buses were running until 10 p.m. downtown and light rail until midnight. Waiting intervals on major bus and rail lines had been shaved to 15 minutes during daytime hours.

It seemed that Matoff and his staff were well on their way toward achieving the near-impossible, turning Sacramento into a town where you did not really need to own a car, where you could have a night on the town via public transit.

Then came last year's budget cuts, prompted by reduced revenues from the state sales tax. RT gets most of its budget monies from the sales tax.

In the current grim economic climate, what are the prospects for maintaining, if not improving, RT service? What about proposed light rail extensions to the south area, Antelope Road and Sunrise Boulevard? In this latest interview, we asked RT's top guy about these and other transit-related issues.


Suttertown: In general, do you feel Sacramento is any more transit oriented than it was when you took over in 1988?

Matoff: Just as there is in most large cities, there is a discernable level of public support for transit in Sacramento. That transit consciousness has remained about the same since my arrival, but I've had the good fortune to be able to capitalize on the baseline of support among city residents as a result of early funding opportunities that brought light rail into the public eye. I'm grateful for the progress we've made, but we have a long way to go.

Suttertown: Given your experience in San Francisco, San Jose and Portland, how do the results you have achieved over the last four years in Sacramento compare?

Matoff: In one way it has been very different. This is the first time I have been in charge of the care and feeding of a whole agency. On the other hand, my experience has been the same because ridership has increased overall much as it did in San Francisco and Portland. You could say I really cut my teeth on public transportation operations in those other cities in preparation for my assignment here.

Suttertown: After a steady climb in RT ridership between 1988 and 1991 from 15 million to 20.4 million per year, what is the current level of RT ridership? Have last year's rate, route and schedule changes caused ridership to drop? (Last year RT's basic fare was increased from $1 to $1.25. Some bus routes that run parallel to rail lines were cut, and late-night bus service on major routes was pared back.)

Matoff: We made some system-wide changes in 1989 and 1990, such as adding bus pass discounts for state workers and extending operating times on some routes. Light rail also made its debut. By 1991, after three successive years of growth, our ridership basically stabilized, increasing slightly into 1992 as a result of some fine tuning of routes and schedules. We also initiated a special pass arrangement with CSUS last year which has attracted a new group of young riders on our buses and trains. However, just a you suggested, budget cuts in mid-1992 forced us to both reduce service and increase fares, causing a decline in our ridership by about two percent.

Suttertown: What have your customers told you since you cut bus service last fall?

Matoff: David Gunn, who was once the general manager of the New York City subway system and is now general manager of the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Transit Authority once said with some conviction, 'In this business you can never expect praise. The most you can hope for is silence.' His statement rings true, but I hope we have been doing better than that.

Downtown we brought the buses closer to the light rail line so transfers would be easier. That part of our plan I believe has been successful. We have a customer service telephone line through which we have received comments both for and against the route and schedule changes. Some passengers have clearly let us know that they have been disadvantaged by the changes and others are thankful that the routes are now closer to where they live or work.

Concerning rider feedback, we conduct rider surveys about once every two years to try to track how people move through the system. So far we have not collected much attitudinal or demographic data on our riders. There is another more subtle aspect to this question about rider feedback. In other systems I am familiar with, I have observed a rather curious principle at work which says that the more heavily a system is used, the more complaints there are from the riders.

For example, the New York subway system takes some unmerciful criticism but it moves eight million people a day very well. It's not a pretty system but it gets the job done. In contrast, pretty systems tend to get good press even when they may not be as effective. I suppose the goal is to have a clean, well-maintained and efficient system. But for that, we aren't just talking money, we're talking a lot of money!

Suttertown: How do you believe city development planning might better support expansion and improvement of Sacramento's transit system vis--vis road layout, office versus commercial versus residential construction downtown, and limitations on parking? What about RT only routes and auto-free districts in the downtown area?

Matoff: In my opinion, there is a lot of room for improvement relative to how city and county development planning integrates regional transit planning. On the positive side, our joint planning staffs have attempted to work closely with each other and we have generally done a good job of long range planning. The difficulties arise when we move from planning to reality.

For example, as a city we are still wedded to the concept that if we increase parking downtown, more people will come to shop. If I may be so bold, I suggest that the parking situation downtown is ludicrous. There is far too much parking which in turn draws more automobile traffic and more congestion. Investing in additional parking as an enticement to residents outside of downtown is like requiring a drunk to invest in a distillery.

Recently there has been some encouraging news about the addition of high density housing in downtown and midtown Sacramento. We need a balance of office, commercial and residential areas throughout downtown and midtown. That kind of mix has been elusive except in a very few areas.

Ideally, there should be people living downtown who can rely on close-in RT service and a widely available RT system to bring people in from the suburbs. Automobile traffic should be more the exception than the rule. There is clearly no way to support a dense downtown population on an automobile basis.

Suttertown: In your previous interviews with us you mentioned one of your principal goals as initiating "timed transfer stations." Presumably, all the buses serving a given area would meet at these stations at half-hour intervals to facilitate passenger transfer between bus lines. Which timed transfer stations have you been able to put in?

Matoff: I feel very strongly about the timed transfer concept. Operating properly, it can significantly reduce the commute time by eliminating the waiting between transfers. In 1989 we implemented the concept at 65th Street Metro Station, Butterfield Station and Arden/Del Paso Station. We also installed smaller transfer stations at Florin Mall and Cosumnes River College. With those changes, we saw and almost immediate increase in ridership.

Suttertown: What obstacles have blocked your efforts to add other timed transfer stations and to make other changes to improve service?

Matoff: I'm not sure you want me to get started talking about the obstacles. The bottom line is if you want a full-service, efficient regional transit system that will get people where they want to go in a reasonable time, you have to have more buses, more light rail cars, more staff; in short, more money. Our operating budget of $53 million is only half of what it should be for a city this size. We get about 25-30 percent of our revenues from fares and the rest from a mix of state and local public sources and some federal operating grants. Chief among the local revenues is one-quarter cent of the state sales tax which is returned to the county.

Although that sales tax source appears secure through next year, there has been talk recently that the state may raid this fund as a deficit busting solution. If that happens, RT will be severely hurt. I believe that if we hope to keep our ridership from slipping and our current inventory of rolling stock operating, we will have to see a local transit support initiative in the near future.

Suttertown: What about federal funding, such as the money for the initial deployment of light rail?

Matoff: Federal money, although getting scarce, can be obtained. However, it's a bit of a Catch-22. Before the feds will give us the capital to build or extend a system, we at the local level must first demonstrate that we will be able to successfully operate it. Ultimately, it gets back to having guaranteed local funding for operations before we can get the federal grants for building.

Suttertown: When you took over at RT in 1988, you noted your desire to expand bus service downtown, extend light rail service to midnight and implement 15-minute service to the city's shopping centers. After already having met all of those goals, have the budget cuts caused to give up any of your previous gains?

Matoff: Actually, we have not given up many of our gains even with the service cuts I mentioned earlier. Let's look at some of the improvement that we have made since 1988. We have fairly saturated the downtown area with bus routes. Along the major transit corridors such as J, L, P and Q Streets and 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th Streets, buses run at least every 15 minutes during the day. There is similar coverage in midtown. In addition, the downtown area fares during non-rush hours are only 25 cents. The light rail also provides 15-minute service along its routes through downtown, and bus service to Sunrise and Arden Fair Malls is frequent, particularly when linked to the trains which run until well after midnight.

Essentially, we have a good "starter" public transportation system in Sacramento. Just like in the movie "Field of Dreams," we have built the system and the people have come. At 5:15 p.m. it is standing room only on the light rail as it makes its way through town toward the Watt/I-80 station. But we haven't gone far enough.

As a public transit agency, I believe we are obligated to provide enough service to all takers so that their overall RT commute time is no more than seventy-five percent longer than their automobile commute. Except in selected areas, we cannot boast of that accomplishment yet, nor will we be able to until we put more buses and light rail cars in service.

Suttertown: What about plans you previously noted for South Sacramento such as the Freeport/Florin transfer station and the 15-minute interval bus routes until 7 p.m. along Broadway, Freeport Boulevard, Stockton Boulevard and Florin Road?

Matoff: First the good news. The projected 15-minute service along the four major north-south corridors you noted is moving forward and should be in place this fall. It is part of our South Area Service Improvement Program which we are implementing at no net cost to RT through restructuring of our current service plan. On the other hand, the transfer station at Florin Road and Freeport Boulevard is a dead issue at least for the foreseeable future unless the Freeport corridor is the route alignment selected for the southern extension of light rail.

Suttertown: Speaking of light rail, is your schedule to extend the lines to Roseville, Folsom and South Sacramento still "on track?" Are you close to a decision on the route for the South Sacramento leg?

Matoff: Although there have been frequent calls for light rail extensions to both Roseville and Folsom, there are cross-jurisdictional funding problems for which there do not appear to be easy solutions. As a result, extensions of light rail are only being planned and engineered to Antelope and Sunrise. The environmental clearances are currently in place and preliminary engineering and planning work is ongoing. However, as with many of our Regional Transit expansion plans, the major if not only roadblock is funding.

The $100 million provided by Proposition 116 will not be enough to do all that needs to be done. There is 50 percent funding available from the feds but since the other half must come from state and local sources, the funding problems are major.

On the other hand, the even more expensive southern extension is 80 percent funded by a $280 million federal grant, with the remaining 20 percent coming from state and local sources. The line, which will eventually go beyond Cosumnes River College to Elk Grove, is targeted at reducing automobile congestion along Highway 99. A decision on which route the light rail will follow out of downtown is expected by the middle of next year after the required Alternatives Analysis is complete. Incidentally, that route extension will at $10 million of operating expenses to our budget which will put further demands on the system overall unless additional funding sources are identified.

Suttertown: Some of the other "down the road" improvements you had previously forecast included bulbed out bus stops, bus-only lanes and timed traffic signals favoring bus traffic. Are these do-able in Sacramento? If so, when can we expect to see them?

Matoff: Those enhancements are all part of our "Transit Preferential Streets Program: which quite frankly we have not had the staff to implement. Are these enhancements do-able in the city? You bet they are! In fact, I have revised my list of goals to include moving RT away from diesel and gas powered vehicles to electric buses. My staff is also planning four trolley car lines to run along J Street, Broadway, Stockton Boulevard, and Freeport Boulevard within five years, if we get the funding.

Suttertown: How might a public-private funding partnership, such as matched "contributions" from businesses located along or near transit routes, help improve RT's budget health?

Matoff: There have been some attempts to pursue private-public funding of a few proposed projects downtown, mostly without success. One which comes to mind was a proposed $5 million light rail node near Plaza Park for which developers were to contribute. Among other obstacles, the transit proposal foundered because it had a low priority among several other higher priority funding requirements already imposed on the developers by government. Until transit gets more attention, particularly in the form of enabling legislation to change the funding rules in favor of transit, it will always be a poor stepsister to other projects considered more important.

We might take a lesson from San Diego where development codes and regulations have been changed to support increasing density around transit nodes. For example, there is a county government high rise office building situated directly above a transit station with elevators from the platform directly to the first floor commercial area inside the building. Because San Diego doesn't require its developers downtown to include a minimum amount of parking in their buildings, that money is freed up to be spent on other downtown enhancements such as transit development.

Suttertown: During lengthy construction projects, such as that around the convention center, does RT routinely adjust its routes and stops to accommodate its passengers?

Matoff: Yes. For example during current construction of the new Secretary of State Archives building at 10th and O Streets, the developer has paid to move the stop and has built a temporary handicap boarding ramp on the opposite side of the light rail tracks. Also a temporary stop has been added to replace the stop at 14th and J Streets which was eliminated by the Convention Center expansion project. We try to be as responsive as possible to such inconveniences to our customers and I believe our record has generally been good.

Suttertown: How do you envision Sacramento's transit system in five years and do you think that vision is reachable given your experience thus far?

Matoff: The scenario is virtually completely funding dependent. In five years with adequate, meaning significant, funding to meet our expansion needs, I believe we can double the number of buses in service, have light rail extensions under construction to Sunrise, Antelope, South Sacramento toward Elk Grove and Notomas toward the Airport and have a four-line electric trolley in full operation. We will probably be able to proceed with the southern extension of light rail mainly due to the large measure of federal funding. Without additional money, all other bets are off. If the residents of Sacramento truly want an efficient transit system they must advise their local representatives of their interest and commitment.

(Note: We contacted Bob Lee, the deputy director at Sacramento Public Works Department about the outlook for local funding of transportation projects. He noted that current local funding for any such projects was questionable at best, given the current budget situation. "there are simply not any significant amounts of local money available right now and RT is competing for a slice of the limited funds along with many other equally worthwhile projects," Lee said. He suggested that if the proposed gas tax goes into effect, there might be some funding relief. However, it is still too early to tell what the impact of that potential funding source will be.)

Suttertown: What can we look forward to from you after your current three-year contract is over? Can we count on another Suttertown News interview in 1995?

Matoff: You'll have to ask my boss about that one.

* * *

Copyright © 1993 by the Suttertown News and 2002-2015 by billkirkwrites. All rights reserved http://www.billkirkwrites.com