AC Transit will consider another round of debilitating service cuts next week. The cash-strapped agency is facing a projected $56 million budget deficit next year and is considering slashing service by about 8 percent system-wide, just two months after making a similar size cut. Although the plan to further reduce the number of buses that serve the East Bay each day will be especially hard on low-income residents, AC Transit appears to have little interest in an alternative proposal that would be less painful — namely, dramatically slashing bus service to San Francisco that duplicates what BART already provides.
Few people realize it, but AC Transit operates 24 separate bus lines that cross San Francisco Bay. Many of them are basic commuter lines, but others appear to represent the antithesis of AC Transit's primary mission, which is to provide transportation for those who have no other choice but to take a bus or walk. Several of the lines, for example, take relatively small numbers of well-heeled riders from the East Bay hills to and from San Francisco each day. These lines make only a few stops in upscale neighborhoods, such as Oakland's Crocker Highlands district, picking up patrons for a relaxing ride in a plush, expensive coach equipped with WiFi.
Many of these well-to-do riders, in fact, choose to take the Transbay bus because they don't want to slum it on BART with the masses. "Take the B line — everybody's nice, and friendly, and it's not crowded," noted Jerry Cauthen, referring to the Transbay bus that ferries Crocker Highlands residents to the city and back each day. Cauthen is a former Muni official and engineer who has been arguing for the past year that AC Transit should dramatically reduce Transbay service before it cuts any more buses in the East Bay. "They have too many Transbay lines," he said. "It's laughable. It's crazy for the number of people that they serve."
According to the most recent data available, AC Transit took an average of 12,093 people across the Bay Bridge each weekday in 2008. That may sound like a lot, but it represented only 5 percent of the agency's total daily riders of 226,855 in 2007-08. BART, by contrast, takes approximately 170,000 riders each weekday through the Transbay Tube, spokesman Linton Johnson said, and carries a total of about 343,000 passengers daily on all lines.
Proponents of AC Transit's Transbay service say it's necessary because BART is overcrowded during the morning and evening commutes. And although that may have been true a few years ago, the rising unemployment rate has reduced BART ridership in the past two years. "We could easily absorb every one of them now without a problem," Johnson said of AC Transit's daily Transbay riders. "Twelve thousand is a hiccup. It's not a big deal. I think we lost 12,000 riders in the last year because of the economy." Johnson also noted that BART has capacity for more riders because during the Bay Bridge emergency closure last year, it carried about 500,000 total passengers a day.
In March, AC Transit cut Transbay service by 16 percent — a substantial reduction. But the idea of slashing it dramatically is not popular among many AC Transit officials. Part of it has to do with the agency's long-running rivalry with BART. Many AC Transit officials, in fact, just don't like BART and view it as the favored son that gets special treatment — and more money — because it serves suburban communities. And they bristle at the idea of cutting the number of bus lines that travel across the bridge. The buses, after all, pre-date the Transbay Tube. "AC Transit is very sensitive about this," noted local transit activist Joyce Roy.
Last week, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission officially launched a sustainability study that will examine duplicative mass transit service in the Bay Area, including the Bay Bridge corridor. And some AC Transit officials fear that MTC will recommend that AC Transit substantially roll back its Transbay service in favor of BART.
At the same time, many AC Transit officials insist that several Transbay bus lines do not, in fact, duplicate BART service. In interviews, AC Transit spokesman Clarence Johnson, agency board president Rocky Fernandez, and agency board member Greg Harper, all made that argument. They noted that many of the Transbay buses pick up commuters who do not live near BART stations, and argued that eliminating those lines would prompt more people to drive to BART or across the bridge.
However, there's no doubt that AC Transit would save millions by taking commuters directly to BART — instead of driving them to San Francisco. Cauthen, for example, contends that based on ridership, AC Transit needs no more than six to eight bus lines going to the city each weekday. As it stands now, most Transbay buses run at less than half of capacity. The average number of riders on a typical Transbay bus was seventeen in 2008 — or less than half of the available seats, according to the most recent data available.
On a recent weekday morning commute, Full Disclosure took an F bus from Berkeley to San Francisco. At the Ashby BART station, only one other person was waiting for the bus as dozens of commuters walked into the BART station. A passerby remarked: "Why don't you take BART? It's faster."
It's also cheaper. The F bus cost $4 for a one-way trip to downtown San Francisco compared to $3.50 from Ashby to the Embarcadero station on BART. Once on board the F, it also became clear that not everyone was going to San Francisco. Several passengers used it as a local bus, because it stops at numerous locations on its way to the bridge. In all, nine passengers used the F for local service, and nineteen, including Full Disclosure, went to the city. At no time during the trip was the bus more than half-full.
As for the return trip, it included just seven passengers. Although it was no longer during the morning commute, the scarce number of riders was not unusual. According to AC Transit figures, the F bus carried an average of 10.5 riders both to and from San Francisco during each trip in 2008.
But board member Harper argued that further cutting Transbay service would be a mistake because those bus lines, despite the relative lack of passengers, are more financially efficient than regular bus routes. And that's true but that doesn't mean they're not expensive to operate. Transbay buses require about a 70 percent public subsidy compared to the 85 percent needed for local East Bay service. The reason is that AC Transit charges passengers twice as much to go to San Francisco as it does for local service.
It goes without saying that California underfunds mass transit. Nonetheless, regional transportation agencies have no choice but to make the best use of the funds they have. And there's no doubt that cutting Transbay service would save AC Transit much-needed money. Out of every $1 million it costs to run buses across the bridge, taxpayers pay $700,000.
But would substantially reducing Transbay service be enough to bridge the agency's huge budget gap? Not likely. AC Transit officials are still thinking about putting another parcel tax on the fall ballot, and are working to win concessions from the bus drivers' union. Moreover, even if the agency dramatically slashes the number of buses crossing the bridge each day, it likely will still have to cut service elsewhere — but not as much as it otherwise would. For example, the agency is talking seriously about greatly reducing weekend bus service in many areas, which would create hardships for low-income residents who don't have cars. If the agency were to cut Transbay service more heavily, those weekend cuts could be lessened.
Stuart Cohen, executive director of TransForm, an East Bay transit advocacy group, is no fan of slashing Transbay service. He notes that passengers who leave may never return even after the agency restores service when the economy rebounds. Still, in rough times, when AC Transit is facing no good choices, the agency's first priority is to protect those who would be most hurt by service cuts, Cohen said. "If you have to say what is the primary role of AC Transit: It's local service," he said. "Areas that are predominantly low income need to have the fewest cuts."