After 25 years of faithful service — and a decade beyond their expected life spans — Santa Barbara’s downtown electric shuttles are soon headed for that big junkyard in the sky. When city managers sign another five-year contract with MTD next June, the 14 buses will be replaced with new electric shuttles, slightly longer than the originals, but with the same trolley-car experience of open windows, perimeter seating, and easy on-off doorways. MTD general manager Jerry Estrada expressed to the City Council on Tuesday how difficult it was finding a company capable of building the custom shuttles, which are no longer in production but are the backbone of the city’s downtown parking program. Estrada ultimately partnered with BYD Auto.
The shuttles’ routes along State Street and Cabrillo Boulevard link shoppers, diners, and area workers to Santa Barbara’s public parking lots and commercial core, and they are a gold standard of quick, cheap transport among coastal communities. The service, initially free, was created in 1987 as a means of relieving downtown traffic congestion. Ridership peaked at more than one million passengers in 1992, but decreased to below 600,000 with the introduction of a 25 cent fare in 1994. Passenger rates then rose and fell in tandem with service hours for the next 19 years, until the fare was bumped up to 50 cents in 2013 and the correlation disappeared, as ridership dipped to 371,000 in FY 2016 despite an increase in hours.
The ongoing decline prompted Estrada and councilmembers to discuss Tuesday if the fare should perhaps be lowered back down to 25 cents, or eliminated altogether. Estrada noted that this past fiscal year, the city paid MTD $1.11 million for the shuttle service (through Measure A, Downtown Parking, and Waterfront funds) and collected $144,000 in fares. Councilmember Frank Hotchkiss wondered about the fiscal trade-off of eliminating fares and therefore increasing ridership, and if the difference could be made up by selling more lucrative advertising space on the buses. Estrada said that might be an option. Mayor Helene Schneider noted the successful free shuttle programs in downtown Portland and Denver. “There’s something about just hop-on, hop-off that’s good marketing,” she said. Estrada and the council agreed discussions would continue.