CA: Bill Bourne, first head of Sacramento regional transit agency, who shaped its future, dies at 92

Feb. 27, 2024
Bill Bourne, the Sacramento Regional Transit District’s first general manager, who helped expand the fledgling agency and left a mark on the system that remains 50 years later, died Feb. 5.

Bill Bourne, the Sacramento Regional Transit District’s first general manager, who helped expand the fledgling agency and left a mark on the system that remains 50 years later, died Feb. 5. He was 92.

Ann Baum, one of Bourne’s two children, said he died from the effects of prostate cancer. He was surrounded by his family.

In the early 1960s, Bourne started at the Sacramento Transit Authority, the city-run predecessor to the regional agency. He drove buses as a teenager in Southern California and managed and then owned a bus company there in his 20s. He had also worked for a transit agency in Los Angeles.

Bourne became the Sacramento authority’s general manager in 1965. A few years later, he asked officials at what is now Sacramento State University to help him study a new bus line.

Carole Barnes was a sociology professor at the time, and researched the route’s ridership and effectiveness, with the help of an economics professor, students and a federal grant. Bourne had designed the route to connect major attractions outside of the city’s core, including the university, Sacramento City College, Arden Fair shopping center and hospitals.

The researchers found that the crosstown route was popular and its riders were overwhelmingly young.

Bourne had also pushed Sacramento State leaders to allow buses to stop on campus, which was a big deal at the time, said Barnes, who taught at the school for 41 years. They continue to do so to this day.

“He really had an impact on the campus,” she said.

By the early 1970s, the city bus system was serving riders in unincorporated areas of Sacramento and Yolo counties and Roseville. It was struggling financially, a cost that was primarily borne by city taxpayers.

In response, local leaders pushed for a regional transit agency. The idea was approved by the Legislature and then-Gov. Ronald Reagan. The Sacramento Regional Transit District started on April 1, 1973, with Bourne as its general manager.

The new agency made a splash right away, instituting a 25-cent fare for passengers. It promoted the change with a “Love-A-Fare” campaign, splashing the new price and slogan across newspapers, billboards and buttons worn by drivers. Previously, the cost to ride could vary based on the area passengers were traveling to. Seniors and young people received an additional discount to the flat fee.

The young agency had growing pains— a newly-established informational telephone line did not always provide reliable schedule information. And the oil embargo that began in October 1973, and lasted for several months, led to a shortage of diesel fuel and more passengers.

Doug Dempster, a reporter for The Sacramento Bee at the time, recalls Bourne and a colleague quickly sketching out new routes, and acquiring more buses, in response to the increased demand. Bourne was known as a hands-on leader, who often worked nights and weekends.

“Nothing seemed like a challenge to Bill,” said Dempster, 91. “He always took it in stride.”

Ridership remained elevated even after the embargo lifted. The agency was seeing roughly 250,000 people per week by the end of 1974. That was more than double from the previous year.

Bob Blymyer joined the agency as an intern in 1974 and was struck by Bourne’s versatility: He wrote schedules, helped with marketing, prepared budgets.

“He was just so knowledgeable about everything” said Blymyer, 83, who kept working there for 32 years.

Bourne resigned as general manager in 1977 and went on to co-own a bus company with routes in Southern California. Its service was expanded to the Sacramento area. He later started a new bus business that he ran for a decade. In 1996, he joined a charter company, where his duties included sales, personnel matters and occasionally driving.

The Bourne backstory

William Dudley Bourne grew up in Seal Beach. He was born on June 5, 1931. His father, John, worked for a power company and his mother, Burma, was an “enterprising homemaker,” Baum said, which included working as a circulation supervisor for a newspaper. Later, she became an avid buyer and seller of antiques.

In 1947, Bourne met Louise Bunce in Long Beach. On Feb. 11, 1950, they went on their first date: To watch a production of the musical Oklahoma! Tickets were $3.60 each. The couple continued to love the theater long after their wedding date in 1952. Bourne would often play records from My Fair Lady, South Pacific, and Brigadoon at home.

Louise worked as a book seller for decades and also enjoyed painting. The couple reached their 71st wedding anniversary in June. They lived in South Land Park.

Bourne is survived by his wife, two daughters, Baum and Karen Jolly, five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. His brother, Jack, was a surgeon and died in 1993.

Bourne’s interest in buses began when he was 9, he wrote in a personal history for a Pacific Bus Museum publication. He would ride them to school, movies and part-time jobs.

He drove his first bus when he was 14, he recalled, after its driver let the teenager get behind the wheel for the last part of a route in Seal Beach. All the other passengers were off. Bourne was licensed to drive at the time, he said, but not a bus.

His last time driving one came when he was 75. It was a charter trip to San Francisco. He continued to work for the charter company until 2014, when he retired at 83. By then, he had started working as a docent at the California Automobile Museum.

Bourne was “quite a bus historian” said Alan Fong, a member of the Pacific Bus Museum’s board of directors.

Much has changed at the regional agency, commonly called SacRT, in the decades since Bourne led it. In 1987, it opened a light rail system that connects downtown Sacramento with outlying areas.

More recently, it faced challenges rebuilding ridership after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, a problem for transit agencies across the country. Many state employees are still able to work remotely.

Yet his contribution is still evident.

A lasting legacy

Fong, 67, worked there for 40 years, joining shortly after Bourne left. He said routes that started under Bourne, such as those on Freeport Boulevard and Marconi Avenue, are similar to ones that are used today.

Also, Bourne designed the agency’s first logo, with the help of a local graphic artist, and recommended its colors be blue and gold.

Baum fondly remembers her father setting up artist boards in the family’s living room and asking his wife and daughters what they thought of the designs. They took the task seriously outlining the pros and cons of each. Baum joked that she was not a fan of the one ultimately chosen, saying it reminded her of hockey sticks.

But when she sees a bus in the present, the picture of her father holding up the illustrations a half-century ago still pops in her head.

“I can’t go anywhere without being reminded of my dad’s influence,” Baum said.

Henry Li, the agency’s general manager since 2016, wrote a letter to Baum saying her father’s death was a profound loss “to the entire public transportation community.”

Although it “prepares to evolve and modernize its brand,” Li said, the agency planned to keep the blue and gold colors, meaning Bourne’s legacy would continue into the future.

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