Saturday, May 23, 2009

Transit: The Scottsdale Way

Last Thursday, I was the witness to the ultimate dog and pony show in the public sector. It was item #5 on the agenda of the Scottsdale Transportation Commission.

With issues looming across the country with our economy, transit agencies nationwide are being forced to look at ways of cutting expenses. This includes canceling capital projects, raising fares and cutting the number of revenue hours of transit service.

Scottsdale, Arizona is no different and is not immune from these budget shortfalls. As a result of a $1.5 million budget shortfall in the transit budget for fiscal year 2009-2010 (which begins July 1, 2009), the city is forced to take measures that will result in cuts made to fixed route transit service.

Proposed changes included:
  • Scottsdale Downtown Trolley: Reduce headway (frequency of service) from 10 to 20 minutes, reduce service span (hours of operation) to end in the 6PM hour with the exception of Thursday night for the Art Walk.
  • 66 Mill/68th St: Reduce service span on Saturday to match Sunday schedule.
  • 76 Miller: Reduce Saturday headway from 30 to 60 minutes and adjust span to match Sunday service.
  • 81 Hayden/McClintock: Reduce Saturday service span to match Sunday.
  • 84 Granite Reef: Eliminate route.
  • 114 Via Linda: Eliminate route.
  • Loloma Station: Reduce operating hours of the pass outlet to split shift peak hours.
The one proposed change that I think would be the most harmful to Scottsdale is the elimination of the 114. Harmful because unlike the other proposed bus changes, there is no substantial alternative service nearby. In public comments, we heard from residents in the area, employees and patients of Mayo Clinic and the most moving were the parents, faculty and students from BASIS Scottsdale, a leading charter school in the area.

In public comments, citizens mentioned the value of the 114 to their neighborhood and that alternate services (106 & 512) that were suggested by Scottsdale (transit) staff were not adequate since the 106/512 does not have granular bus stops and in many cases, trips will involve crossing Shea Blvd., an 8-lane divided arterial roadway.

Transit staff introduced some numbers for the 114 in a Powerpoint presentation. In my public comments, I had stated that the ridership data that they are using fails to show any breakdown of the ridership trends on the different week-parts (Monday-Friday, Saturday and Sunday). I told Scottsdale, I oppose a complete cut-off of this service and feel that instead, "slow burn" measures should be implemented that continues to keep a "lifeline" service in the area while cutting revenue miles where they are extremely low and can be cut without being overly impactive. I had suggested that at first, weekend service should be cut. Local residents even went one step further suggesting that the 114 be cut to peak hour service only.

In response to questioning by the Commission about why cutting just weekend service was not considered as an option, the transit manager gave the biggest cop-out of an answer. He said that quality should prevail over quantity and "like our roads, transit should always be available" (in other words, Scottsdale does not only run their roads Monday through Friday, why should they only run their buses Monday through Friday?) and then suggesting that service should be seven days a week like our roads. They also suggested that transit routes that have less of a demand that does not warrant 30 minute headway should be eliminated. Could this be the same attitude why Scottsdale still does not have any fixed route bus service north of the Loop 101?

The Commission, unpleased by staff's explanation told staff to go back and look at other options including the ones that were discussed by citizens at the hearing. The Commission took the testimony as information only and did not take action. Staff has until early June to get a budget to the City Council.

Where Scottsdale fails is that they do not acknowledge that for some, transit is a lifeline, not a choice. By maintaining a fixed route, even with just 60 minute headway on weedays, you are still providing a community lifeline that does not tax the demand response paratransit system. Scottsdale staff is doing a practice which some of us call "economic redlining" by only maintaining routes with significant ridership and lower subsidies while ignoring higher subsidy routes where essentiality precludes most of the subsidy.

In other words, it's OK to operate a route with 60 minute headway and even just on weekdays.