Stimulus Helps as State Cuts Hit Hard

Soquel, CA – At the ParaCruz operations center in Soquel, dispatchers coordinate about 350 rides a day. It's an appointment based public transportation service for people who have difficulty accessing regular Santa Cruz Metro buses. Most of the ParaCruz vans are small, the size of your average minivan. Crouching inside one, Paratransit Superintendent April Warnock says they're outdated, "this is a 2002 vehicle and a lot of the scooters and the larger wheelchairs weren't being transported as much at that point, but a lot of people are switching over to those." Thanks to more than $5-million in federal stimulus money coming to the Santa Cruz Metro Public Transportation System, ParaCruz will replace all 27 of these minivans. Metro will also invest in a new smartcard fare system to make pre-paying for bus rides more affordable and accessible.

But this money is more of a stop gap, than a bonus. "It means a lot to us, especially right now. The state of California just disinvested itself in the public transit financing," said General Manager Les White. In its recently passed budget, the state eliminated the State Transit Assistance Program until at least 2013. Through the state gas tax, the STA provided a regular source of funding for public transportation statewide.

For Santa Cruz Metro it's an annual loss of about $5-million, almost exactly what it will get from the federal stimulus package. But the state cuts are in place over the next five years. "That will cost Metro over $25-million in lost funding, lost capital investment funding, which is a severe blow for us. And will result ultimately, if we're not able to get the state to turn that around, it will ultimately result in service cuts because we won't have enough equipment to field in order to maintain the service that we have on the street now," said White.

Monterey Salinas Transit in Monterey County will lose about the same amount in state funding over next five years. Standing in one of MST's two bus yards, General Manager Carl Sedoryk says they've already had to cut 5 staff positions, raise fares and defer projects. "These facilities were built 30 plus years ago and never contemplated operating a system at that time that goes to San Jose, that goes to King City to Big Sur, to Watsonville and all points beyond. As you can see here, we have mechanics working outside because we don't have enough bus bays for them to work inside and this happens in all kinds of weather."

Sedoryk would like to put MST's $7.5-mllion in federal stimulus money toward the new facility project, but he has more pressing issues. Some will go toward replacing an outdated fare box system and the rest will pay off what's left of an old loan on more fuel efficient buses. The federal money can only be used for capital projects. So Sedoryk can't use it to bring those jobs back or drop fares, but he says paying off the loan will help. "Well it will free up about $500,000 of future interest expense, that we can use that to offset the loss of what we received at the state level, so it will make the hurt not quite hurt so bad, but its not enough to fill the gap," said Sedoryk.

There's another possibility for filling that gap. A spokesman for the California Transit Association, a non-profit representing agencies like MST and Santa Cruz Metro, says they're working with the legislature to try an establish a new source of public transportation funding.