That’s a question the residents of Santa Cruz County might soon be asking themselves if any of the following state bill pass: A1350, AB2012, and AB2176. Each one is aimed at increasing ridership in existing bus systems by completely eliminating the cost of ridership for specific age groups and people. AB1350 would allow anyone under the age of 18 to ride the bus for free, AB2012 for people 65 and over, and AB2176 for all California public higher education students. The problem is, as the fine folks at SC Metro would likely tell you, is there is no mechanism identified in the bill to pay for any of these rides.
Now honestly it’s not the end of the world, and for a number of reasons, and these bills are unlikely to pass in their current form, but it is worth planning for–on the off chance that a doomsday scenario might completely undermine Metro’s current cost structure. First and foremost, most people don’t realize (or don’t bother to consider) that mass transit never pays for itself. In fact, most large scale bus systems average a little over 20 percent farebox recovery (fancy way of saying ridership revenue), which means that taxpayers are footing the bill close to 80 percent of the cost of each ride.
The other reason is that we may be on the verge of an entirely different system of transportation, one that relies less on fixed systems but more on fluid, decentralized point to point services that can also tap into existing infrastructure. Look no further than the Santa Cruz GO program, which subsidizes downtown workers using Metro AND bike share as its principal means of reducing car trips. If this model were extended to include UCSC and Cabrillo students (who have already taxed themselves to pay for all metro services), then it simply shifts the cost burden away from being a sales tax based subsidy, to being one funded by the stakeholder agencies and organizations themselves.
Now take this new funding model for transportation and apply it to the Santa Cruz County Rail Corridor, which is currently being evaluated for over 25(!) different types of transportation. You can read more about each one of these transit modes in a recent article from Santa Cruz Local here, but the gist of the debate is whether or not to invest the huge amounts of tax dollars that it would likely take to provide some form of fixed transportation service, versus a more decentralized system. Given that the startup costs for the JUMP bikes we are now seeing everywhere were virtually nothing in comparison to the hundreds of millions it would take to set up a commuter rail system, it may be smarter to put off a big decision about the corridor until later, and in the short term prioritize the decentralized system. And if Metro is going to be forced to change anyway, it might be even more prudent to use that change as a catalyst for system wide evaluation, rather than continuing to move forward with the status quo.
Either way you can now give feedback to the RTC about which of these options should be prioritized for further evaluation. We will also be continuing to follow the trends in state legislation that may or may not end bus service as we know it locally. Just a couple more reasons why we need to stay tuned and stay involved.