City college students make up 15 percent of MTD’s bus riders. With bus revenues lagging behind demands for service, the transit district might be inclined to ask college students to pay more.

Paul Wellman

City college students make up 15 percent of MTD’s bus riders. With bus revenues lagging behind demands for service, the transit district might be inclined to ask college students to pay more.

Baby, You Can Ride My Bus

MTD Fare Increase Looming, Service Cuts Under Consideration

Thursday, February 14, 2013
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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.


Independent Discussion Guidelines

I take the #24, the UCSB Express, regularly. They pack them in like sardines, surely against any standards of safe operating practices. FWIW, the bus service here, while not the greatest, is basically okay. The drivers are for the most part friendly and accommodating. Anyone who's experienced the surly louts who drive buses and trains on the east coast will note the difference. The buses themselves often seem overdue for maintenance. As Nick pointed out, the "transient-dependent" make up most of the ridership.
Speaking of surly louts, lately that ridership seems to include lots of drunken vagrants and crusty-types with their requisite "pit-bull on a rope." It's not fun, especially at night. As much as I like the idea/"ideal" of public transportation, I'm looking forward to getting my car back on the road ASAP.

zappa (anonymous profile)
February 15, 2013 at 5:20 p.m. (Suggest removal)

*transit-dependent--maybe a Freudian slip or something??

zappa (anonymous profile)
February 15, 2013 at 5:22 p.m. (Suggest removal)

The $60 tacked on to the SBCC bill is absolutely NOT a bargain for the probable majority of us who do not use the bus. I live relatively close and bike (and take only a few classes/semester) and strongly resent having to pay for this "pass" which is of no use to me at all. The parking lots and garages are filled with cars, suggesting that quite a few do not use the bus. Before even considering raising the mandatory bus fee, they should do a study of exactly how many students do use the bus/day and what percentage that is of the student body.

As for the El Encanto employees, how about having the hotel subsidizing the bus or, if not, providing its own van? The room rents will be high enough to provide for this.

at_large (anonymous profile)
February 15, 2013 at 7:57 p.m. (Suggest removal)

When I was a student there was no additional fee. The $60 should be optional (and so should UCSB's gym fee.) Love public transportation as a solution but forcing people to pay for a service they do not use, need or want is wrong.

Ken_Volok (anonymous profile)
February 15, 2013 at 8:44 p.m. (Suggest removal)

>> Revenues have not kept pace with expenses

If you ran you own business that way. you would be out of business.

If you make $50,000 a year, but have $125,000 on the credit card,
you would make adjustments.

Lower quality, higher price.

Hardly a business model of success.

Failure is a good thing.

Santa Barbara, for all it's shortcomings
does have an entrepreneurial spirit.

If MTD were to disappear tomorrow
S.B. would never let that stand.

A better more efficient service would take
its place.

Better quality, lower cost.

Imagine, never be late for school ever again.

MTD cannot promise that.

They can promise lower quality, and higher costs.

Students need to get to school.

They will figure out a way to do it better
than MTD.

Why should students settle for the failed option.

Who knows what the next innovation will be.

UCSB students, in-spite of the drinking and
burning couches will design a better system.

How does that make you feel MTD.

A drunk 19yr old, one the edge of a clif,
with burning wood can out perform you.

Its going to happen.

Im not advocating drunk 19yrolds burning couches in I.V.

I'm just saying they are likely better entrepreneurs
than you.

Rip. MTD 2013.

nobody123 (anonymous profile)
February 16, 2013 at 6:47 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Green boondoggle spending, bloated administrative comp plans and unchecked pension spiking are the reason they want us to pay more for less every year.

SBLifer (anonymous profile)
February 16, 2013 at 8:33 a.m. (Suggest removal)

That was a nice essay linking how yahoos burning couches in Isla Vista is linked to operating a transit bus system that mysteriously will attract profitable private corporations to do the same service for a lower cost.

Next up: privatized fire protection, because I resent having to pay that because I just know I never will have or be near any burning building, so thus never should have to pay the $60 annual fee to the fire protection district assessment or city taxes.

John_Adams (anonymous profile)
February 19, 2013 at 12:17 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Will the Indy now report that the MTD Board of Directors just took an ideologic shift because a very long term incumbent was just replaced by the city council?

John_Adams (anonymous profile)
February 19, 2013 at 12:19 p.m. (Suggest removal)

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