Broad AC Transit Service Cuts Coming, But There Could Be a Silver Lining

4063566106_6eb0a5a73f.jpgAC Transit Route 72R. Flickr photo: daniel_gies

AC Transit announced today it plans to cut service on 108 of 113 lines across the East Bay on March 28th, amounting to an 8 percent overall reduction.

Despite the broad cuts, the agency is pitching the change as one that will spare its most transit-dependent riders. By making changes based on thorough demographic analysis and public
outreach, the agency claims the cuts will not adversely affect the communities that most depend on bus service and that service may actually be enhanced as a result.

The agency has conducted over a dozen public meetings about the service
cuts and has modified its changes based on rider feedback at those sessions, according to AC Transit Spokesperson Clarence Johnson. "What we tried to do was maintain as much service as possible for the people who need it, with the understanding that some cuts needed to be made," he said.

Johnson also noted that AC Transit had spent over nine months reaching out to the public, explaining the agency’s predicament and asking their riders what service they considered most essential.

Ultimately, the changes on the 108 lines will save the agency approximately
$9.5 million annually, chipping away at the $56 million deficit looming in fiscal year 2010-11. The agency has also instituted hiring freezes, raised fares, and asked every department to cut its budget by 15 percent. The only lines that won’t be affected by the cuts will be the 1-1R, 11, 40, 72R and 97,  along with the 800 late night services.

Perhaps surprisingly, some of the advocates most concerned with transit viability backed up the agency’s assertion. "It’s tremendously sad to see AC Transit added to the long list of transit agencies that have cut service," said Carli Paine, Transportation Director for TransForm. "No one wants to cheer service cuts, but there are definitely going to be some operational benefits that emerge as a by-product of the changes."

"They dug into data on transit dependency and did their best to ensure that those riders who rely on AC Transit bus service would suffer least," added Paine.

Unlike Muni, AC Transit didn’t have the benefit
of data
from a recently
completed transit
overhaul program
to inform the cuts, meaning it had to
start its process from scratch.

"We think our effort was unprecedented, certainly for this agency, but for transit agencies in general," said Johnson. "We haven’t heard a lot of other agencies doing similar outreach."

As an example of what came out of the public meetings, AC Transit cites Line 51, a 13-mile route which previously ran from Berkeley’s estuary to Alameda’s southern shore. On-time performance was "spotty," with "severe bunching," the agency said. As a result of the outreach, staff came up with a plan to split the line in half, with one new line running from Alameda to the Oakland Rockridge BART station and another from the Oakland Rockridge BART station to the Berkeley estuary. That’s made it easier to manage and has resulted in fewer delays, according to the agency.

Even after the deep cuts, AC transit still faces a difficult financial future. Johnson said that the return of some state transit aid might be the only way to avert future cuts.

"That’s potentially the best news we’ve seen on the financial front," he said. "It will help quite a bit in maybe not making further cuts and further layoffs. We just hope it materializes."

  • At least AC Transit has the guts to face the public and get ideas to modify their routes. Muni… just a few town halls here and there, and they think of the worst ideas (e.g. eliminating the 38-Geary Ocean Beach route and servicing it with the 18 with reduced frequencies up to 30 minutes coming in May).

  • patrick

    AC Transit seems to be way ahead of Muni in so many regards. They have low floor vehicles that are much nicer than Muni’s, and they will actually listen to their riders and make changes based on that feedback, what a crazy idea!

  • r walls

    ac transit doesnt have half the riders muni has in one day, they dont have trolleys and they dont have cable cars and they dont have light rail so to say they run better is obsurd. they only run buses.

  • JohnB

    But AC Transit cover a much larger area, including services over to SF.

    Sure they have fewer different types of vehicles to maintain. But they also don’t have SF’s tourist trade, without which the cable cars and vintage streetcars wouldn’t be viable.

    I guess what I don’t understand here is how the finances of a County (that includes Oakland, Berkeley, Emeryville, Alameda, San Leandro and so on) compares to the finances of a single City, like SF.

    And speaking of which, Emeryville provides free public transit. Maybe that’s the model we should be aiming for.

  • patrick

    r walls, why does Muni having more types of vehicles mean that it inherently operates better? And as JohnB points out, AC transit has to deal with far more governments, and cover a much larger area.

  • JohnB

    Patrick

    Yeah, SouthWest Airlines claim much operational efficiency arises through only running one type of plane, the 737. Easier to maintain, train pilots, switch staff around etc.

    I’m sure the same applies to a ground transportation system.

    I think maybe RW was trying to say that because ACT is so much simpler, it isn’t really run better. It’s just that it’s easier for them to look good than with a much busier and more complex system like SFMuni.

    However, since both are in the same type of trouble, I think it’s moot.

  • Emery-Go-Round is funded through by the commercial properties in the area (a tax on the businesses it serves, right?) It works since giant businesses like Pixar and Ikea would be running employee shuttles and the malls that likely couldn’t afford shopper shuttles if they weren’t pooling resources with everyone in the area. The model could work in other commercial areas, but can’t fully replace countywide transit service.

    Comparing AC Transit to Muni is apple and oranges because, as has been mentioned, they have multiple city governments to deal with, different local tax laws and funding sources, along with different contracts and agreements with suppliers, contractors, vendors and labor unions. Different vehicles is only the most visible distinction and this article only mentioned Muni for the point of discussing availability of ridership data.

  • Nick

    Is there any precedent for how a transit agency updates it’s paper maps upon service changes?

    Since the MUNI service cuts, I’ve found that a bus line I needed to take to get to a job didn’t exist anymore.

    How about the MTA make an instructional You-Tube video that shows us step-by-step which lines to cross out with a Sharpie marker? That seems to be the best option, aside from printing 700,000 new maps.

  • patrick

    I agree that having fewer types of vehicles would be easier to manage, and lead to increased cost efficiencies, but having fewer vehicle types does not mean that it is inherently better run, which is what RW implied.

    I believe SWA is well managed, and since they have competent management, they chose to use a single type of vehicle.

  • swissmiss

    I could be wrong but if I recall during the discussion about mandating alternative fuel requirements for Muni fleets years ago their was much “to-do” about how many of the buses that other transit agencies (like AC) use do not meet Muni’s performance requirements (fully loaded up the steepest route grade) and also break-over height. But I could be wrong.

  • those dudes

    Not sure i understand what was so unprecedented or innovative? they cut service and did public outreach (which was probably legally required). isnt this what muni did at the end of 09? this story alludes to demographic analysis…but gives no details.

  • patrick

    To me it’s what AC Transit has done is not really all that unprecedented or innovative, but Muni couldn’t even do that much. The AC transit cuts are about the same in severity as the Muni cuts that just got approved, but AC transit is doing them in a targeted manner after finding out which cuts would be the least painful, whereas Muni just did across the board cuts without any real discussion, nor any thought as to how to mitigate the cuts. While the previous round of cuts were similar to what AC Transit has done, They were minuscule in comparison to the 10% that Muni just approved.

    Also compare that AC Transit spent 9 months working these out, whereas Muni was either so incompetent that they couldn’t see the budget problems coming, or they willfully ignored them. Neither situation makes me happy with Muni.

  • Alex

    @JohnB Let’s not forget that San Francisco is a consolidated city and county… and there absolutely is a county level administration to deal with: the San Francisco County Transportation Authority.

    AC Transit is simpler in some ways, but that’s mostly irrelevant to how they managed to handle the proposed service cuts. In fact, I’d guess that pruning the AC Transit lines was a more difficult (and thoughtful) task than the way in which the SFMTA went about things. Example:

    1.) The SFMTA is refusing to consider changes which would need the approval of the Board of Supervisors. This rules out eliminating lines, and a host of other changes.

    2.) The changes that the MTA proposed were so poorly thought through it’s a wonder they didn’t just solicit opinions from politicians in Tokyo. FFS, they are staunchly behind the idea of gutting service to Treasure Island. Treasure Island is *completely* transit dependent. The MTA has also proposed turning back the M at SF State. Of course MUNI stopped using the switches at SF State years ago because they were unsafe and poorly designed.

    @swissmiss That’s not an entirely unreasonable rationale, but consider two things. 1.) MUNI purchased a number of vehicles that weren’t designed for MUNI. They purchased AC Transit’s order of buses new from NABI (and you’ll see these in service quite frequently) as well as some old SamTrans buses (which have mostly been left to rot) on a few occasions.

    2.) Look at how well the MTA’s custom design process has worked for us. The disastrous LRVs from the early 80s that pretty much just rusted out. The nearly as lousy current LRVs. Or, how about the fantastic East European trolleys that we bought that kept detaching themselves from the overhead wires and doing things like hitting and injuring pedestrians?

    I think Patrick hit the nail on the head here. That AC Transit has managed to do unpleasant tasks in such a galvanizing manner is not completely shocking unless you’re used to how things get done in San Francisco. It’s a wonder that some of these people working for the MTA can actually dress themselves every day.

  • Citing the total number of lines affected by cuts yields an exaggerated impression. The five lines not being cut are the backbone of the frequent network and offhand I’d guess they represent 30-50% of AC’s total patronage.

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    I moved to Oakland six months ago. One of the lines being terminated is the 59/59A which runs in part from near my house to Rockridge BART. I can say from my short experience that this is certainly a line which deserves to be cut. Every time I have used this bus, it has been a non-stop private limo service. I have never had to share the bus with anyone else. It is the least popular bus service I’ve personally seen.

    Although I’m disappointed that AC Transit is doing away with my personal shuttle, I’m glad to see the agency has rational management. The cuts and reconfigurations seem to make the best of a bad situation.

  • Why do we not have enough money for buses, but plenty for energy wars? We are basically killing some people so that other people can sit in traffic and pump carbon dioxide into the air. It is time to look at the big picture. It is time for big changes.

  • @free transit, I know you are being rhetorical, but until “we, the people” get enough money to line the pockets of those in power, we’ll just continue to be pawns. Sadly, the odds of our voices getting heard are even more slim now that the Supreme Court ruled that corporations can give freely to elections.

    Now “government of the people, by the people, for the people” is about as meaningful as saying San Francisco is “transit first.”

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