Fixing transit woes in North County

 This "Looking Forward" op-ed piece by Ken Hough was published in the Santa Maria Times on February 13, 2015:

There are seven North County public entities that operate transit systems. Collectively, there is about $15 million available each year to subsidize the operations and capital needs of the various systems.

Only about $10 million is being so used. The rest is diverted mainly to maintain streets and roads.

While road maintenance is an important, under-funded need, so are the needs of people who have no choice but public transit, and those who would like to use public transit more and leave their cars at home.

Most of the funds that can be used for public transit are distributed to cities and the county by population formulas. Yet some jurisdictions, Guadalupe in particular, have relatively small populations and relatively greater public transit needs. Others, Lompoc and unincorporated areas of North County, have larger populations and get larger shares of the transit funding.

But Lompoc and unincorporated areas have more transit funds available than they — apparently — can reasonably use for transit. So they divert sizable amounts of those funds to maintaining roads.

What if the funding formulas were based on factors other than population? More funding could be available to meet transit needs where they exist.

What if the seven entities that operate transit systems in North County were to consolidate some of their services? Riders could find it easier to navigate between and within North County communities.

The Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG) is preparing a North County Transit Plan Update, which should give careful consideration to these questions. The work is being overseen by a committee of city managers, county executives and by a committee of SBCAG board members known as the North County Subregional Planning Committee.

Until it met last week, the committee had directed that service consolidations and revised funding formulas not be studied in the update. But at their Feb. 4 meeting they agreed that such options should at least be carefully considered.

Take as an example Lompoc’s transit system. The city’s system is in trouble. Service has declined dramatically, causing annual ridership to drop from 320,009 in 2006, to 134,171 in 2013, a loss of 58 percent of riders. During those years, most of the Transportation Development Act funds intended for transit in Lompoc were diverted to repairing roads.

Lompoc finds itself in a sort of Catch-22 — state law requires a certain percentage of operating costs be recovered from passenger fares. The demographics and commute patterns of Lompoc residents have made it difficult for Lompoc to meet its required farebox-recovery ratio.

So, the least-productive service was dropped to reduce costs. If more service is added to rebuild ridership, it may be even harder to meet farebox requirements.

Santa Maria also has trouble meeting farebox requirements and, like Lompoc, has sought temporary relief from SBCAG.

Meanwhile, intercity transit services like the Clean Air Express and Breeze meet farebox requirements with room to spare, and demand for these services is on the rise.

Some degree of consolidation of local and intercity service could not only better meet passenger needs, but could resolve the farebox-ratio dilemma, allowing more of the funds available for transit to actually be used for transit.

On the South Coast — where one entity provides all transit services, and all transit funds are used for transit — ridership levels are way above those for North County, and the farebox ratio is high.

Let’s give up some local control so a better transit system can be provided throughout North County. Let’s consolidate transit services.