CA: Michael Smolens: MTS, NCTD focus on keys to increasing ridership: frequency of service and security

May 20, 2024
San Diego transit agencies received some modest news recently: Gov. Gavin Newsom expressed a commitment to protect billions of dollars for rail and bus lines in the face of a gaping budget deficit, but there's a caveat.

San Diego transit agencies received some modest news recently: Gov. Gavin Newsom expressed a commitment to protect billions of dollars for rail and bus lines in the face of a gaping budget deficit.

There's a caveat, though. Exactly when that money will be released and how it will be distributed remains to be determined.

Further delays and potential funding shifts are anticipated. But at least it seems the previously approved funds gained a reprieve from the potential chopping block after Newsom unveiled an outline of his revised budget on May 10.

The San Diego Metropolitan Transit System and North County Transit District are counting on tens of millions of dollars to upgrade service this year. Some of those plans are aimed at more frequent trolley runs and improved security, along with a new bus line from San Ysidro, and were scheduled to kick in next month.

Improving travel time, increasing frequency of trolleys and buses, and making passengers feel safe are widely seen as keys to growing transit ridership.

The local plans were put on hold last month when the governor froze $5.1 billion in transit funding. While the money hasn't been cut, the local transit agencies will continue to delay the service changes until there's more clarity about the funding.

"MTS will remain flexible. If the funds are released, we're ready to advance the service enhancements as planned," said MTS spokesperson Hector Zermeño.

Gordon Meyer, the agency's manager of financial planning, told the MTS board on Thursday that the agency could face a "fiscal cliff" by July 1, 2025 if the funds remain frozen, according to KPBS.

Despite significant cuts in his $288 billion budget, the governor still faces a substantial shortfall. The California Transit Association, which advocates for public transportation, expressed relief that the governor remains committed to the transit funding, but argued against delays.

"In the face of a remaining $27.6 billion deficit in the current year, we're supportive of Governor Newsom's proposed maintenance of the $5.1 billion in critical funding for California transit agencies that was previously approved to maintain core services and keep major sustainable transportation and rail capital projects on track," CTA Executive Director Michael Pimentel said in a statement.

But Pimentel expressed the organization's "concerns that the $2.4 billion in transit funding for the FY 2023-24, a component of the $5.1 billion total investment, remains frozen by the Newsom Administration."

The association urged the governor and Legislature to release the funding immediately, noting that it was supposed to flow to the agencies by April 30.

"Until it's distributed, the spending freeze imposes significant uncertainty around billions of dollars in one-time federal funding, project delivery timelines, and operations planning," Pimentel said.

Improving travel times and expanding routes are high priorities for transit officials.

But passenger-rail service is more than just where trains go and how quickly they get there, according to a February commentary on the High Speed Rail Alliance website.

"When service is frequent enough to be convenient and useful for customers all through the day, the value of passenger rail multiplies . . .," according to the commentary. "As ridership grows, it becomes politically feasible to fund further improvements, which then motivates states and the federal government to keep building out the network."

That may be. But the amount of money needed to get to that game-changing level can be substantial and most major transit systems currently face funding pressures. Persuading new riders to get on board can be a challenge, even in the best of times.

Growing transit ridership in the San Diego region and elsewhere has not been easy. MTS trolley ridership is just now returning to pre-pandemic levels after a sharp reduction, according to David Garrick of The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Safety is another important factor. NCTD, MTS and other transit agencies have boosted their security forces and surveillance in recent years. Public concern about assaults and harassment on transit vehicles and around stations led to recent statewide legislation.

A law signed by Newsom last fall requires California's 10 largest transit agencies, including MTS, to survey riders about safety and verbal harassment.

The surveys are intended to identify "the leading causes of street harassment as part of a larger strategy to revive ridership levels and incentivize more Californians to ride public transit," said state Sen. Dave Min, D- Irvine, who authored the law under Senate Bill 434.

"Millions of Californians refuse to ride public transit in this state because they do not feel safe," Min said.

The bill has a particular focus on anti-Asian hate speech, along with verbal harassment of women, seniors, LGBTQ+ and "other vulnerable communities."

NCTD plans to use the money from the state to boost security, add wayfinding signs and add double tracking for some express trains. The agency is expecting $54.4 million in the coming budget year.

MTS officials are hopeful they will still get the $136 million that was due April 30. Meanwhile, the agency plans to move ahead with security enhancements already included in its budget.

Under the MTS plans that involve the state money, trains on all trolley lines would arrive twice as often during evening hours and on weekends — every 15 minutes versus 30 minutes, according to Garrick. During weekday peak hours, service on part of the Blue Line connecting UC San Diego and the U.S.- Mexico border would double from once every 15 minutes to once every 7 1/2 minutes.

The border express bus from San Ysidro to downtown, which will be called the 910, would operate at night when the Blue Line must be out of service because of a conflict with freight operations.

The San Diego Association of Governments, the regional planning agency, has long-range plans for new transit routes that incorporate what NCTD and MTS are doing, while further calling for new routes, increased frequency and efficiencies achievable with emerging technologies. But that plan may be in flux. SANDAG just hired a new top executive and the agency is under fire on various fronts.

The end game for transportation agencies is something of the holy grail of transit: to make travel time and convenience competitive with taking a car.

That's a difficult quest.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

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