From the outside looking in, Santa Barbara’s Metropolitan Transit District qualifies as “the little engine that could,” ranking second among California’s 39 transit districts serving communities of 200,000 or less. (Davis’s bus system came in first.) Nationally, among similarly sized districts, MTD ranks 12th out of 319. But from the inside looking out, the picture is not quite as rosy.
On 13,307 occasions last year, MTD bus drivers left passengers standing on the curb because there was no room on board. How many actual riders that entails, however, remains unclear. By contrast, the previous year there were 10,677. The demand for service on some bus lines — like the very popular Route 15 linking City College to Isla Vista — is “almost unlimited,” said MTD’s Steve Maas. In recent years, that route has witnessed a steady increase in ridership of 10 percent a year; this year, thus far, the increase has been more modest, a jump only of 14,000. By contrast, ridership among public school students has increased by 15 percent, and the number of rides by UCSB students leaped by 50,000.
Revenues have not kept pace with expenses, however. Diesel fuel costs have increased by $400,000 this year. Sales taxes — upon which the district depends for about $8 million of its $22-million budget — are starting to improve, but not enough to cover rising costs and the insistent demand for more service. “It’s a zerosum game,” acknowledged MTD financial guru Jerry Estrada. Translated into dollars and cents, that means the district will be looking seriously at increasing its fares.
The last fare bump — from $1.25 to $1.75 — took place in 2009. District administrators say it’s too soon to project what kind of an increase might be contemplated. Such talks won’t happen until this March after the district releases a first draft of a prospective budget and after its board of directors mulls things over. At that point, public stakeholder meetings would commence in earnest, as would price elasticity studies to determine how much more money the South Coast’s transit-dependent bus riders can pay before seeking other means of transportation.
“Transit dependent” is a bureaucratic euphemism for too-poor-to-afford-a-car, and the vast majority of MTD’s riders are just that. This fact accounts for the sizable federal subsidies the district receives. However dependent MTD’s riders, fare increases are much easier said than enacted. Last year, the downtown shuttle jumped its fares from 25 cents a ride to 50. This was done to bridge a $300,000 revenue gap. Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps in direct response, ridership dropped 19 percent, and revenues still came in $42,000 less than needed.
Fare increases can be politically painful, as well. The rate hike before the last one triggered fiery protests at MTD’s otherwise sleepy early-morning board meetings, and the MTD board experienced its first — and only — major shake-up. That 2003 campaign also helped launch the political career of Das Williams, then a running for city council and now a ranking member of the State Assembly. Williams was just appointed head of the Assembly Education Committee, which has policy oversight over community colleges and state universities. Given that Santa Barbara City College students account for 15 percent of MTD’s ridership and that they pay $60 in student fees for a bus pass — a relative bargain at even twice the price — Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider strongly urged MTD’s executive Sherrie Fisher to contact Assemblymember Williams.
MTD’s contract with City College expires next year, but already campus officials have put MTD on notice they’re concerned about any fee — or fare — increase. Any change in fees would ultimately have to be approved by City College students. The other practical reality of the “zero-sum game” outlined by Estrada is a cut in service. MTD executive Fisher told councilmembers that MTD’s services have declined by 2 percent in the last year. Currently, the district delivers about 7.9 million rides a year. That’s down from its apex of 8.3 million in 2009, but up considerably from the 7 million of 2004.
To the extent high-demand routes can secure more MTD resources, other routes will get less. Of all the routes getting the hairiest of eyeballs is the one connecting downtown with the Mission, a perennial poor performer in terms of bus fares and ridership. But MTD — along with City Hall — is under some pressure to maintain services for the reopening of the El Encanto hotel, now scheduled for March. Without MTD service, many El Encanto employees will have no way to get to work.