Driving Out Of Deficit

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Photo by Alex Posis
The Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District proposed an increase to the Highway 17 one-way bus fare from $5 to $7. The Highway 17 bus route transports commuters between the Metro Station in downtown Santa Cruz and Diridon Station in downtown San Jose. Photo by Alex Posis.

Over 20,000 people ride a Santa Cruz Metro bus every day. Over 10,000 of those riders are UC Santa Cruz students. The Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District (SCMTD) gets over 100,000 people in Santa Cruz County to where they need to go every week — a service leaving it $7.4 million in the hole.

After holding a series of public hearings, the Santa Cruz Metro board of directors decided on April 10 to increase the bus fare for the Highway 17 Express from $5 to $7 and cut some of its ParaCruz services starting this September. ParaCruz is a shared-ride service providing door-to-door public transportation for people with disabilities. The shuttle picks up riders from their houses and drops them off at bus stops.

Of the recent changes SCMTD has passed, UCSC students are more likely to be affected by the increase in the Highway 17 Express fare. SCMTD finance manager Angela Aitken said while SCMTD does not have the ability to keep track of how many UCSC students ride the Highway 17 Express, it does see “massive ridership increases” on Fridays and Saturdays compared to other days of the week. She said this may be attributed to students making weekend trips to San Jose and beyond.

There are members of the Santa Cruz community who are affected much more by the fare increase than UCSC students going home for the weekend. Derek Jensen is a community member who spoke at one of the public hearings. He lives in Santa Cruz and is a student at San Jose State University. He takes the Highway 17 Express to get to school five days a week, and said the increase will put an even tighter strain on his finances.

“I am living on my own, I work 35 to 40 hours a week, go to school full time and take 15 or more units a semester,” Jensen said. “The burden of the fare increase for the [Highway] 17 Express would probably be another full shift of work, which is meals off of my plate and out of my budget.”

Though the fare increase would create a big cut in his budget, Jensen said he has the ability to work more hours and make up the money. This is an option that most ParaCruz riders — many of whom are on fixed incomes — don’t have.

Because ParaCruz is a door-to-door service, it’s not aligned with the days and times of fixed routes. One of the changes is to make ParaCruz only run in accordance with the bus schedule of a particular area.

Members of the SCMTD board of directors said although the changes pose an inconvenience, this is only the beginning. SCMTD will have to make more changes in the future to get it out of the current deficit, which SCMTD finance manager Aitken said will take several years to fix. Aitken said she could not say for sure how UCSC will be affected, but that it is not in either party’s benefit to sever the relationship.

“We do a five-year contract with one to five-year renewal pieces to it,” Aitken said. “I’ve been here for eight years and we’ve never considered not renewing it. It’s in our interest and it’s in UCSC’s interest to keep renewing that contract. There’s never been any talk not to do it.”

UCSC has had an agreement with SCMTD since 1972. Students pay a $111.66 Student Transit Fee each quarter, and UCSC pays a monthly balance to SCMTD based on the number of students who rode the bus that month. Aitken said in fiscal year 2014, SCMTD received $3.3 million from UCSC, which makes up 6.8 percent of SCMTD’s total budget.

Although Aitken said she cannot say what the future of UCSC routes will look like, Larry Pageler, director of Transportation and Parking Services (TAPS), said he thinks SCMTD’s UCSC routes are less likely to be cut than other routes.

“UCSC routes have more security because they perform remarkably well,” Pageler said. “UCSC affiliates account for at least half the in-county SCMTD ridership, and most of that occurs on the routes serving UCSC.”

Pageler said another reason why he’s confident in the security of UCSC routes is because in 2011, SCMTD reduced services throughout the county, including UCSC routes, and its ridership and revenues dropped nearly 5 percent. Most service to UCSC was restored within nine months, and ridership grew more than 5 percent the next year.

Even if the UCSC routes are less likely to be cut than other SCMTD services, the changes to the Highway 17 Express and ParaCruz services deeply affect thousands of members of the Santa Cruz community.

Before announcing the SCMTD board’s decision, SCMTD Chair Dene Bustichi said at one of the public hearings, “This is probably the hardest decision in my 10 years on this board because I do know how it will affect perhaps the most vulnerable in our city, county and community.”