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."