Most of the Metropolitan Transit District (MTD) Board of Directors and staff assembled this Tuesday with Mardi Gras beads wrapped around their necks in honor of the legendary New Orleans celebration of “Fat Tuesday,” the day before practicing Catholics give up something they cherish for Lent. In this case, the MTD boardmembers were notified they’d have to make do with a $460,000 (or 9.5 percent) drop in fare box revenues over the last year, reflecting a decline in bus trips by half a million.
In the weeks to come, the MTD board will do some serious soul searching — what bus lines might get more frequent service and which ones could be reduced. One boardmember, Bill Shelor, hinted about the possibility of a fare increase, asking how many riders MTD lost the last time fares went up. The answer is not that many, ridership being what economists call “inelastic.” But boardmember Roger Aceves objected it was too soon to start talking about fare hikes.
MTD’s drop in ridership mirrors what’s happening throughout Southern California. As gas prices have dropped, ridership has, too, while motor vehicle registration increased. (In the wake of AB 60, 636,000 immigrants have secured driver’s licenses; a rough estimate for Santa Barbara County is 6,360.) With the county’s median home sale price increasing 50 percent since 2010, a number of low-income families have migrated out of the South Coast, where the total number of households dropped by 1,400. Enrollments at English-language schools have declined 19-25 percent as the euro fell in value against the American dollar. Their students rely on mass transit so heavily that MTD planners estimate that decline alone accounted for 23 percent of the dip in ridership.
Boardmember Olivia Rodriguez wondered whether mass transit systems could still meet the needs of people who increasingly had to be many places the same day. “People have life changes,” she noted, expressing doubt whether the cause of the decline could ever be understood. “How do we measure some of this stuff?” Such angst notwithstanding, the MTD board will spend the next two months eyeballing these big-picture questions.