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April 26, 2014

Stanislaus County bus and dial-a-ride passengers could see higher fares or fewer ride options

Some bus and dial-a-ride systems throughout Stanislaus County could face higher fares or fewer ride options because they’re not making enough money.

Bus and dial-a-ride passengers in many parts of Stanislaus County soon could face higher fares and fewer ride options.

Transit operators in Ceres, Turlock, Oakdale, Riverbank and unincorporated towns don’t make enough money to justify huge government subsidies under a new funding formula. Pricier tickets and downsized service are the likeliest ways to make them more profitable.

“Neither is going to help folks at the lowest end,” said Joshua Shaw, executive director of the California Transit Association. He referred to those who use buses and dial-a-ride the most – the disabled, elderly and poor.

Of more than 4 million public transit rides each year throughout the county, a majority are taken by passengers from homes with annual incomes of less than $20,000. Half do not own vehicles, and 59 percent don’t have driver’s licenses, onboard surveys found.

Modesto leaders last month agreed to raise fares; the extra money should push its bus and dial-a-ride systems out of the danger zone. All the others, however, have long histories of performing far below the new threshold demanded by law.

“This is a crisis for transit,” said Brad Christian, who ran the county’s operation until retiring two years ago.

Virtually all transit systems depend on government subsidies. Stanislaus agencies, for example, received more than $20 million in 2012 for bus and dial-a-ride; most comes from the Local Transportation Fund, which is a portion of sales tax, and fuel taxes make up the rest.

The money comes with strings attached. farebox recovery ratios, as they’re called in the industry, demand some efficiency by requiring that agencies receive a specified amount of money from ticket sales as a percentage of total income. “It’s the stick the Legislature uses to try to compel a return from the farebox,” Shaw said.

The threshold for most agencies in these parts has been a relatively low 15 percent from passengers and 85 percent from tax money, while urban counties must receive 20 percent in fares. Urban counties are defined as those with populations of more than 500,000, and Stanislaus counted 446,997 in the 2000 census.

The 2010 census brought a new number – 514,453 – as well as the higher standard for transit performance. The county’s Stanislaus Regional Transit system, or StaRT, serves rural areas. Its threshold will go from 10 percent to 15 percent, while systems in Modesto, Turlock and Ceres will rise from 15 percent to 20 percent.

“No doubt this is a very practical, tough challenge,” Shaw said.

Consider that Ceres has lost 40 percent of its ridership since 2008 and only recently pushed into double digits for fare recovery.

Turlock has lost passengers, too – 12 percent – and struggled to meet the old standard, much less the new.

StaRT’s buses are in pretty good shape, but its overall numbers are dragged down by poor dial-a-ride returns, a common concern for agencies with both services.

All but Modesto are wondering how they can become dramatically more profitable without jacking up prices, scaling back bus routes, or both.

“I’m very concerned,” said Kay Dunkel, Ceres’ transit manager. “Some people can’t afford it.”

Melanie Wakefield, for example, rides the bus to work because she can’t afford a car, she said on The Modesto Bee’s Facebook page.

Stephanie Gonzalez and her mother also have ridden to their jobs since their car gave out. “Without (the bus), we’ll have no way of getting to work,” she said.

Modesto’s Bob Cole, who is blind, said in a post, “If cuts are made to these forms of transportation, it could severely impact my independence.”

Betsy Allen said her 81-year-old mother taps into dial-a-ride and buses to shop, dine and volunteer at the library, and she shudders to think of her mother lonely and isolated. “That would break my heart,” Allen said.

Transit managers, while openly worried, are not ready to cry “uncle.”

They have until 2016 to get things in order. After that, penalties don’t kick in until an agency posts two years of poor performance. Even then, they aren’t in danger of losing all of their state transit funding; penalties amount to the difference between their ticket sales and whatever they should have sold to reach the appropriate threshold.

Wielding the stick is the Stanislaus Council of Governments. That agency serves as a gatekeeper of money flowing from the state to local agencies, and must enforce state performance standards.

Its large policy board is composed of representatives from the county and its nine cities, advised by administrators from all agencies. Some have battled to divert transit money to road repairs in recent years.

“I grew up in this area, and it’s a car-first mentality,” said Christian, the county’s former transit manager. “Quite frankly, it had to be; we just didn’t have the density for transit.”

Meanwhile, all agencies in jeopardy – Turlock, Ceres and the county – will pay consultants to study their operations and suggest how to become more profitable.

The county, which early last year absorbed an extremely poor system serving Oakdale and Riverbank, is putting final touches on its $120,000 study and expects to present it in a few weeks. It’s likely to suggest eliminating “unproductive trips on specific routes,” transit manager Eunice Lovi said.

Ceres could explore converting its dial-a-ride from serving the general public to only senior or disabled riders, potentially lowering its farebox standard to 10 percent of income for that service. Another possibility is seeking an exemption through special state legislation.

Turlock landed a $200,000 grant and will install electronic fareboxes, which tend to bump revenue because they’re harder to cheat. The city might consider more aggressive marketing as well, transit planner Scott Medeiros said.

Also, Turlock could explore semester passes for California State University, Stanislaus, passengers, and might compete to provide county fair shuttles.

Turlock leaders are considering asking voters in that city for a transportation tax. A portion could be set aside for transit, but that would depend on how officials craft a ballot measure.

Downsizing bus routes and charging more remain possibilities, Medeiros said. “But when you raise fares, people don’t ride as much,” he said.

StanCOG was poised in the fall to pay a consulting firm $107,000 for a study focused on the farebox challenge. Leaders decided to wait and see what the county’s study comes up with, said Rosa Park, StanCOG’s deputy executive director.

Shaw said Stanislaus’ coming struggle could provide his association with a test case for suggesting a policy change in funding requirements.

“There is nothing magic about 499,999 vs. 500,001, except this statute gets triggered,” he said. “I’m sure it was appropriate and right-minded when (the threshold) was adopted, but now it may be penalizing systems and riders through no fault of their own.”

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