The retrenchment begins
With this quarterly schedule change, Metro Transit has begun trimming bus service, and this is probably the first of many cuts. There are two reasons for this:
After the longest run of annual ridership increases since before World War I, bus ridership has dipped. This appears to track with much lower gasoline prices. In addition, detouring buses off Nicollet Mall has reduced ridership on those routes.
The other more troubling reason is a looming budget shortfall estimated at over $80 million, due to lower than expected vehicle sales tax revenues. That’s a very big hole to fill and the latest cuts are just the beginning. Metro Transit is also looking at a fare increase later this year.
The long-term picture does not look promising. The legislature is now in the hands of anti-transit Republicans. According to the Star Tribune, a bill has been introduced to require the transit system to cover 60 percent of its costs from the farebox. It’s currently around 30 percent, which is better than in most large cities. A 60 percent requirement would gut the transit system. I don’t think anyone expects anything that drastic, but it gives you a feel for what they’re up against.
Getting back to the particulars of this schedule change, I counted the elimination of 120 one-way bus trips on weekdays, 48 on Saturdays and 34 on Sundays. This primarily took two forms. On major bus routes 4, 5, 10, and 63 and on heavy rush hour expresses 270, 355, 673 and 850, the schedules were thinned slightly and the remaining trips re-spaced.
On other expresses the cuts were concentrated on the more lightly patronized trips at the beginning and end of the rush hours. Expect more of both types of cuts as the year progresses.
If there was a cut that stood out, it was reducing the service on Route 16, the University Avenue local bus, from every 20 minutes to every 30 minutes. Route 16 has seen most of its ridership diverted to the Green Line, so this is not a surprise.
One small improvement
The only bright spot is the extension of weekend Route 7 service to historic Fort Snelling. It disappeared in 2004 when the Blue Line opened and Route 7 was diverted to 34th Avenue S., ending at Highway 62. There were no other buses that could be economically extended to the Fort, so anyone visiting by transit have faced a one mile walk from the Blue Line. Reworking the weekend Route 7 schedule resulted in sufficient layover to permit an extension to the Fort. On the way it stops by the Fort Snelling LRT station to provide connecting service.
Where it goes from here
When cutting service, Metro Transit tries hard to minimize the negative impacts on riders, using basically three categories of cuts:
1. Thinning more frequent services where the cuts won’t lead to overcrowding. For example, a heavy local route might go from 7.5 minute to 10 minute frequency. This is happening on Route 5. It may be accompanied by assigning larger capacity articulated buses.
2. Trimming the less productive trips on expresses that duplicate local bus routes. The remaining service will be slower, but riders can still get where they’re going.
3. Cutting the least productive services with the highest subsidy per passenger. This tends to be evenings and weekends, often on suburban local routes. These are the cuts that most impact low income riders who are transit dependent, because they constitute most of the riders of these routes. Even if the routes are not eliminated, 30 minute frequencies may become hourly, greatly reducing convenience.
The above cuts will only be adequate if the funding shortfall is relatively minor. Even with a fare increase, which will raise money but reduce ridership, the above strategy can’t plug an $80 million hole. That would take something more drastic.
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