Community Speaks Out Against AC Transit Fare Increases

26 May

On Wednesday, I attended AC Transit’s public hearing on the fee increase proposals. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I was pretty amazed at how many people showed up (every seat in the council chambers was filled and more than 50 people spoke.)

To start things off, the President of the Board, Chris Peeples, turned the floor over to Nancy Nadel, who had helped the Board reserve the council chambers. Nadel referred to comments she had sent in writing to the Board about fare increases and voiced her concern over the proposed increased fees for passes, especially for youth. She also mentioned that the Oakland’s oil task force is aiming for the city to cut usage of oil by 3% every year and increased usage of public transit is key to that goal. To Nadel’s credit, she was the only elected official or candidate for elected office (besides the Board members) that sat through the entire meeting, and she seemed engaged, jotting down notes throughout the hearing.

President Peeples spoke next, starting off sounding fairly defensive. He reminded the crowd that unlike on the boards of most transit agencies, three out of the seven AC Transit board members are transit dependent and all seven of them use AC Transit regularly. He explained that the Board is holding this meeting because they do listen to public comments, and the fare increases are not a done deal. He also said that all of the written comments submitted had been transcribed and that all of the comments would be summarized. He also reminded us that no decision would be made that day – a decision will be made at the regular Board of Directors meeting on June 11th or June 25th.

AC Transit CFO Deborah McClain spoke next. She said that AC Transit is audited periodically by the FTA, MTC and an external auditor and always did well in these audits. However, since 2005 (the last fare increase), AC Transit revenue has increased 3.5%, while expenses increased 14%. She attributed this huge expense increase mostly to increases in medical costs, pensions, and, of course, rising gas prices. (Every $.10 increase per gallon increase adds $650,000 annually to AC Transit’s costs!) She went on to explain that Governor Schwarzenegger has recommended cutting significant funding to transit. If his proposal is passed in its current form, AC Transit stands to lose $19 million from the state next year. She closed by reminding us that AC Transit has typically instituted fare increases every three years and that fare increases are a key part of the operating budget.

Dan Leland, AC’s Treasury Manager, followed McClain, starting off by saying that he was sure all of them (the Board and AC staff) would rather be anywhere else, discussing any other topic. However, without the fare increases, AC would be forced to institute service cuts. He then delved into the four proposals recommended by staff. His comments about the proposals were incredibly confusing so I was glad I had looked at them the night before.

All four proposals would institute a base fare increase of $0.25 to $2.00 per ride. The proposals differ in their increases of student and senior passes. Proposals three and four also over discounts for transfers. I think the easiest way to see the differences between the proposals is to look at the table (which I copied from AC Transit’s site) – I’ve marked the significant differences in red. It really would have made sense for Leland to put this table on a screen, but at least everyone in the crowd had copies of the proposal.

AC Transit & Dumbarton Express Fare Change Proposals

Proposal

Proposal

Proposal

Proposal

Current

1

2

3

4

Cash

Local Adult

$1.75

$2.00

Same as Proposal 1

Local Youth

$0.85

$1.00

Local Senior/Disabled

$0.85

$1.00

Transbay Adult

$3.50

$4.00

Transbay Youth

$1.70

$2.00

Transbay     Senior/Disabled

$1.70

$2.00

31-Day Ticket/ Monthly Pass

Local Adult

$70.00

$80.00

Same as Proposal 1

Local Youth

$15.00

$28.00

$17.00

$15.00

$15.00

Local Senior/ Disabled

$20.00

$28.00

$23.00

$20.00

$20.00

Transbay Adult

$116.00

$132.50

Same as Proposal 1

10-Ride Ticket

Local Adult

$17.50

$20.00

Same as Proposal 1

Local Youth/  Senior/Disabled

$8.50

$10.00

Transbay Adult

$35.00

$40.00

Local Transfer

With cash or 10-ride tickets

$0.25
1.5 hrs
1 use

$0.25
1.5 hrs
1 use

$0.25
1.5 hrs
1 use

Free
1.5 hrs
1 use

$0.25
1.5 hrs
1 use

With TransLink

Same as above

Same as above

Same as above

Same as above

Free
2 hrs
unlimited use

Transbay Transfer

With cash or  10-ride tickets

Free
w/transbay fare
1.5 hrs
1 use

Free w/transbay fare
1.5 hrs
1 use

Free
w/transbay fare
1.5 hrs
1 use

Free w/transbay fare
1.5 hrs
1 use

Free
w/transbay fare
1.5 hrs
1 use

With TransLink

Same as above

Same as above

Same as above

Same as above

Free w/transbay fare
2 hrs
unlimited use

Potential additional revenue*

$0

$9,299,449

$6,515,830

$4,510,438

$3,910,438

*assumes no change in ridership

Back to Leland – he echoed McClain and reminded us that the state is embroiled in a budget crisis. AC is making efforts to get a fair share of funding from the state, but counting on this funding is unrealistic. Also, while AC is focusing on increasing ridership, the increased ridership needed to close the budget gap is unrealistic to achieve in such a short time frame. He ended by recommending that Proposal 1 be approved and that it be implemented on September 3.

Over the next several hours, dozens of community members spoke. The vast majority of speakers focused on the proposed increases for youth and senior passes. I was impressed at how many students spoke (about a dozen), and many of them had touching stories to share. They spoke about how their families were already struggling, especially with increased food costs, and they were worried that they could not afford the increased fares. A single mom spoke and explained that fare increases would force her to choose between the cost of lunch and the cost of bus fare for her children. Several youth advocates echoed these concerns, explaining that increased transit costs create barriers to access to food, jobs, and school. One youth advocate explained that she works with youth groups, and towards the end of the month, many young people miss the meetings because they have no money for bus fare.

More than a dozen seniors spoke as well. Some said that if it wasn’t for the bus, they would never leave their homes and if fares increased, they’d leave much less frequently. Others said that even with current bus fares, they sometimes walk, which is increasingly difficult for some seniors with health problems. A senior advocate broke down some very real choices, saying that a $3 increase in monthly fares would mean one less meal for a senior, and a $8 increase would mean three fewer meals per month.

A bit surprisingly to me, almost no one protested the adult monthly pass increase. When I spoke, I focused on this (since the senior and youth issue had already been covered by pretty much everyone else). I explained that while I understand the need for fare increases, AC Transit has historically not treated regular riders much better than casual riders. The adults who have monthly fare passes depend on AC, and we should be prioritizing these riders. I also said it was unwise to make revenue projections based on the assumption that ridership will not change, since we had just heard from dozens of people who said their ridership would decrease.

Another speaker made a poignant argument for not increasing fares. He lives in West Oakland, where there are no grocery stores. He currently takes the bus to Pac n Save in Emeryville. He doesn’t think he could afford the fare increase, and he couldn’t walk to the grocery store because it would take two hours. If fares increased, he would be forced to shop at corner stores in West Oakland, which are more expensive and do not have a good selection of healthy food.

Most of the speakers throughout the afternoon were respectful and many said they understood that the Board was in a difficult situation. Some even told sweet stories about bus divers waiting for them and about how much they loved riding the bus. However, there were a few speakers that really railed on the Board. They claimed that AC had mismanaged money and that’s why they are now considering fare hikes. Most of these people focused on the purchases of Van Hool buses and said AC needs to stop buying those and find cheaper, safer buses – one speaker even held up the East Bay Express articles and waved them around. Others accused the directors of getting rich off of poor people, which amused me a bit since the directors do not get paid. Still others brought up the trips that directors and staff took to Belgium and France to look at buses.

After the public spoke, the directors responded. Joe Wallace spoke first, explaining that the directors are struggling too – he’s transit dependent. He also said that it was hard listening to people telling them that they’re mismanaging money, and that it made him feel bad that his constituents think that.

Rebecca Kaplan followed, saying that AC is committed to maintaining affordability for underserved communities. But AC Transit doesn’t control the tax system and spending, and transit funding is being slashed by the state and federal government. She called on all of us to call the Governor to tell him not to cut transit funding. She said AC plans to continue to work for more regional funding (MTC). They are also working to get more bulk passes out there – currently UC Berkeley has a deal with AC whereby all students pay a yearly fee and get free bus passes – they are currently working with Peralta, and the Cities of Berkeley and Alameda. She ended by again pointing the finger at Schwarzenegger – one of the first things he did as governor was to cut the Vehicle License Fee (which costs the state $6 billion annually), and this funding cut has been passed onto local agencies, like AC Transit.

Rocky Fernandez echoed Kaplan’s focus on the state, but urged the public to not just focus on the Governor but also on regional legislators. He said that legislators hear from constituents about other issues (like housing and crime) a lot, and they assume that transit is not important to their constituents because they don’t hear about it as often. He implored us to speak to candidates about transit and to make the transit lobby as important as the other state lobbies.

Greg Harper told staff that he wanted a report differentiating demographics on local and transbay ridership because he believes the demographics are different and that could effect the fee increase decision. He agreed with arguments about fare passes, saying that those with passes are transit reliant and the board should be loathe to raise their fares. He did think $2 made sense for one ride fares. He also pointed out that many youth pay cash and don’t use the monthly passes and also talked about the possibility of lowering youth fares during the mornings and afternoons (school time) and raising fares for all-time passes.

Chris Peeples ended the meeting. He thanked TALC and other organizations that go to Sacramento and to local legislators to speak about transit issues. He then proposed that gas should be taxed more heavily – at $4 per gallon – since the true cost per gallon is $7. He ended by saying that AC maybe hasn’t done the best job explaining their choices to the press (I’m guessing he was referring to the East Bay Express articles).

I have to say, I actually felt good leaving the hearing. I was impressed at how many community members spoke up (some telling me that it was their first time doing any public speaking), and I felt like the directors did listen. I’m sure there will be some kind of fare increase, but I’m hopeful that increases won’t be as large for seniors and youth. I also feel really good about the directors we have running AC. Though they only spoke for a bit, they all had a great grasp on the larger political issues and the needs of their constituents. The sad truth is, as many speakers and directors said, they’re stuck in a very difficult bind. The state is slashing transportation funding and their only short term choices are to raise fares or cut service. I have a bunch more I want to say about how the state’s actions are effecting AC Transit, but, I think there’s enough here to mull over here so I’ll get to that in a later post. If you want to read more about this issue, I recommend checking out Robert in Monterey’s analysis at Calitics of Arnold’s attempt to kill public transit.

That’s about it. If you’ve made it this far and still want to learn more, I highly recommend reading the staff memo on this issue.

6 Responses to “Community Speaks Out Against AC Transit Fare Increases”

  1. David May 26, 2008 at 1:27 pm #

    “To Nadel’s credit, she was the only elected official or candidate for elected office (besides the Board members) that sat through the entire meeting, and she seemed engaged, jotting down notes throughout the hearing.”

    Amazing how attentive elected officials become when it’s election time…

    Nice, thorough report. Since I almost never take the bus (I walk or bike instead), I admit that I don’t pay much attention to AC Transit, but I’m glad to know that other people are, because it’s definitely important.

  2. The Overhead Wire May 26, 2008 at 2:03 pm #

    This is going to continue to happen with an all bus system. If they had planned for trolley buses or streetcars/light rail with electric transmission there might be a light at the end of the tunnel. But as gas prices rise, nothing is going to stop the cost from going up up up and therefore making people’s passes much more expensive, unfortunate as it is. It’s the result of being cheap on the front end of planning capital expansion.

  3. oakie May 27, 2008 at 8:14 am #

    I happen to be standing many weekdays this month at Rockridge BART between 4:30pm-6:30pm. I have been watching ridership as the 51 bus arrives at BART: I actually kept a tally for awhile until the pattern became clear. There are an average of 6-7 riders, the most I have ever seen is 11. I have observed hundreds of buses arriving, so I think my data are pretty accurate. Anecdotally, that is true of most AC Transit buses I see.

    Isn’t that the real problem?

    I can envision 2 solutions areas that don’t involve fee increases: temporarily reducing level of service, and longer term solving the crime problem in Oakland that I predict will result in increasing ridership, allowing a return to higher levels of service. We have a great network of public transportation, especially when connecting to all the access BART gives you. Do you think more people would be willing to walk on our streets and take buses if they felt safe to do so? In a period of about 10 years, New York reduced their violent crime rate by 80%. In Oakland, between 2000 and 2006, the violent crime rate increase by 51%.

    Do you think our out of control crime problem is weighing down a transportation system where huge buses pass by with an average 6 riders? And that’s for a bus that delivers people to the BART station, at rush hour. How much more valuable a route can there be?

    Personally, I used to ride my bike for about half my trips within north Oakland and Berkeley. I have quit because the risk of crime is simply too high to be worth it. I don’t think people are fully aware as to how the high crime has affected us in Oakland. And, perhaps, it’s why Nadel is so nervous and hyperactive of late. She should be, if people in her district have any sense at all, they’ll vote for Sean Sullivan.

  4. Becks May 27, 2008 at 2:08 pm #

    Oakie – I agree with you about public safety issues – crime is related to nearly every other issue in this city. However, I disagree with your argument that AC should cut service and I imagine that the vast majority of bus riders would agree with me.

    The 51 is actually an extremely popular line – it has the 2nd highest ridership of AC, after the 1/1R line. But it’s also a very long line stretching from Alameda down to the waterfront in West Berkeley. From my experience riding the 51, few ride the bus all the way. When I ride from downtown Oakland to Rockridge, it’s generally packed most of the way but is less full by the time it reaches BART. But once it reaches Berkeley, many riders board and it is usually pretty full from Ashby all the way down into West Berkeley. So just because you don’t see lots of riders on a bus at a given spot doesn’t mean the line isn’t heavily used.

    In fact, I think 51 service needs to be expanded (specifically, we desperately need a 51 rapid bus).

    I think current AC Transit service is good, but not always great. We need more service – especially more rapid buses and dedicated lines for BRT. Major service cuts would be devastating to the system.

    If you want to see the details of ridership per line, check out the February AC Transit memo.

    Also, I think it’s safe to say that most people don’t ride the bus simply to be “delivered” to a BART station so it’s not that surprising that you don’t see many people on the bus there. However, at the downtown Oakland BART stations, I see full buses passing by and anywhere from 1-10 people boarding each bus as it pulls up.

  5. The Overhead Wire May 27, 2008 at 6:36 pm #

    When I take the 51 from Downtown to Kaiser it’s pretty full. I always have to stand. It’s the second heaviest bus line in the East Bay I believe.

    I think its actually a perfect candidate for a streetcar and Broadway should have been where they put BART instead of in the middle of the freeway. I bet by now Ridership would have been up about 60,000 with the different land use and connections. But I digress.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The Transit Terminator Strikes Again « Transbay Blog - June 12, 2008

    […] that have people flocking to transit and leaving their cars at home are also forcing Caltrain and AC Transit to study yet another set of fare hikes, and eventually, it is the riders who bear the burden of […]

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