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Get Off the Bus

Budget woes lead to public transportation cuts

By Joy Lanzendorfer

House cleaner Maricela Torres has lived in Marin County for 13 years. Every day she takes the bus from Tiburon to San Rafael to go to work, a commute that takes about an hour and a half each way (though that path on the route 20 bus is scheduled to take one hour). If she misses the bus or if it passes her by because it's too crowded, which it often does, she has to wait an extra half-hour for another bus to come along.

Struggling with a three- to four-hour daily commute is frustrating enough, but Torres' daily route may become a veritable ordeal if some of the cuts the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway, and Transportation District is proposing go through. If they pass, she will have to get up at the crack of dawn to catch her bus, and, since the buses are already overcrowded, she will be passed by more often. Her daughter, who takes the bus to San Rafael High School, will also face a longer commute.

"It will affect me very much, " says Torres. "It's not fair because the cuts are affecting the Latin community, the ones that use more of the bus services, especially because they can't drive or get driver's licenses."

Torres is not alone in her concern over the cuts. Many people of the Canal District, a low-income community in the heart of San Rafael, already complain that their buses are overcrowded and the waits take forever.

"It's going to get a lot worse," says David Schonbrunn of Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund, a nonprofit transit advocacy organization working in conjunction with Marin County Grassroots Leadership Network on this issue.

The Golden Gate Bridge District, which controls the Golden Gate Bridge and commuter buses in Marin and Sonoma counties, plans to cut $20 million from its $90 million budget. Under Scenario E (the version the district is bringing to the public after going through scenarios A, B, C, and D in private sessions), the cuts could mean eliminating 60 to 100 bus-driver positions, stopping bus services in Marin County at 10pm instead of 2am, reducing weekend services, and increasing wait times.

"Nothing is certain at this point," says Mary Currie, the district's public affairs director. "The next step is to hold a series of public meetings to get the plan further refined. If that goes well, we will most likely make the final decisions in June."

For Sonoma County, Scenario E would mean the elimination of several routes across the Golden Gate Bridge, leaving a gap in public transportation that Sonoma County Transit might partially fill. In Marin County, the situation is more severe because the Marin County Transit District contracts with the Golden Gate Bridge District for much of its public transportation. So the reductions in services would not only affect how Marin County residents get across the bridge, but how they would get around Marin County as well.

Though the bridge district recently raised the toll on the Golden Gate Bridge from $3 to $5 ($4 for FastTrack), the lagging economy and increased demands for security and construction on the bridge are driving up costs. The district is trying to save $202 million by cutting $20 million a year in services for the next five years. The district says some trickle-down savings will occur as the $20 million in service cuts lead to the elimination of additional services--bus maintenance, for example--which accounts for the $202 million number.

"I don't see that the district has much of a choice in the cuts," says Joel Woodhull of the Sonoma County Transportation and Land-Use Coalition. "Given the predicament they are in with the cost of the bridge going up, they are not in a very good situation."

In developing Scenario E, the district attempted to preserve as much of its core services as possible by reducing less popular services on the weekend and late at night. It has also attempted to improve efficiency through breaking up long routes and eliminating duplication. And because so few people take the bus in the first place, the cuts would have little effect on traffic.

Still, there's no doubt that the cuts would cause hardships for some people. Some are saying that the service cuts affect the people who use the buses the most, the lower-income population.

"The district needs to prove that the burden of the service cuts don't fall more harshly on specific groups," says Schonbrunn. "They have to prove the cuts are not discriminating against people of color and the low-income community by cutting their services while preserving services of other groups."

In some cases, the district is cutting heavily used services in the Canal District while underused services like the ferry feeder buses in Tiburon remain uncut.

"They should cut the bus services first in the areas where people are rich," says Torres. "The low-income areas shouldn't be affected. It is a question of justice and respect."

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From the May 15-21, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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