When legislators put the brakes on funding to local governments, the cuts are felt where the rubber literally hits the road – county transportation districts.

California mass transit operators took a $1 billion hit last year in state transit assistance funding and are bracing for more cuts this year.

In Oceanside, new North County Transit District Executive Director Matthew Tucker is facing a projected $15.5 million deficit in 2011 even without further reductions.

NCTD, which operates under the banner “We Move People,” already raised fares last year with mixed results. Ridership declined slightly as some switched to neighboring services, but inched up again when other districts raised their prices and again when the price of gas increased. Then the economic slowdown hit and fewer employees led to fewer commuters so ridership went down again.

“It is difficult to draw a line between fare increases and ridership because there are so many factors in play,” Tucker says.

“We have to consolidate, leverage and reinvent,” says Tucker.

Consolidation could come in the form of outsourcing or vouchers to realize potential cost savings. The Breeze bus service, which operates 160 buses and employs 250 drivers and 80 mechanics could be a candidate for contracting out as early as 2010. NCTD already contracts out the Coaster commuter rail service, Sprinter light rail service and paratransit service.

Reinvention could mean finding ways to deliver more services with fewer people. The District employs 500 people and shrinking. More than 10 percent of staff was laid off last year.

“I call it addition by subtraction,” Tucker says. “When you remove the bureaucracy, people will take more ownership because there are fewer layers of management shielding them.”

Those who are left may have to work for less money as Tucker is negotiating with the unions to “reexamine the cost and benefit structure.”
 “We are all in agreement that there is a problem,” Tucker says. “We just may not agree on how to get to a solution.”

Tucker hopes to leverage technology such as computer kiosks for ticket vending and routing information to make the system more convenient to navigate and less human resource-intensive.

Sometimes saving money requires an investment. The district currently runs 40- and 35-foot busses. Tucker is considering purchasing smaller buses for less heavily-used routes to save on maintenance.

“This is not a one-size fits all situation,” Tucker says.

When it comes to lightrail, Tucker doesn’t plan to widen the current 30-minute headways unless he faces “a catastrophe.” Instead he hopes to reduce the cost to operate the line and increase the number of riders per train.

Market solutions that could build ridership include premium options such as the introduction of reserved parking spaces and detailing services.

“We can’t continue on the same course,’ Tucker says.

Cost increases estimated as high as 59 percent in the last four years and decreased state and federal subsidies have hit smaller districts as well. Most have had to pass the extra expense on to consumers.

In Placer “We’re Going Your Way!” County, where ridership demand exceeds capacity on some commuter routes, the transit district budget lost $350,000 last year in reduced sales tax revenue and state assistance.  

Will Garner, Placer County Transit Public Works director announced that as of July 1, 2009, fares would go from a buck each way to $1.25 – with no free transfers.

Yolo “25 Years and Rolling” County Transportation District spends $9 million a year running the popular YOLOBUS. It connects UC Davis college students, Sacramento workers and Cache Creek Casino players with suburban thoroughfares. The district lost $518,000 in state funding in 2009 and anticipates losing another $1 million each of the next four years. That is almost 10 percent of the district’s $9 million operating budget.

“We try our best to be run lean,” says Terry Basset, Yolo County Transportation District executive director. Non-management employee salaries have not changed in 2 ½ years and his own salary has been frozen.

Many consider public transportation an essential service. Nationally 10.7 million bus, rail and trolley trips occurred last year, according to the American Public Transportation Association. That is a 1.7 percent increase from the previous year.

Any adjustments to schedules can bring protests from users and damage efforts to decrease auto emissions if people go back to driving alone.

NCTD’s Tucker stresses the importance of communication during an adjustment.

“You have to get out front early and continue to communicate and get feedback from all stakeholders,” says Tucker, who’s district maintains a Twitter account. “That translates into longer hours and more meetings for managers, but it is essential.”

JT Long can be reached at jtlongandco@gmail.com