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Santa Monica’s Embattled Bus System Coming Under New Scrutiny


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By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

February 9, 2018 -- Ninety years ago, Santa Monica’s population had doubled in a single decade when the City launched a municipal bus operation eventually named the “Big Blue Bus” system and christened the “cornerstone” of the City’s future sustainability.

What a difference trying to operate a bus system in this century has been.

Today’s Big Blue Bus system is reeling as it enters its seventh consecutive year of significant losses in ridership ("Ridership Plunges on Santa Monica City Buses as Expo Popularity Soars," January 17, 2018).

It has been unable to reverse course despite funding infusions to overhaul services and an extensive public relations campaign to re-sell the public on taking the bus ("Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus to Launch App for Passes," April 5, 2017).

BBB ridership plunged to about 13.8 million in the 2016-2017 year, a 27 percent decline from the 2014-2015 fiscal year. But expenditures jumped nonetheless, up by 31 percent to reach $110.4 million for the 2018-2019 fiscal year, according to the City’s current $1.5-billion biennial budget.

Charges for services are anticipated to contribute about $14.5 million for the 2018-2019 year. Sales tax revenues are pegged at $46.5 million; Capital grants will total about $29.3 million.

The City Council has scheduled a February 27 work session on the embattled bus system.

Local buses started operating in 1928, and were such a draw that 16,000 riders stepped aboard on the first day, according to historians.

Santa Monica’s population had roughly doubled in that decade to about 37,000.

Council Member Kevin McKeown said he and his colleagues are still awaiting details from staff on the BBB’s situation. He is mum on whether the service needs more changes or, given all the competing options for getting around these days, is still of value to the City and the public.

“This is why we have a study session in less than three weeks as part of a Council meeting, called ‘The Future of the Big Blue Bus,’ “he said. “Staff will be providing much more information than I have now. It would be premature to speculate.”

The council session comes amid a wave of bad news for BBB and mass transit throughout car-addicted Southern California.

In an analysis released earlier this month, the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies found an overall decline in use of public transportation across the country

The problem was particularly pronounced in Southern California, where core -- low-income earners and immigrants -- were ditching mass transit as soon as they could afford their own wheels ("UCLA Study Suggests Low-Income Riders in Santa Monica, Southern California Switching to Own Wheels," February 6, 2018).

Researchers said public transit agencies needed to convince non-riders to give rail and buses a try, at least on occasion.

Buses didn’t come up at all in Mayor Ted Winterer’s Sate of the City address before the Chamber of Commerce several days ago, although getting “multimodal” was one of his highlights of his remarks ("The Road Ahead: Mayor Ted Winterer's State of the City Address," February 6, 2018).

“In the next 40 years, subway and light rail will become the norm,” he said. “We already have a multi-modal network and we will continue to invest in infrastructure and local policies to be at the forefront of this cultural shift.”

Being multi-modal is crucial to the City’s leaders because it has a positive impact on the environment and curbs traffic congestion.

Hopping a bus, an Expo light-rail train, or getting around close to home by walking or riding bicycles also allows the City to grow and build without significantly increasing traffic, officials have said.

But Santa Monica is one of the rare smaller cities in the region that operates its own bus system, which shines a brighter light on its rising costs.

An outside audit by Moss Adams of all the City’s services noted BBB’s reach extends to 59 square miles surrounding Santa Monica. Most cities locally rely on multi-jurisdictional transit agencies ("Outside Audit Finds Santa Monica Far Outspent Peer Cities for Services," January 18, 2018).

“No peer city operates a standalone transit agency structured like Big Blue Bus,” it said.


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