AC Transit fiscal and talking bus emergencies averted!

26 May

It seems so rare lately to get good news about transit, particularly in relation to transit finances, but this week I got two very exciting emails from AC Transit. One was a press release announcing that the district’s finances were in much better shape than had been expected so the hearing on declaring fiscal a emergency had been canceled. The other was an email to riders about the automatic talking bus announcements (don’t worry, they’re not adding more).

Talking Bus Announcements

When I first wrote about the talking bus announcements last week, I had no idea what a strong response it would generate. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one annoyed by the security announcement and many were bothered by the rear door announcements on buses without rear doors.

I know many of you wrote to AC Transit, and it sounds like they’re listening. From the email:

Thank you to those who commented on the new announcements being tested on the buses. We recognize that some modifications need to be made, and you’ll be hearing these soon. In the short term, the messages will play less often, and the “please exit through rear doors” message will only play on local bus lines. Later in June, we will likely make further changes to the message content and voice. We appreciate your patience as we make improvements.

Meanwhile, we’re already seeing some responsiveness to the “please exit through rear doors” announcement. By successfully encouraging more passengers to use the rear doors whenever possible, we hope to significantly speed up boarding and improve schedule reliability.

This is an improvement, but it seems like there’s widespread agreement among AC Transit bus riders that the security messages need to go altogether. If you haven’t yet, please email TalkingBuses@actransit.org to share your thoughts about the announcements.

Fiscal Emergency Averted

In even better news, AC Transit was scheduled to have a meeting this Wednesday to declare a fiscal emergency, as they have done for the past several years. I’ve become so used to these hearings that they seem routine so I was pleasantly surprised to hear that AC Transit’s finances were in such a good position that the hearing wouldn’t be needed. The agency turned what was projected to be a $14.9 million budget deficit for fiscal year 2010-2011 into a $2.3 million surplus. Even better, there’s a projected $5.2 million surplus for fiscal year 2011-2012 (the year that starts on July 1)!

How did AC Transit turn such a large deficit into a small surplus? They basically cut everything that was non-essential, achieved efficiencies, negotiated labor concessions, raised fares, and were lucky enough that tax revenue came in at higher levels than expected. I’ve listened to most AC Transit Board meetings over the past several months and it seems that at every meeting they vote on ways to cut costs. Here is what they did, via their press release:

In recent weeks, action by the Board to reduce overall expenses and/or increase potential revenues include the closure of the Division 3 bus yard in Richmond and the Paratransit Unit at Division 8 in Oakland; the outsourcing of the Dumbarton Bridge services and the PBX call center; elimination of 54 employee positions, including 20 management slots; and a 10-year fare policy that begins in August with 10-cent increase in the basic adult fare.

In addition, the District had already:

    • Eliminated another 90 positions including a third of its executive management staff
    • Curtailed the use of district vehicles
    • Canceled management leave benefits.
    • Gotten concessions from the bus operators’ Amalgamated Transit Union.
    • Adopted a fare increase
    • Scrutinized all expenditures and eliminated all but those deemed to be essential
    • Instituted a hiring freeze for all positions unless critical to maintaining operations
    • Mandated staff to achieve operating/service efficiencies of 15 percent of the budget
    • Adjusted service, reducing operational bus hours by 13 percent as of October last year.

The Board has also cut its salary by 5%, cut its travel by 50%, and eliminated a special travel account for transit advocacy.

What does it mean that the agency has averted a fiscal emergency? No more service cuts, at least for the immediate future. This is great news because while fare increases are difficult to handle, service cuts can be devastating. AC Transit has done a very good job so far minimizing the harm of the cuts by deliberately cutting and merging lines in a way that would have the least impact on riders. But at this point, after several rounds of cuts, there’s nothing easy left to cut (if you follow the Oakland or California budget processes this might sound familiar). Anymore service cuts, especially if significant, could leave many bus riders without transit service and would likely decrease ridership significantly.

I know many of the decisions the AC Transit Board has made over the last couple of years have not been easy. Raising fares, cutting service, closing a bus yard, eliminating employee positions, and negotiating concessions from ATU were difficult choices that have huge impacts. It is clear though that they have averted financial crisis and averted even more serious service cuts.

If you’d like to thank the AC Transit Board and Interim General Manager Mary King (and they probably could use some words of appreciation, judging by public comments at the past few Board meetings), here are their email addresses: eortiz@actransit.org, jwallace@actransit.org, gharper@actransit.org, mawilliams@actransit.org, jsdavis@actransit.org, jyoung@actransit.org, cpeeples@actransit.org, cpeeples@actransit.org.

And if you’d like to read the details of how AC Transit averted another fiscal emergency, read the general manager’s memo.

2 Responses to “AC Transit fiscal and talking bus emergencies averted!”

  1. John Knox White May 26, 2011 at 10:17 am #

    The talking bus re-adjustment is a perfect opportunity for AC Transit to step back and try to figure out what they are trying to accomplish with these announcements.

    I worry that they are going to focus on concerns about the obnoxious voice and audio levels in the security alert and not on the reaction to the completely unnecessary message.

    If the goal is to encourage passengers to talk to the driver about concerns, then perhaps there is a better message that might empower passengers to act on issues of concern, including unruly or rude passengers, etc. but would implicitly include the assumption that if you think you see someone with a bomb, report it to the driver.

    This might be an opportunity for AC Transit to increase its focus on the customer service aspect of their service while meeting whatever security objectives that they are looking to meet.

    • Becks May 26, 2011 at 1:49 pm #

      I completely agree. I hope you emailed that comment to AC Transit!

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