2012-09-20 / Community
Future of East County bus system in transit
WAITING FOR CHANGE
Part 2 of a two-part series
With discussions underway between Thousand Oaks, Moorpark, Camarillo and Simi Valley about how to improve intercity bus travel, the biggest question becomes “Who is going to pay for it?”
Although the state sets aside millions each year from sales and gasoline tax revenue to give to the counties for public transit, in recent tough economic times many cities have opted to use those funds for road improvements instead.
Ventura County currently has an exemption from 2009’s Senate Bill 716, which requires cities to spend all of their Transportation Development Act (TDA) funds on public transit. The exemption means that, through June 2014, the cities can spend part of their transit funds on road improvements as long as they demonstrate, based on TDA standards, that they have no reasonable unmet transit needs.
But Darren Kettle, head of the Ventura County Transportation Commission, said those days may be coming to end. With the recent bankruptcy of Coach America— former operator of the county’s VISTA bus system—blamed on a bad contract, it’s expected that future contracts between cities and private bus companies will go up in cost, he said.
“It’s altogether possible that the money that’s left out there for streets and roads . . . may very well end up being needed to meet the transit needs of the East County, such as keeping the VISTA system going,” Kettle said.
Assessing the needs
Assemblymember Das Williams (D-Santa Barbara) tried unsuccessfully this summer to raise support for legislation that would force the county to spend all of its TDA funds on transit, but the bill was shelved partly because of opposition from East County cities.
Williams and others have argued that TDA standards for what is a reasonable need are too strict, allowing cities to avoid paying for necessary improvements.
“It’s frustrating because a lot of the needs that our riders have aren’t considered as unmet needs,” said Amy Aguilera, transit organizer for Ventura County bus riders union ASSERT.
But city officials maintain that it would be too costly to cater to every request they receive.
“It’s not a feasible thing for me to put an additional bus on every route,” said Mike Houser, director of Thousand Oaks’ transit program. “We have four routes. That cost would be about three-quarters of a million dollars a year, not counting the actual cost of the buses, which would run upwards of $2.5 million.
“If we added more buses with shorter routes and better on-time performance, there’s no doubt we would get a jump in ridership, but the question is, is the jump in ridership, relative to the expense involved, enough?”
The issue for cities like Thousand Oaks is that in order to qualify for TDA funds they must be able to show they are earning 20 percent of what they receive from the state in bus fares, a difficult task when ridership remains relatively low.
“We’re running about 15 percent right now,” Houser said of Thousand Oaks Transit.
In spite of their financial straits, Houser said the East County cities are aware that their bus systems must be made more reliable and consistent if transit operators expect to attract new riders.
“I’ll be first person to admit that the green route (in Thousand Oaks) is far too long,” Houser said of the route that travels from CLU to the transportation center. “It takes almost 90 minutes.”
But the city is reluctant to expand any more services without a clearly defined need in the community, especially during a recession.
“For at least the last three years there have been no findings in Thousand Oaks of any unmet transit needs,” Houser said. “In fact, we are one of the few cities in Ventura County that expanded our services last year.”
Thousand Oaks Transit added 2.75 hours of coverage to each of its fixed routes last year. The expansion will cost the city about $190,000 each year; half that cost will be funded by a federal grant.
In addition, Houser is looking into adding Saturday bus service in T.O. by the end of the year. Thousand Oaks hopes to coordinate its weekend service, which would cost between $200,000 and $350,000 to operate, with Moorpark’s planned Saturday service.
Spurred on by a VCTC regional transit study released this spring, the cities of Moorpark, Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley and Camarillo are in the process of creating a memorandum of understanding that will dictate the future of bus transit in the East County. The goal is to reduce confusion, expand services and increase efficiency.
“We are working very hard on that,” Houser said of the MOU. “It’s our goal by . . . around February or March of next year to have a document that will be acceptable to all four city councils.”
Coming to an agreement will require compromise, the transit director said.
“We’ll have to get together and agree on one rate (for all buses), and there are some cities that are really not going to like that,” Houser said. “Some cities can charge less and meet their fare box (requirement), other cities need to charge more . . . so we’ll need to find some middle ground.”
Another challenge the cities are facing is what to do in regard to the VISTA service, which connects cities throughout the county.
After Coach America went bankrupt in early 2012, VCTC signed a contract with Camarillo-based Roadrunner Shuttle, but the transportation commission wants to get out of the transit operation business by June, leaving the operators, i.e., the cities, to find a solution.
“So we’ve been given almost 11 months to do probably a three-year job,” Houser said.
Kettle said it no longer makes sense for VCTC to handle the operational side of VISTA.
“Does it make sense having us in the business when it could be further confusing to the riders? . . . We’re just another number to call if someone has a question,” he said.
Regardless of the outcome of the discussions between the East County cities, one thing is for sure: changes are coming. Among the future possibilities—one bus operator connecting Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley, Moorpark and Camarillo.
“Transit in Ventura County is as dynamic as it probably has been since the formation of Gold Coast Transit,” Houser said. “I wouldn’t want to characterize it as the Wild West, but it is a whirlwind of possibilities right now and we’re working very hard to feel out what those are to find some direction that is going to sustain us for the next 20 years.”
—Dashiell Young-Saver contributed to this story.