Credit: Courtesy Photo

The electric shuttles serving the City of Santa Barbara’s downtown and waterfront might not make a post-pandemic comeback, even though the county has reopened into the orange tier and has begun to restore transit services to pre-COVID levels.

The electric buses — which were suspended April 6 of last year — provided frequent service for both locals and tourists along State Street and the waterfront area for just 50 cents a ride. This was made possible through a contract between Santa Barbara’s Public Works Department and Metropolitan Transit District (MTD): Public Works contributed a little over $1 million each year from downtown parking funds to enable the low shuttle fare, while MTD financed 100 percent of the vehicle costs.

Public Works moved to terminate the contract last August, which Transportation Planning and Parking Manager Rob Dayton explained was entirely due to COVID. “When the pandemic hit, customers of downtown parking weren’t coming downtown,” said Dayton. “The budget lost $2.5 million between the onset of the pandemic and July 1, and since then, we’ve lost another $2.5 million. We’re not making any money — we’re losing money.” According to Dayton, there was never talk of discontinuing the service pre-COVID — the only point of discussion was the yearly drop in riders.

Without the subsidy from Public Works or other financial help from the City of Santa Barbara, MTD — which hasn’t collected bus fares since March of last year and consequently has a $7 million budget deficit — doesn’t have the resources to continue the shuttle in the form that it’s been known. “This is heartbreaking to say, because the electric shuttle has been around since 1991,” said MTD Planning and Marketing Manager Hillary Blackerby. “People really do cherish and appreciate and rely on this service.”

Blackerby said MTD’s priority is restoring bus service to the UCSB and SBCC areas before students return for in-person classes in the fall. “I would imagine that would take precedence over bringing the shuttle back in some form in August. We’re dealing with a situation where we don’t have enough bus operators to bring everything back full tilt all the way,” explained Blackerby.

The shuttle termination is one element of MTD’s proposed annual service change, which was presented at its Board of Directors meeting on Tuesday and won’t go into effect until August. MTD is currently in its outreach phase and is taking comments via a public survey, and public feedback will be welcomed at virtual community meetings on April 28 and May 11.

“It’s pretty early in the conversation,” said Blackerby, “but this has certainly started a conversation. It’s heartening to hear that people care about and want our service.”

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