Stanislaus County transit riding out economic troubles

The bending of stimulus rules and an obscure bit of state legislation enacted 12 years ago is helping keep buses and dial-a-ride vans on the road throughout Stanislaus County.

Money raids by state officials are forcing startling, unprecedented fare increases and service slashing at transit agencies elsewhere in California, including the county's closest neighbors.

Here, however, buses and dial-a-ride operators are largely riding out the economic storm thanks in part to unintended consequences from an under-the-radar 1997 law that might make earmark critics blush. And Modesto, the county's largest transit operator by far, is stretching a definition for use of federal stimulus money meant for capital projects, to cover operations.

"We're unique in California," said Brad Christian, the county's transit manager. He referred to Senate Bill 344, a transit money distribution law that merited two sentences in The Bee when signed by Gov. Wilson in 1997.

Bus, van and train lines are suffering in many of the state's other 57 counties. State officials, desperate to close a budget gap of at least $21 billion, have taken $3 billion in funds previously dedicated to public transportation.

"Transit has become the go-to piggy bank to fill holes in the (state's) general fund," said Jeff Wagner, spokesman for the California Transit Association, which has declared an "Armageddon scenario."

"All over the state, transit agencies are having to face gaping budget deficits as a result," Wagner continued. "They're responding with fare increases and service reductions. Some are resorting to declaring fiscal emergencies."

Orange County laid off 400 transit workers and cut routes by 25 percent. San Francisco supervisors last week approved a plan to raise fares and scale back routes on half of its 80 lines in an attempt to reduce a $129 million deficit.

The Bay Area's Caltrain, facing a $10 million budget gap, and San Jose's Valley Transportation Authority, in a $79 million hole, will take similar measures.

"The whole thing has been really unsettling to us," said Rosemary Booth, communications director for the Livermore Amador Valley Transit Authority, which raised fares in March and cut services last week by 25 percent. "It's counterintuitive to what we try to do: expand service to meet the needs of the community. To everyone in transit, this is not a good day."

Trips, buses reduced; fares raised

Closer to home, the San Joaquin Regional Transit District bumped up fares in October, slashed trips in January and is evaluating what to do next. To the south, Merced County Transit in March nearly doubled its monthly rider passes and reduced its commuter buses by almost half.

"It's a difficult situation, it really is," said assistant transportation manager Larnold Jones.

Stanislaus County has sustained some hits, but to a lesser degree:

— Riverbank Oakdale Transit Authority will eliminate its trolleys come July, mostly because the 5-year-old service never pulled in enough riders to justify itself. Dial-a-ride services will continue.

— Turlock raised bus fares from 75 cents to $1.25 and reduced Saturday buses by half. But that was prompted by state efficiency standards in September 2007, not the state's financial crisis.

— Effective Aug. 15, Modesto will reduce some little-used early morning and late evening routes, saving $104,000. But that's a scratch compared with the bruising plan officials initially prepared, including eliminating 10 percent of bus rides and laying off 10 of 90 bus drivers.

Like Sacramento, Modesto will justify using federal stimulus money -- intended for job-creating capital projects -- by saying that the money preserves jobs and helps transport people to work.

Modesto transit manager Fred Cavanah acknowledged that most cities and counties aren't taking advantage of such creative financing. He expects Modesto to receive $5.5 million in stimulus funds, keeping Modesto's fleet secure at least until mid-2011.

More important to the county's four other transit operators is SB 344, the 1997 state law affecting only Stanislaus County.

Throughout California, transit agencies rely heavily on portions of sales and fuel taxes passed on by the state. Those in large counties typically use all of what's coming to them. Transit in smaller counties such as Stanislaus might get by on less.

Twelve years ago, transportation leaders in Stanislaus County proposed a distribution formula guaranteeing transit operators first crack at the money. Any left over -- up to $5 million in years of plenty -- is divided among the county and its nine cities according to a formula based mostly on population, to be used for street repairs.

Now that other transit funding sources have been raided by the state, Stanislaus County's agencies can make up the loss by taking more of that leftover "cushion." It amounts to a modern blessing that not even the author of the 1997 legislation, then-Sen. Dick Monteith, predicted at the time.

The Stanislaus Council of Governments, composed of the county and its cities, "came to me with this bill and I just said, 'It makes sense to me,' " recalled Monteith, now a county supervisor. "We did it in a very quiet way because I didn't want a lot of fanfare, and we caught everyone off-guard."

Monteith feared his political adversaries would kill or re-craft SB 344 if he made a big deal out of it, he said.

"One thing I learned, if you're not concerned about who gets the credit, you get a lot of things done," Monteith said. "But I'm not sure anybody understood the total benefits."

Obscure bill's value acknowledged

Transit operators in Turlock, Riverbank, Oakdale, Ceres, Modesto and Stanislaus County acknowledge SB 344's worth in today's climate. And the irony of an obscure bill defending transit in a county whose voters twice rejected transportation taxes isn't lost on them.

"I think it's very progressive," Stanislaus County transit manager Christian said of SB 344. "If we didn't have that cushion, you'd see (transit operators) cutting service."

The safety net won't last forever, though.

Sales tax revenue, a major contributor, continues to plummet. And advocates for senior and disabled transit, recently made aware of the excess in Stanislaus County, are making a strong case for tapping that money. Transportation leaders are exploring options.

"Clearly, transit is more and more of a priority in our region," said Vince Harris, StanCOG executive director.

The policy board of the Stanislaus Council of Governments is scheduled to review the San Joaquin Valley Express Transit Study at 6 p.m. June 10 in the basement chamber at Tenth Street Place, 1010 10th St., Modesto.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at or 578-2390.

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