Transit Talk with the General Manager

December 05, 2008
Mike Wiley, General Manager/CEO
General Transit Questions
Opening Remarks:
The holiday season is a busy time for everyone, including RT. With a few changes being implemented and plenty of issues facing the District and our riders, I thought December would be an opportune time to open up "Transit Talk with the General Manager" to general transit questions.

Again, this is your opportunity to learn about the transit issues affecting you and the Sacramento region. Thank you for your participation in this session and I look forward to addressing your concerns.

Comments from Mike Wiley: 

I would like to open this session by acknowledging the courageous acts of the late Rosa Parks who refused to relinquish her seat on a bus to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama, this week 53 years ago. On December 1, 1955, Parks' historic defiance ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott, led by Martin Luther King Jr., and went on to become a symbol of the American Civil Rights Movement.

In honor of the movement, RT has partnered with local community leaders to pioneer the "Season of Civil Rights - It All Started on a Bus" program. The kick-off was held on Monday, December 1, when a seat on every RT bus was reserved in honor of Parks, and will continue with a poetry contest for school children and a 40-foot bus dedicated to civil rights, which will operate on various routes through February.

In other business, I recently attended a hearing in Washington, D.C., with leaders of 10 other transit agencies concerning potential financial problems prompted by light rail train lease agreements insured by the troubled agency AIG.

Despite this potential financial issue and additional transit cuts proposed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to help address the state deficit, ridership is at an all-time high. RT continues to implement cost-cutting measures and explore revenue-generating opportunities, while providing high quality transit service for the Sacramento region.

Sacramento, CA:  Can you please explain in more detail the financial issues RT is having concerning the leasing of vehicles?

Reply:  This is a great question. RT, along with 30 other transit systems in the Country, has taken advantage of a creative financing technique that allows us to sell, for tax purposes, our assets to banking institutions to generate additional revenue. The banking institution gains the advantage of additional assets to depreciate and gain a tax write-off. Unfortunately all of the agreements require the backing of insurance provided by a company that meets certain financial ratings. Due to the international financial crises there is now no insurance company that can comply with the requirements. Consequently, all of the 31 transit systems' transactions are in technical default. Collectively we have requested the federal US Treasury Department or the Federal Reserve to back-stop the insurance company, which in most cases is AIG.

Sacramento, CA:  During the last round of cost-cutting recommendations, the RT board was presented with a very sensible option to charge for parking at the light rail stations. Instead, the board chose to discontinue the Paratransit pass and charge riders with these passes the discount fare. My questions are: 1) Why was the latter done over the former? 2) While I understand RT’s budget situation, doesn’t it seem illogical to levy a fare increase on those who can least afford it, yet at the same time continue to give park-and-ride users something for free? 3) How much revenue does RT estimate it will generate from implementing this change? 4) Is RT concerned about the financial burden this policy could place on riders, thereby making it, in its totality, a win-lose situation?

Reply:  The RT Board was faced with a series of very difficult decisions to balance our budget in the face of a State of California raid of $18.3 million in the current fiscal year. The decision to eliminate the Paratransit Group pass and charge all disabled riders our discount fare results in a 50% discount of $1.00, going to $1.10 in January. This change will generate $1.2 million this fiscal year. We are still considering charging for parking at our park and ride lots. We expect to provide the RT Board an update in January.

Sacramento, CA:  Senate Bill No. 343, amending Section 54957.5 of the Government Code, was signed into law by the governor on Oct. 5, 2007, and took effect this year on July 1. "The act requires the body to post an agenda at least 72 hours before a regular meeting and provides that agendas and [my emphasis] any other writings [end emphasis], when distributed to all, or a majority of all, of the members of a legislative body of a local agency by any person in connection with a matter subject to discussion or consideration at a meeting of the body are public records subject to the public disclosure requirements of the California Public Records Act." This law also specifies that local agencies can post these documents on their web site. I would like to see RT post its entire board report package (minus excluded items) at the time the package is delivered to the board. Any chance of getting the material from this Monday's board meeting?

Reply:  Let me address each of the issues you raise: 1. Regional Transit has met the public disclosure requirements. We believe in creating as much transparency as possible, which is the intent of the code. 2. The government code does not require online posting of these documents. It does, as you noted allow online posting. We've been working out the technical issues for posting our board meeting information online before the board meetings. I asked Regional Transit staff to have this up and functional before July 09. As this has moved forward, many of the issues we've addressed have been more about the logistics of this work, than technology. 3. We are also working to bring the board meetings live via the web. Sometime next year this should be available. 4. If you contact our reception desk, they will assist you with obtaining Monday's package.

sacramento, CA:  With all the budget cuts what cuts if any are the uppeer management taking to help balance this budget?

Reply:  We have frozen nearly 200 positions, all of which are either management or non-operational critical positions. Management staff have gone for over 18 months with no pay increase and are likely to continue with no increase for at least another 12 months.

Sacramento, CA:  Sacramento Regional Transit sends press releases to mainstream media but provides no vehicle for timely distribution to others who are interested in these announcements. Yes, they are posted on the web site, but the web site does not provide RSS feeds that would alert people to changes in the site. I have attempted on more than one occasion to have my email address added to the press release distribution. Nothing has come of these requests. Is this official RT policy? If so, please explain the rationale. In my view, RT should offer a way for anyone interested to subscribe to an email mailing list for RT announcements. There are plenty of web-based free services that could be utilized if cost is an issue.

Reply:  Yes, I agree with your assessment. We are working with an automated notification system for riders. The pilot test was limited to about 5,000 people. Our next level of testing will be for the Community Bus System and will be open to all Regional Transit riders.

Citrus Heights, CA:  I am a regular train commuter, and most of the time, I cannot hear the special announcements made by the train operators. I do not have a hearing impairment. Can the volume be turned up?

Reply:  The volume for the speaker system does not have a variable volume control. It is preset at a level that is generally audible under most conditions without annoying riders. If you have a particular vehicle where the volume is consistently low, please let us know by reporting the vehicle number. I will ask our light rail maintenance team to ensure that set levels are part of their maintenance checks.

Sacramento, CA:  Do all transit officers where the same kind of uniform? Once we had a man on the train who was not wearing an official uniform asking for our passes.

Reply:  We have both uniformed and non-uniformed employees checking for fare payment. The enforcement code allows RT to include Police Officers, Transit Officers, Security Guards and Senior Transit Management Personnel in the team of people allowed to write citations. Each of these groups have different uniforms or may be out of uniform. When a non-uniformed person is checking for fare payment, they first identify themselves and show their identification or badge.

Sacramento, CA:  I live a little less than a block away from a Regional Transit light rail station. Frequently I'm awakened by the 4 a.m. start of service because operators use the bell as a continuous signal while moving, and have the audio announcements turned up to max. Is there any purpose to broadcasting to the neighborhood when there is nobody on the platform to warn or inform?

Reply:  RT operators are required to test all systems on buses or trains prior to beginning to pick up or carry passengers. That is a legal requirement for all public transportation providers. We do, however, monitor the performance of internal and external station and departure announcements and adjust these regularly, to avoid noise pollution to the extent possible. Unfortunately, we cannot do this with the operator bell, which is required to achieve a certain decibel level for safety.

Folsom, CA:  Folsom Express Service: Gold Line now has approximately 26 stops between Sutter Street and Amtrak Station, with a runtime of 50 minutes. How many of those stops will be eliminated (and which ones) and what will be the new runtime of the Express service? When will the “Express” service begin?

Reply:  There will be nine missed stops. The missed stops will be: Cordova Town Center, Zinfandel, Tiber, Starfire, College Greens, Power Inn, 59th, 48th, and 39th. Due to the likely popularity of this service, we are planning to include it in next fiscal year's budget. The new run time of the service should be closer to 45 minutes.

Folsom, CA:  Light Rail Car Replacement: What happened to the car replacement program? Seems like only about half of the older cars were replaced and the program stopped. Will R/T be getting any more of the newer cars?

Reply:  We are currently rehabilitating all of the older Siemens cars. That project will be complete by June 2009. We will also begin to rehabilitate the vehicles we acquired from San Jose this fiscal year completing that project by June 2010. We currently have no plans to acquire additional vehicles until we do our next major extension following the completion of the South Line Phase 2.

Sacramento, CA:  When will the Watt overpass be finished?

Reply:  We expect the project to be completed by the end of January 2009.

Sacramento, CA:  Will you have the same routes open during the holidays?

Reply:  Not all routes operate during the holidays. In particular, routes that do not operate on weekends or Sundays are not operated on holidays either. Bus schedules indicate which routes operate on modified schedules Sundays and holidays. RT operates routes on holiday schedule during national holidays, such as Martin Luther King Jr. or Independence Day. RT operates weekday schedules on state holidays, such as Presidents' day, but routes labeled "H" in the bus schedules do not operate.

Citrus Heights, CA:  We need an additional light at the Watt I-80 West station right by the pedestrian walkway that leads from the station to the road.

Reply:  I will forward your request to our Safety Department for evaluation. They will test the lighting levels and work to have the situation improved.

Sacramento, CA:  I saw on channel 3 someone ran up to a bus and stole an expensive bike off the rack on the front of the bus.What are the security measures being taken to prevent this from happening more often?

Reply:  Although bicycles cannot be locked to the bus rack, passengers are encouraged to lock their bikes so they can't be ridden away (i.e., chain through spokes). RT Police are currently investigating this theft.

Sacramento, CA:  Some of your light rail riders who exit at the Globe Avenue station in the evening wonder why the RT parking lot on Del Paso at Baxter Ave is unlit, a longstanding potential safety and security problem...another financial issue?

Reply:  As you probably know, this lot has minimal improvements. This is one of a group of lots with very limited lighting, landscape and few parking stalls. The lot was developed in 1987 to serve as replacement parking for on-street parking stalls that were removed from Del Paso Blvd. to make room for the trains. We remodel and improve stations in a priority order based upon public input and revenue availability. This station is scheduled for improvement in the coming year. We are hopeful that this lot will eventually be incorporated in a joint development project through the Sacramento Redevelopment Agency.

Sacramento, CA:  Some of the trains have an awful odor that is not related to the people on the train. Can anything be done about that?

Reply:  The trains are cleaned and washed daily in an effort to provide riders with a clean environment. We have been working on plans to add mid-day cleaning of the light rail fleet. One of the roadblocks to adding this service has been the budget cuts we have seen from the State of California. It may be that you are referring to the smell of ozone or brakes. Thankfully these smells are generally of short duration. The brakes have a factory coating, for example, that burns off fairly rapidly when the brakes are first used. It would be helpful if you could provide us with more specific information regarding the odor so that we can pinpoint the source.

sacramento, CA:  I'm in a wheelchair, when I get on the bus i tell the driver my stop, when I get to my stop I ring the disabled bell. And nine times out of ten I still have to tell the driver I want off. I think your drivers need a refresher course on what the disabled bell is for.

Reply:  The stop request bell is the same regardless of who rings it, so the driver has no way of telling whether a wheelchair user is the customer requiring the stop. With that said, we do provide refresher training to all of our drivers, including public courtesy, driver safety, and procedures under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

Sacramento, CA:  How has the California State budget affected RT?

Reply:  The state budget crisis had has severe effects on RT's budget. We are required to adopt a balanced budget at the beginning of our fiscal year on July 1. We adopted a major budget amendment in October to reflect an additional loss of State funding of $11.3 million. Now the State budget remains unbalanced, and we face the possibility of further cuts this January. RT has had to freeze hiring, raise fares, minimize costs, and delay any new facilities investments. More importantly, while we have had a record increase in ridership, we have been unable to acquire any new vehicles or apply new service, so our system is becoming more crowded. We are hoping that State funding for public transportation will not be eliminated this January. If it is, it would remove $5.6 million more from our budget, after a reduction this year already of $18.3 million. That loss would be extreme.

Sacramento, CA:  What special activities does RT have planned to honor the Civil Rights Movment?

Reply:  RT recently kicked-off "Season of Civil Rights - It all Started on a Bus" commemorating the American Civil Rights Movement. RT's Season of Civil Rights is a three month campaign that started with the unveiling of RT's Season of Civil Rights bus at City Hall dedicated to the late Rosa Parks and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. On December 1 a seat on every RT bus and light rail vehicle was reserved in honor of Rosa Parks. December 1 also marked the same day in 1955 in which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in Montgomery, Alabama. The Season of Civil Rights bus will circulate on various routes in December, January and February. The bus will be on display at upcoming community events, including the Martin Luther King Jr. March and Celebration on Monday, January 19, 2009, and the Black Expo on February 27, 28 and March 1, 2009. RT as part of educational outreach will also conduct a poetry contest " I am the Dream and the Dream is Now". The contest invites K-8 students attending school within the RT service area to submit an original 10 line or less poem related to the theme of civil rights and transit. The 10 winning poems will be displayed on RT interior bus cards during the month of February to commemorate Black History Month.

Sacramento, CA:  Will RT be offering free New Year's service on Jan 1, 2009 like in years past?

Reply:  No, we will not be offering free rides on New Year's Eve. The current budget situation makes it imprudent to offer free services.

Carmichael/Sacramento, CA:  I have seen signs in your buses about raising fares and cutting services. I live off of Marconi Avenue and during peak hours excet for at the very end of the day it only runs every hour, then slos to aproximately every 2 hours during the day. This bus often gets to be standing room only and it a long walk ovr to El Camino a street over from us. I know about 75% of all passengers a long this line are disbled or poor, is there any way to add any service, anywhere. It currently takes me 3 hours just to get to school now. Thank you. Leslie

Reply:  Unfortunately we have had to raise fares as a result of the current State budget crisis, which has reduced our funding significantly (more than $18 million this year). However, we are under direction from our Board not to cut service. This does not provide much relief to the situation you describe on Marconi. RT is planning a major service analysis effort in the coming year, focused on North Sacramento from Natomas across to Rancho Cordova. This analysis will look at all of RT's bus services in an effort to determine where we need additional vehicles, better routes, and other improvements. This may allow us to address your route as future funding becomes available.

Sacramento, CA:  Students with severe disabilities are a large percentage of your future riders. Is there any way you can provide bus stickers to these 14 - 22 year old students who are in programs that are training them to use regional transit?

Reply:  Starting December 1, all persons with disabilities are able to purchase a discount monthly pass to ride both the bus and light rail. Their Paratransit Group Pass no longer serves this function, so they do need to get a disabled photo I.D. If students are currently engaged in a mobility training program that has been certified by Regional Transit they are eligible to receive a pass during the time they are in training. If you have questions about this program please contact our Accessible Services and Customer Advocacy Department.

antelope, CA:  Will there be any bus runs cut in january of 09?

Reply:  No, there will not. Our Board of Directors instructed that all other methods for raising revenue and cutting costs should be implemented. However, we face the possibility of an additional $5.6 million cut from State funds this January. If this comes to pass, it may re-open the discussion with our Board, and the subject of reduced transit service later in the year (June or September) may be raised.

Sacramento, CA:  Where are we at with light rail expanding into the Natomas area?

Reply:  The RT Board has approved the environmental review for the first stage of the Downtown-Natomas-Airport (DNA) project, and set a goal of October 2010 for the opening date of the first segment to Richards Boulevard. This will clear the way for RT to pursue Federal funding for the next phase of the project, crossing the American River and serving as far as the airport. This next phase should be in construction during calendar year 2012. Our tentative completion date for the entire DNA to the airport is 2017. We are providing early engineering services to Sacramento International Airport to design the eventual interface between the DNA and the airport expansion that is planned for completion in 2016.

sacramento, CA:  Is security going to be improved at the 29th street light rail station and bus stops? Over "Black Friday" I had my children with me and an intoxicated man decided to relieve himself behind the bus stop

Reply:  RT contracts with Wackenhut, the City of Sacramento and the County of Sacramento for mobile security and police service. In addition, regular Police and Sheriff Officers are responsible for RT incidents such as this one. Surveillance cameras at the 29th Street Station (as well as the others) are monitored seven days a week. Lastly, RT Police have a close working relationship with the Sheriff's Deputies assigned to the Welfare Office located next to the 29th Street Station.

sacramento, CA:  In responce to the wheelchair comment I have been told by several drivers that is the strip on the wall of the bus is pushed it alerts them that the ramp is needed at the next stop

Reply:  I'm not sure why the drivers should make such a statement, as the strip on the wall activates exactly the same bell/Stop Request announcement as the pull-cord does. The driver usually depends on the wheelchair user to tell them where they need to exit the bus, as this often requires unfastening the wheelchair securement as well.

Sacramento, CA:  What is RT doing about rabblerousers on Light Rail. I've witnessed several incidents in which loud, obnoxious, and sometimes threatening people made me very uncomfortable and even forced one rider off the train by lambasting that rider about taking an empty seat that had a backpack on it. Other than confronting these people directly, there is no phone number to call and rarely security present. This is particularly troublesome on the weekends. Futhermore, my son was mugged at the 29th Street Station a number of years ago and is still uncomfortable riding Light Rail. If people perceive public transit to be unsafe, they will look for other ways to get around if they have that option. Even if they don't, safety should be paramount.

Reply:  I agree that our passengers' safety should be of paramount importance. RT is addressing your concerns with a combination of uniformed and non-uniformed security and police personnel as well as surveillance cameras in our stations and vehicles. The intercoms and passenger emergency buttons can be used to alert the light rail operators of incidents that require an immediate or emergency response. We still recommend dialing 911 to report an emergency by telephone. We are also working to implement real-time viewing of all of our on-board cameras. This will allow our security personnel to respond more quickly as well. We now have new state legislation that takes effect January 1, 2009, that allows us to ban certain unruly passengers from riding for a period of time.

elk grove, CA:  Can the burned-out lights in the parking lot be replaced, PLEASE? I have reported it twice now to staff there since the time changed in early Nov. The last RT staff person I mentioned it to was on the eve of 12/3. Thank you!

Reply:  The employees that replace the lot lighting rotate through the 50 locations we service. When stations are reported as having numerous lights burned out, it is moved to the top of the list for servicing. The work usually occurs within three days unless there is a parts related issue (not related to bulbs). When reporting this type of problem 321-BUSS (321-2877) is the ideal method for letting Regional Transit know we have a problem. When reporting it is helpful to identify the station or vehicle and the problem you are observing. Thanks for alerting us to the problem.

Sacramento, CA:  Can you provide bus service from Natomas to Airport?

Reply:  Yes, we can, if we have the funding to do so. RT is in the process of kicking off a study of bus routes in North Sacramento, from Natomas to Rancho Cordova. Part of that study will include the possibility of operating service to the airport. If funding becomes available a year or two from now, we may be able to start such a service, in anticipation of the eventual Downtown-Natomas-Airport (DNA) light rail project.

Sacramento, CA:  I am an aid for students with disabilities and sometimes ride with wheel chair dependent students. Some RT drivers will secure the chair for me and some make no effort to help. What should I do?

Reply:  The RT policy is that it is the driver's responsibility to secure the wheelchair. If the driver does not begin to secure the wheelchair at the first opportunity, you should ask him or her to do so. If they don't please report that situation to us.

Sacramento, CA:  What are some of the changes in service we should look out for next year?

Reply:  RT has no new funding resources that we can count on at this time. The recent budget cuts in State funding have hurt our ability to accommodate the sharp increase in riders in the past year. Nevertheless, we are analyzing routes in the Natomas area, in an effort to improve the service, and we are working with other neighborhoods to improve the service we provide with the resources we have. Rancho Cordova and Arden Arcade are areas that we are focusing on as well.

Comments from Mike Wiley: 

It looks like that is all the time we have for today. I greatly appreciate everyone taking time out of their schedules to take part in this transit dialogue. Next month's session will occur on Friday, January 2, 2009. This holiday season, please remember to support those less fortunate than you. Happy holidays to all.