The Year the Buses Almost Died 

Despite a recent settlement deal with bus drivers, AC Transit had a bumpy 2010, and next year promises to be no better.

The hard-fought agreement last month between AC Transit and its bus drivers helped stave off potentially devastating service cuts — making it an eerie departure from the year's play-by-play events. In what seemed to be a rollercoaster ride of a year filled with 15 percent service reductions, route eliminations, and driver sickout days, the settlement felt more like a victory for East Bay riders than another stab at their commutes.

Yet in truth, most AC Transit bus lines experienced far more negatives than positives in 2010. They began running later and ending service earlier, some bus lines absorbed others in an effort to consolidate routes, and riders saw their late-night service essentially terminated. The recession deserves much of the blame. Indeed, mass transit throughout the region and the nation saw debilitating cuts. It was the year the buses almost died.

Bay Area transit agencies attempted to deal with the economic crisis in 2009 with a frenzy of fare hikes. But a 25-cent fare increase proved to be nowhere near enough for AC Transit to avoid service cuts this year. Faced with a huge deficit in March, the agency slashed service by nearly 8 percent, forcing many riders to choose between waiting more than a half hour for a bus or use their car.

Paul Rago, a senior at UC Berkeley, says he drives his car now instead of riding the bus if he can help it. "One of the biggest issues that I've had with the bus system out here is the clumping together of buses," he said. Rago said he frequently found himself waiting for a bus for more than thirty minutes, when it was supposed to arrive in less than half that time, only to watch three buses on the same line arrive one after the other. Even the digital signals that are supposed to show arrival times proved to be somewhat unreliable for him, as did wait-time data from NextBus.com, he said.

The second round of service reductions in October slashed bus service by an additional 7 percent, cutting bus frequency even further. Last month's arbitration deal put off more cuts to weeknight and weekend service, but Rago, who works on campus some nights until 10 p.m. and takes the 1 or 1R bus home, said he still feels victimized from the earlier cuts. Most times the wait for a bus can be more than thirty minutes at that time of the night, he said.

Rachel Dulaney, who commutes from her Lake Merritt home to San Francisco State University, where she works as a security guard, said she barely uses AC Transit at all now. Sharing the car with her wife proved to be a frustration-free alternative to taking the bus, she said. Ever since AC Transit moved the 58L seven blocks further from her home and reduced service on it, she said her commute time has nearly doubled. "My feet aren't what they used to be," she said.

The bigger problem of service reductions, Dulaney said, is the effect they're having on commuters without a car. Roughly 120,000 people in the East Bay depend on public transit to get to work, according to the US Census Bureau. And longer mass transit commutes result in a tired work force. "They're going to be waking up earlier and coming home later," Dulaney noted. "The next time I ride the bus, it'll be with a bunch of zombies."

The arbitrated agreement between AC Transit and the bus drivers' union closed the door on any more cuts this year, said Clarence Johnson, a spokesperson for the transit agency. In fact, AC Transit was the only Bay Area transportation agency to reach such a concession deal with its drivers' union. But it wasn't easy. When AC Transit first imposed a new contract in July that included more than $15 million a year in compensation cuts, more than two hundred drivers went on a sickout. The bus drivers' union then sued for arbitration, which ultimately resulted in last month's settlement.

And 2011 could turn out to be just as difficult. The future of bus service quality in the Easy Bay, and elsewhere, will depend on whether the nation awakens from its financial nightmare. Plus, nearly 80 percent of Federal Transportation Administration funding goes to highways, leaving just 20 percent for public transportation, according to the FTA, which means transit agencies will have to keep fending for themselves in an unstable economy. In the end, fares, local taxes, and state and federal funding may not be enough to keep the agencies afloat. If that were to happen, further amputations to the system may prove fatal.

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