Transit Talk with the General Manager

January 02, 2009
Mike Wiley, General Manager/CEO
General Transit Questions
Opening Remarks:
"Transit Talk with the General Manager" is scheduled for the first Friday of every month and I decided to stay on schedule even though this session falls on the day after the New Year's holiday. With many of you at home enjoying a well-earned day off, the chat might even enjoy more participants than usual.

Please take this opportunity to ask questions about the transit issues affecting you and the Sacramento region. Thank you for your participation.

Comments from Mike Wiley: 

People across America are choosing to ride public transit in record numbers with Sacramento and RT helping to lead this shift in ideology. RT records show Sacramento's light rail ridership increased by 17.3 percent in the third quarter of 2008, compared to a year ago. The increase was the third highest in the nation, which overall saw the largest quarterly increase in public transportation in 25 years!
This is great news, but despite ridership being at an all-time high, RT was forced to implement a fare increase yesterday to help offset an $18.3 million loss in state funding for Fiscal Year 2009. You might be asking yourself if ridership is so high, wouldn't the new revenue from increased ridership be enough to cover a budget shortfall? The answer is no, since fares only cover approximately 24 percent of RT's $149 million operating budget. But I want you to know RT is doing everything we can internally to cut costs and search for new revenue streams, all while keeping current service levels intact.
Please continue to choose RT for your transit needs. If residents in Sacramento and across the country continue to use public transit in ever increasing numbers, elected officials will no longer be able to ignore the shift in behavior. Funding for expansion projects, service increases and a truly comprehensive transit system practical for everyone wouldn't be far behind.

Folsom, CA:  I recently read RT is being awarded $4 million in proposition 1B disbursements for system wide projects. Can you give me some of the specifics on how this money will be spent? Will it help ease the operating budget shortfall?

Reply:  Capital dollars and Operating dollars are from different sources. Prop 1B funds are only available for capital projects. These funds can not be spent to cover operating costs. Projects we will be using these funds for include the Downtown, Natomas, Airport Extension (first phase), South Line Phase 2 and a second Bus Maintenance Facility as our big projects. Other capital enhancement projects include, passenger information systems and limited stop express service on both the Gold Line and Blue Line from Watt/I-80 to Downtown Sacramento. Although these projects don't help our operating budget, they do spend dollars locally and enhance our service.

Sacramento, CA:  How did RT handle transit service during the first annual Sacramento New Year's Eve ball drop?

Reply:  RT continued to operate light rail service on the K Street Mall during the early evening. When the number of participants grew, RT diverted trains off of K Street and implemented a bus bridge between the 16th Street and Alkali Flat/La Valentina light rail stations. The original attendance estimates were between 3,000 and 5,000. The event was attended by an estimated 10,000+ people. Now that we have experienced the city's first ball drop, we will assess how to make improvements next year.

Sacramento, CA:  My family stayed home today because it would have cost us over $17 for the four of us to ride the bus round trip. How is this a good deal? My questions are numerous, but the main ones are: Why are there no kinds of discounts for frequent riders? (Monthly passes do not save money, unless used on weekends AND every workday.) What can RT do to ensure that riders are paying? Obviously, it is more than simple to ride the light rail trains without paying. And almost every day I ride, I hear a bus driver allow someone to get on without full fare in hand or without proper id for discount. Riders often get transfers without any coins being deposited into fare box. I have been an RT rider for over 20 years--I get no discounts or free rides.

Reply:  Your questions have many aspects, but let me answer the basic issue. RT has a strict fare enforcement policy, due in large part to the discounts that we provide to such organizations as the Los Rios Community College District and other school systems, human service agencies, and senior citizens. Every fare counts, and we have instituted increased fare checking over the last several months. As you may have read, RT is still recovering from a staggering $18 million reduction in funding support from the State of California, and we are facing a further $4 million reduction this month. Consequently, we have doubled our rate of fare inspection, and we have reinforced fare policies with our drivers to make sure that fares are properly identified and collected. In the longer term, we have realized that frequent riders are the backbone of our system. We are in the process of implementing a universal fare card system, which will allow us to provide discounts for frequent users, depending on their frequency of use.

Sacramento, CA:  Please share the status of the Watt/Manlove overcrossing. When will it REALLY be open?

Reply:  Sacramento County's contractor anticipates completing the work necessary to have the light rail trains transition to the new overcrossing by the first week in February. The new light rail station platform work needs to be completed before light rail service can be transitioned to the overcrossing. Construction work will continue for the remaining roadway work. The overcrossing will carry the light rail trains only and freight train service will continue to cross Watt Avenue at grade.

Sacramento, CA:  I pick up the train at Sunrise and exit downtown. The trains have been cut back to 3 cars for the holiday's due to anticipated decreased vollume. The vollume has remained the same during peak times and we have been forced to cram into 3 cars. Could you please not cut back on the cars any longer during the hoiday season?

Reply:  The light rail operators work with our light rail control center to add and remove cars based upon service requirements. Until all of the cars are full, we don't add additional cars. As you may know, it costs more to operate more cars. Our goal is to have full cars to keep costs down, while providing good service. Our operations team has been adjusting the number of vehicles as demand requires. This may have caused some full trains as they would lag the demand. We appreciate you using the system. Thanks.

Sacramento, CA:  As a 20-year rider, I have never understood why light rail drivers only rarely communicate with riders in those instances where an explanation of major delays, disruptions, reduced number of cars, etc., would be useful (not to mention common courtesy). Can such communication be increased?

Reply:  We are working with the rail operators to increase their communication with riders. The primary focus of the rail operator is to safely operate the vehicle. We are also working on a number of system enhancements that we globally call passenger information systems. This includes message signs at stations, text updates to phones, and web based updates. We are also looking to enhance our automatic announcements to provide better information to our patrons. You should see these rolling out over the next six months. We think these may be helpful for our patrons. As they roll out we will be looking for your feedback on how they work and improvements that might be helpful.

Sacramento, CA:  With fare hikes, more people are going to find ways to avoid paying the full fare. Whether it be not paying at the light rail station and getting on the train without fare, or persuading drivers into not paying the fare in full. How is RT and its drivers going to enforce paying the full fares on these people when this doesn't seem to be enforced that much?

Reply:  That's a very timely question. We are very aware of the perception that people are not paying full fare, and we have been preparing for it. As you may have read, we have weathered a staggering $18 million reduction in funding from the State, and we're facing an additional $4 million hit at least in the next month. Every dollar in fare counts that much more as a result. We have beefed up fare evasion enforcement over the last few months, so that our rate of inspection is now twice what it was at mid-year. As you might expect, our rate of fare evasion has fallen drastically. Also, our fare increase, made necessary by the removal of state funding, has provided an opportunity to refresh our drivers' orientation on fare policies. We are therefore expecting a more consistent driver behavior with regard to fare collection and enforcement.

Sacramento, CA:  With fares going through the roof, why haven't I seen any transit officials in months making sure that every passenger has the proper fare?

Reply:  We have doubled the fare inspection rate over the last year and have added a crime reduction team in our police force. We have also extended the coverage over most of our service hours. With these changes, we hope to catch more of the non-paying riders.

Sacramento, CA:  If RT is suffering so badly with budget cuts, why hasn't some of the major projects that have yet to break ground been postponed in order to free up some money? I think at least it would have help prevent some of the unprecedented fare hikes.

Reply:  Operating and capital funds (Construction Money) are separate sources. We cannot use the capital funds for operating costs. We have allocated all of our available operating resources to maintain our level of service. However, at a time when operating resources are limited, we have been able to secure capital dollars that allow us to make improvements to the system for system enhancements, safety improvements, passenger information systems and system expansions. In the next several years, as the economy improves and operating dollars become more readily available, we will be positioned to add services because we have continued to make the necessary capital improvements.

Sacramento, CA:  Besides increased funding from the State, what, realistically, would it take for RT to be free of its budget crisis?

Reply:  RT continually looks at ways to operate more efficiently. One of the programs we are currently undertaking is to look at various sub regions within the district to evaluate how service is structured and where the most ridership currently exists, as well as new ridership generating places (shopping centers, apartments/condominiums, schools, etc.). The most important initiative will be for RT to have a dedicated revenue source. Many transit agencies that have been able to weather fluctuations in State funding have those dedicated funding sources. RT is looking to put an initiative before the voters some time in the next few years to establish a dedicated funding source. In order for RT to continue our efforts to expand bus service and extend light rail service to Natomas and the Airport, the dedicating funding source is needed.

Rocklin, CA:  Hello Mr. Wiley. As you know, we still do not have light rail service out to Roseville or Rocklin. Placer County, Roseville, Rocklin and Lincoln are not receiving light rail service. The SACOG Master Plan effort showed that we want light rail to Roseville. How do we implement the plan, so that we like Folsom have this great commuter option?

Reply:  I'm glad you asked. RT heard many comments from Placer County and Roseville in particular, about a strong desire for light rail service. The Transit Master Plan includes two options for extending light rail service out to Roseville, with the details worked out over the next several years. Basically, it will take a mutual effort between the cities of Sacramento and Roseville, Regional Transit, and the counties of Placer and Sacramento to identify and secure funding resources necessary to complete such a project. As you may know, this effort will be influenced (if not stonewalled) by recent State activities to reduce funding for public transit. However, I'm confident that if we can partner with our surrounding communities, we can secure the funding we need to complete this portion of the Transit Master Plan, which we are going to call "TransitAction."

Citrus Heights, CA:  I would like to see better dissemination of information to passengers from the LR train operators. Some examples are not informing passengers when the train stops for no reason on the tracks between stations and remains there for several minutes and no explanation is given. Another is when the train stops at a maintainence facillity to change train operators, but no notice is announced that it is not a passenger stop. Finally, during peak rush hour a train pulls up with only two cars instead of the usual four and the train operator does not use the loud speaker to annouce this to the waiting crowd as he/she is pulling in forcing a 'run' by passengers at the far end to try and get on the only cars. Some train operators are very good in keeping passengers informed, but it is very inconsistent with each operator making the decsion on their own as to what to share with passengers.

Reply:  You have noted a shortcoming that a number of passengers have brought to our attention. We are working with our light rail operators to provide better and more consistent information to riders, including providing automated announcements regarding disruptions in service. We are also adding an array of new passenger information systems over the course of this new year. These include passenger information signs at stations, a subscription system for text updates about rider selected services, and Web based vehicle (bus and train) locations by route. We will continue to work with our operators to improve their communication with riders.

Sacramento, CA:  I am an usher at the Community Theatre on L and 13th Street. Several patrons request information on riding light rail. Have you considered placing an ad in the playbill or advertising in the lobby?

Reply:  Light rail is a convenient transportation option to attend Community Theatre events, with the Cathedral Square (11th and K) and 12th & I Street stations located nearby. I will ask Devra Selenis, RT's Public Information Manager, to contact the Community Theatre to inquire about promotional opportunities. It would also be great if the Theatre would include the price of riding the system in their ticket.

Sacramento, CA:  Would it be possible to have Service Disruptions posted on your site frequently? I do not see any, and I've been part of them many times, but you do use your tools (web/phonemenu) to alert us (customers). Communication is key..

Reply:  We are implementing a number of passenger information systems during the upcoming year, including electronic information signs at stations. A passenger alert system will go online soon for the Neighborhood Ride routes and then expanded to bus routes and light rail. This alert system will also be Web based. Thanks for the comment. This is an area where you should see vast improvements over the coming year.

Elk Grove, CA:  I asked you back in October about returning RT service to Elk Grove area. Has there been any further talks?

Reply:  RT continues to cooperate with Elk Grove in planning new transit services. We are reviewing planning materials for fixed transit alignments within the Elk Grove service area, so that they will coordinate with our own planned extension of the South Line Phase 2 to Cosumnes River College. However, the decision on returning RT service to the Elk Grove area is an Elk Grove action. RT is very willing and ready to provide service to Elk Grove if that is a direction chosen by the City Council.

North Highland, CA:  What was the thinking behind raising the monthly pass from $85 to $100 ( an increase of nearly 18%) when the daily fare was only raised by $.25 (an increase of 12.5%). this appears to be penalizing faithful riders who use the light rail every day. shouldn't you be encouraging this steady source of income?

Reply:  Due to an $18.3 million loss of state funds for this fiscal year, RT was forced to raise fares on January 1. The fare increase will generate an additional $2.5 million this year to help cover a portion of the State raid. The rate increases were determined by calculating the current usage of each type of fare media and the estimated deflection rates (percentage of those who may not ride due to the the fare increase). We want to encourage more people to use public transit, not discourage riders from using the transit system.

Sacramento, CA:  What is the latest status on SLP2? According to the website, construction was scheduled for 2008. THAT IS NOT GOING TO HAPPEN! So when does it start?

Reply:  The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) issued the final environmental clearance for the South Sacramento Corridor Phase 2 project on December 18, 2008. The design of the project will continue until Summer 2009 with construction anticipated to start in late 2009 or early 2010. Additional FTA approvals are needed before the project can begin construction. Service to Cosumnes River College is scheduled to begin in 2012.

Sacramento, CA:  Why did you call this Chat? It is not chat! And you haven't answered my question. I understaned if you are swamped. A chat room would be better as riders could share knowledge.

Reply:  We created a tool similar to what Washington DC's Transit system uses that allow the community to ask their GM questions. The goal of this tool is to allow me to respond to questions from the public in an easy forum that is informative. In a traditional blog or chat the dialog is between the people logged in. So in keeping with our goal, please let me know if you have any questions about RT.

Sacramento, CA:  I notice that all the monthly pass holders just flash their pass at the driver and the driver punches it in, though we have the ability to swipe it, which seemingly no one does. Which do drivers prefer?

Reply:  The drivers are trained to use the key pad to record types of fare received, including monthly passes. The pass may not always swipe correctly, which will delay other passengers in boarding while the driver tries to figure out why the swipe unit did not work. This could also delay the bus on its route, if it happens enough. It is easier, therefore, for the drivers to use the key pad rather than insist on passengers swiping their passes.

Folsom, CA:  Is there a plan to add more trains on the gold line during rush hour times due to the fact that the trains are so packed?

Reply:  Currently, the track structure and signaling only support 15-minute train service. RT has been discussing a new capital project with the City of Folsom to construct additional tracks to allow for 15-minute service to all Folsom stations. The funding needed for construction is approximately $60 million. However, RT has a new project programmed to provide 15-minute service to Hazel Station with a significantly lower capital cost of approximately $4 million. We are also hopeful of adding additional trains during the peak periods next fiscal year. With all of that said, RT is facing significant budget impacts due to actions by the Governor and State Legislature that have reduced expected funding for RT by approximately $18 million. RT is working to maintain current bus and light rail service levels. Implementation of any new service will be difficult.

CA:  what's the deal with governor taking away transit funds?

Reply:  The Governor is cutting budgets across all of the funded areas. Although we do not want to see transit cuts, realistically the state's budget deficit is very large. Our expectation is there will be budget cuts across every area of state funding. We hope the cuts to transit are as small as possible. This is where voters have a role. They can contact their State Senators, members of the Assembly and the Governor with their comments on the proposed cuts. This year alone, the State has cut $18.3 million from our budget, approximately 12 percent of our operating budget.

Sacramento, CA:  What exactly happens when you do "catch" a non-paying rider?

Reply:  The first step is to establish that the non-paying rider has, in fact, violated our fare policy. Then we check our list of repeat non-paying riders, because this affects the level of fine or other penalty that may result. Next, we explain to the non-paying rider how they have violated our fare policy. Finally, we either issue a citation (including a warning in limited cases) or we escort the non-payer from the system.

Folsom, CA:  Can you explain how the new bridge over Watt Avenue will affect service to Folsom? Will the state's budget issues have an effect on possible enhancements in service this bridge could provide?

Reply:  The new bridge provides relief to traffic congestion at the intersection of Watt Avenue and Folsom Boulevard more than it improves RT's ability to change the service provided west of the new bridge. The one change is that train service will not be interrupted by vehicle accidents or delays on the roadway. RT has plans to implement additional limited stop service to increase passenger capacity, but capital funding has not yet been identified. The State's budget crisis is impacting this and all of RT's capital projects, as well as our ability to operate additional service.

Sacramento, CA:  When I attempted to purchase a monthly pass on Monday night (Dec. 1st) at your main office at 13th St. I was horrified at how long the line was. They made us stand outside in the cold allowing only a very limited number of people inside. I waited for nearly an hour! ONE window was open and the dear lady behind it was not processing tickets at a very speedy fashion. Also at 16th St. and 29th St .(two stations I frequent often) I am appauled at the smoking, urinating, spitting, etc. by inconsiderate people waiting for a train. The security officers are useless as they are usually socializing.

Reply:  I apologize for the delay and long line at the Customer Service and Sales Center. There are periodic times throughout the year when the wait is longer than usual. There is an occupancy limit, which prevents staff from allowing all customers in the Sales Center at the same time. We will be adding on-line ticket and pass sales by spring of this year, which should reduce the lines at the Sales Center. We will also implement a Smart Card by the end of the year, which will greatly improve how passengers purchase fare media. The RT Board of Directors adopted a no smoking policy within our shelters at bus stops and light rail stations. Please either alert the guard at the station or call us at 321-2877 when you see people smoking. Also, the 16th Street and 29th Street stations are pressure washed three times a week and cleaned daily. We ask our contract security personnel to greet passengers, as well as maintain order and ensure compliance with RT rules. However, we are aware of the limitations of using security officers vs. transit officers and police officers. RT simply cannot afford to assign a police officer at every station. Any complaints about our contract security officers are forwarded to the Wackenhut Project Manager and are investigated and resolved in a timely manner.

Sacramento, CA:  Why did RT not extend light rail service hours for the New Year's Eve events? This could have been a good way for people to familiarize themselves with the systems if they haven't taken the initiative to ride before.

Reply:  RT is more than willing to add service for special events like this. However, such service does require additional resources. With the loss of $18.3 million in State funding this year and a reduction of $24 million in sales tax due to the struggling economy, we are not in a position to add service. We would have gladly added service if the event sponsors had provided the necessary resources.

Sacramento, CA:  Are there going to be parking fees for cars parked at the lite rail stations?

Reply:  The RT Board of Directors considered instituting parking fees at its open meeting in November of 2008, but directed staff to consider the issue further. We are returning to the board in January to ask them to consider adding a $1 fee for parking if the state imposes additional cuts on our funding. We've conducted focus groups and revised our revenue estimates regarding the costs and income expected from a parking fee. The board will have the opportunity to consider whether parking fees make sense in light of the states budget situation.

Sacramento, CA:  What is the function of Wackenhut security? Is this one of the reasons for the fare increase? I've taken numerous pictures of their daily social gatherings.

Reply:  Our contract security personnel greet passengers as well as maintain order and ensure compliance with RT rules. However, we are aware of the limitations of using security officers vs. transit officers and police officers. RT simply can not afford to assign a police officer to every station and every train. Any complaints about our contract security officers should be made through our Customer Advocacy Department (557-4545 or call 321-2877. They will be investigated by our Police Services Department and forwarded to the Wackenhut Project Manager where they will be resolved in a timely manner.

Sacramento, CA:  How do you think Mayor Kevin Johnson's transportation plans will affect R and the Sacramento region? He seems to have ambition and be in favor of bolstering public transit, but how can he find the money and support to implement his policies in this challenging economic environment?

Reply:  Mayor Johnson's plans could provide a significant boost to RT's operations. The Mayor has outlined a plan to increase housing around our transit stations by at least 10,000 in his first term. That is a very ambitious vision, but he has made it clear that he is counting on the business community to support him. Obviously, the City can't provide a lot of funding for that vision when it is facing budget problems like every other major city in California. However, because transit provides real value added to developments, and to businesses, the City can provide zoning and project review incentives that will accelerate new housing development around our transit stations. This not only provides additional housing opportunities for working families, but it also sharply reduces daily transportation costs for those families, allowing them to afford a home and achieve a higher standard of living. Every family that uses transit to avoid purchasing an additional car saves on average $3,450 per year in maintenance, fuel, insurance, and other automotive costs.

Sacramento, CA:  What is being done to address disruptive passengers and those who bring and leave trash on the trains? I'm tired of the mess and having to tolerate the disruptive behaviors of some groups of people.

Reply:  Transit officers and police officers, both in uniform and plain clothes, check the trains for violations of the law. Additionally, the internal video surveillance cameras on our trains are able to be monitored by security personnel. We will be able to monitor all of our trains by the end of the year. Please make any uniformed RT personnel aware of these problems when they occur or call 557-4545 to report it.

CA:  What impact will President elect Obama's plan to jolt the economy by overhauling the nation's transit systems have on RT?

Reply:  RT believes that the transportation program envisioned by President-elect Obama and Congress will place a greater emphasis on transit programs and include the funding necessary to implement the new programs. The information RT has received to date indicates a desire to provide upwards of $60 billion for transit in the next transportation funding authorization legislation.

Sacramento, CA:  if a person isn't doing anything criminal but is it clear violation of RT rules. who do you contact? what is the # for transit police dispatch?

Reply:  Security officers and transit officers strive to get compliance to RT rules. A person could be ejected for non-compliance. Please make any uniformed RT personnel aware of these problems when they occur or call 557-4545 to report it.

Sacramento, CA:  The Associated Press released details of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's latest proposal to address the state's budget woes and it includes a $153 million in cuts the current fiscal year and $306 million loss in2009-2010 for local transit grants. How will this affect RT?

Reply:  RT is still recovering from an $18 million budget reduction in calendar year 2008, and we face a further $4 million cut (at least) this January as a result of the Governor's actions so far. I honestly don't know how we will adjust to the proposed loss in 2009-2010. Our Board of Directors directed staff particularly not to implement any service reductions in the current round of budget cuts. Unless we can identify and secure a new funding source, RT will face very difficult choices over the next few months.

Comments from Mike Wiley: 

Thank you to everyone who participated in the chat today. Our next session will be held on Friday, February 6, from noon to 1 p.m. right here at Happy New Year and thank you for continuing to choose RT.