Bus and dial-a-ride systems throughout Stanislaus County – perpetual money-losers, in the eyes of the state – are in trouble.
At greatest risk are those most in need: the disabled, elderly and poor. They may be asked to pay more for fewer ride options, as transit operators scramble to meet a state performance bar that many consider arbitrary.
Passengers in Ceres and Turlock already are confronting big changes. People relying on Stanislaus County transit should brace too. Modesto’s bus and dial-a-ride services make more money because they serve far more riders, but Modesto operators are worried as well.
How can this be, in a county whose voters just last fall approved a new transportation tax?
$13 millionMeasure L proceeds earmarked for buses and dial-a-ride, through 2042
It’s true that part of Measure L is reserved for transit. But that money has little to do with the larger problem: rising efficiency standards.
Virtually all transit systems depend on government subsidies. Stanislaus agencies receive more than $20 million a year from the state, mostly from sales and fuel taxes, for bus and dial-a-ride.
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. Thresholds vary from place to place, and some systems struggle chronically.
15 percentCeres’ target for farebox recovery in 2016
9.5 percent Ceres’ actual performance
Ceres buses, for example, consistently make too little from passenger fares, and it finally caught up to them. A few days ago, the Stanislaus Council of Governments levied a $22,710 penalty – the first imposed here, in recent memory, for failing to meet farebox requirements.
Now for worse news: the bar is being raised.
This year, agencies with a 10-percent bar will have to get 15 percent of their money from passenger fares. Others’ 15-percent bar will go to 20 percent. And that really scares all transit operators.
Why the change?
‘Country cousins’ no more
Former thresholds reflected a rural county. The latest Census saw Stanislaus’ population climb above 500,000. We’re now considered an urban county, and must meet the higher standard to keep state transit money flowing.
“We’re not urban. We’re barely suburban. But it’s state law,” said Matt Machado, county public works director.
So changes are coming, or are already here.
Ceres, with the region’s worst record, hired the guy behind the region’s best record: Fred Cavanaugh, who had retired after 31 years as Modesto’s transit manager.
Ceres’ paradigm shift came in December, when buses were reduced to just one route running only on weekdays and passing each stop only once per hour. Bus fares were lowered from $2 to $1.50. And Ceres’ dial-a-ride now serves only seniors and the disabled, who pay $3 instead of $2.10.
“We changed the system completely,” said Cavanaugh. By doing so, Ceres earned an exemption and won’t have to worry about farebox requirements until July 1, 2019.
Turlock Transit also got special treatment for enacting in January major changes, including more frequent bus pick-ups, which are hoped to attract more riders.
The city also agreed to provide unlimited rides to students of California State University, Stanislaus, in exchange for a flat payment that in time will come to $90,000 a year, an influx that transit manager Wayne York calls “a game changer for us.” And Turlock is exploring selling ads on shelters at bus stops.
“I’m feeling optimistic, but not extremely confident,” York said.
The county, meanwhile, has had trouble finding a new manager for Stanislaus Regional Transit, or StaRT. To meet the higher standard, Machado said all options are on the table, including pricier fares and eliminating underperforming routes.
“We haven’t made a huge issue of (changes) yet, but we’re going to,” Machado said.
We can’t just keep doing what we’re doing or we’re not going to make it.
Adam Barth, Modesto transit manager
All are jealous of Modesto Area Express, whose bus and dial-a-ride systems carry 85 percent of all riders in the region. But Modesto isn’t likely to clear the higher bar without some adjustments, transit manager Adam Barth said. He plans to bring options to the City Council soon; they could feature higher fares, or reducing bus service to less popular routes in east Modesto.
Riders remain devoted
“I’m worried about farebox recovery,” Barth said. “We are right on the cusp of not meeting requirements.”
Modesto and the county arranged to carry Modesto Junior College students, similar to the Turlock deal.
While the car remains king in this area, bus riders can be awfully fond of their buses.
“If you don’t have a car, the bus is the next best thing,” said Evelyn Taylor, 30, heading to work on a MAX bus. “It’s a cheaper version, with AC,” she added, plus you can read or text while riding.
The buses run frequently, they’re reliable, and the drivers are polite.
David Walker, Modesto
David and Monica Walker don’t have a car, so the bus brought them to the library on Tuesday. Modesto’s system is much nicer than others they relied on in the East Bay, they said.
“(The difference is) night and day,” David Walker said. “Most buses here are on time and better maintained...”
“...and they don’t take off before you sit down,” Monica Walker said.
Charlotte Soran, 74, was nearly housebound a few years ago. Walking a few blocks to the bus stop got her out and moving, and soon she was exploring the whole city and feeling much better, she said.
“Everyplace I want to go, (the bus) goes,” Soran said. “I love the bus.”
Eventually she sold her car and has enjoyed huge savings since. If she needs to drive for a trip, she simply rents a car for a few days.
Measure L helps, but isn’t a magic pill
All Stanislaus transit agencies would be in a worse pinch without Measure L, the transportation tax approved in November that raised sales tax a half-percent.
Most proceeds will build and fix streets, highways and intersections. A small slice estimated at about $540,000 a year is earmarked for the four transit agencies. And yes, state rules allow them to count locally-produced tax money when calculating farebox ratios.
That means a boost of $280,000 a year for Modesto. “That will help, for sure,” Barth said.
Some California transit funding rules are puzzling to local leaders, including those forced on Wednesday to fine Ceres $22,710. That money will be split by the other three operators: Modesto, Turlock and the county. In other words, the poorest agency gets poorer while the rich get richer.
And changes forced on Ceres, which just eliminated four bus lines, are mostly affecting the disabled, elderly and poor.
The ones hardest hit are the ones who need it the most.
Mike Kline, Ceres councilman
“The ones hardest hit are the ones who need it the most,” said Ceres Councilman Mike Kline, with dismay.
Several members of StanCOG – an umbrella agency composed of elected leaders from the county and its nine cities – tried to find a way around the penalty. Someone suggested taking the fine money from Ceres, then returning it, but the stunt would be exposed in audits. Others wanted to use Measure L proceeds to pay Ceres’ fine, but that would violate promises leaders made in a spending plan when selling the tax increase to voters.
“It sounds like our hands are tied,” said Modesto Councilman Bill Zoslocki, who serves as StanCOG chairman.
We’re in trouble if we don’t administer (state money) correctly. It’s a must.
Rosa Park, Stanislaus Council of Governments executive director
The panel wants to pursue special legislation in Sacramento to relax “urban county” requirements facing Stanislaus. Population centers here are still far less dense than coastal counties, many say.
“What really killed us was when the population topped 500,000,” Cavanaugh said. “To increase (the threshold) 5 percent just because the county went over that magic number just does not seem fair.”
StanCOG Executive Director Rosa Park said a proposal could come as soon as June.
“We have a different dynamic than other areas,” Machado said. “We are pretty unique. We think we can be treated uniquely.”
Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390