Lean can mean having little to no fat or being spare or economical, but in the manufacturing industry the concept called “lean manufacturing.” In layman’s terms this means producing the best product by trimming waste and improving flow. Whichever way you look at it, as ridership increases and funding remains the same or decreases, more and more agencies are being forced to look inward during these lean times to “trim the fat” just to keep their system moving.
The San Diego Municipal Transit System (MTS) is right in the thick of this debate with double-digit ridership increases on its buses and trolley—a whopping 23 percent on its commuter bus service—while watching its funding cut from a variety of directions. Its CEO, Paul Jablonski, is fully aware of the situation, saying that he wants to, “take full advantage of the ridership increases that we’re seeing despite our ongoing financial issues and having to raise fares and still cut service and still gain ridership.”
Tackling the Train
Jablonski has been the San Diego MTS CEO for about four-and-a-half years now. Having come from spending a decade in Cincinnati, which he hails as a great system with great people, Jablonski was looking to make that next step—a bigger system that was multimodal. When an opportunity to move to San Diego arose—and who wouldn’t jump at that—Jablonski’s interest was piqued. But not just for the normal reasons, he saw it as, “the opportunity to work with one of the best rail systems in the county.
“And a rail system you can get your hands around—you know, really learn about,” Jablonski says. “I’m not sure when you work for Chicago or New York how much you can actually get into it.”
This was one of the challenges facing Jablonski when he arrived in San Diego. The others included a looming budget deficit and aging system.
“When I came here four years ago we had a lot of work to do,” Jablonski says.
“The budget was $10 to $15 million out of balance and they were using reserves. So we went through a fair amount of trauma, especially with the COA (comprehensive operations analysis) that we did.
“And you know we ended up doing two things. One, restructuring about 95 percent of all the bus service, which means every municipality change[s]. And going from the fact that change is not always easily acceptable, but it went to a market-based approach, which says with limited resources we need to put our stuff where the market is, not necessarily on a geographic spread.
“I mean, you know, very often in these cases people say well, I want my share. You know we’re a community and we’re in this. And so, based on our population, you should be spending X number of dollars in our community.
“And they did not think that way. They went with a market-based approach, which was getting back to that thing about not thinking parochially; it was a real testament to that. So that was positive. And we got all that done and it was passed unanimously and implemented over two years. And has really been successful,” Jablonski says.
For most transit authorities the farebox is not king—far from it. So, despite ridership increases, they find themselves at funding crossroads. Jablonski sees his system facing this quandary. Having cut service each year for the past five or six years despite ridership increases, MTS is now looking at a dip in local sales tax revenue and budget cuts on a state level totaling more than $50 million.
And Jablonski says they could even possibly lose another $9 million in State Transportation Assistance funds, something he doesn’t want to think about. “You know, I haven’t even begun to … I mean, I have begun to think about it, but I’m not sure how we would cover that.”
Jablonski says the COA objective was to lay out the system in somewhat of a grid-based pattern to increase the flow and jump on the effects of building ridership, but they weren’t looking to make service cuts.
“You know I can almost go to every cut and tell you what our philosophy was, but I often tell the board you know the last thing that we should be doing is cutting service,” Jablonski says.