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Santa Monica City Council Considers Axing Routes in Overhaul of Troubled Big Blue Bus

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By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

March 1, 2018 -- With crowds of bus drivers looking on, the Santa Monica City Council on Tuesday ordered officials to delve into axing some under-performing routes in an overhaul of the City’s troubled Big Blue Bus system.

“We need to do something,” Edward King, who heads BBB, told the council after detailing the 90-year-old municipal bus system’s problems with plummeting ridership and rising red ink. “We need to be pro-active.”

Scanning the sea of BBB employees in the audience, the council sought to assure them the worst of scenarios -- downsizing or contracting out bus service -- would not occur on their watch.

“The council values those employees,” said Council Member Kevin McKeown. “To the extent possible, we want to keep every good, middle-class job we’ve created in this city.”

The council’s work session on the BBB’s future was a significant step toward creating a new model of operating which will attract enough riders to pay the bills -- BBB’s operating budget is about $90 million -- and compete in an era of rapidly multiplying alternatives to buses.

Council members asked that City officials, including King, delve into retaining the system’s 58-square-mile footprint, which reaches well into Los Angeles, but look at little-used routes that could be eliminated so more buses can be deployed for crowded thoroughfares, such as Santa Monica’s section of Wilshire Boulevard.

They also asked that the formation of a “mobility” advisory commission be explored to help guide BBB through the changes likely coming its way.

The council would remain the bus system’s governing body, however, and its advisory panel would also weigh in on other modes of alternative transportation the City is trying to expand.

According to the BBB report from King, more than half of all municipal buses are under performing, or don’t meet the standard of having 20 riders on runs ("Ridership Plunges on Santa Monica City Buses as Expo Popularity Soars," January 17, 2018).

The City will analyze re-deploying those buses to “high traffic” routes, such as those along Pico and Wilshire Boulevards.

Council Member Gleam Davis said it might no longer be feasible to rely on City buses to get passengers as close to their ultimate destinations as possible -- or serving as “first-mile/last-mile” transit for people using Expo trains ("Santa Monica Big Blue Bus Makes Major Route Changes in Final Light Rail Preparations," February 17, 2016).

“We sort of hung Big Blue Bus out to dry by making its job (the primary vehicle) for the first-last mile,” Davis said.

To compensate, the City will look at integrating more agile forms of alternative transportation with BBB, possibly providing bus riders with easy access to services such as Lyft or e-scooters for the first and last mile of their journeys.

She said buses could even carry “Birds” -- the popular e-scooters -- on board for passengers.

In any case, Davis said the City should be prepared to shoulder the added funding of such changes, although staff will look at charging fees to providers like Lyft to offset the cost ("Big Blue Bus Proposes City Fee for Drivers Entering Santa Monica During Rush Hours," February 23, 2018).

The bus system’s estimated 500 employees represent nearly one quarter of the City's total workforce of about 2,200 people.

It is also a key player in the City’s ambition to transform Santa Monica into a model of "multimodality" -- or a place where people eschew driving solo for mass transit and other alternatives.

Despite infusions of funding and a variety of changes to operations, though, the BBB has not escaped the decline in bus ridership that has hit many parts of the country, including car-crazy Southern California.

The system is now in its seventh consecutive year of ridership loses and faces a five-year forecast that includes a deficit of up to $11 million by the 2019-2020.

BBB now has about 13.8 million riders -- a 27 percent drop over a handful of years and far from its target of 20 million riders by 2020.

Nonetheless, the council said it wants to look at new ideas for increasing ridership. Some are as simple as making buses more attractive to riders.

Others are much more complex, such as creating zones of bus-only lanes which would be able to carry passengers much more quickly to destinations.

A big drawback to buses now, said City Manager Rick Cole, is that they must share the road with cars, and “like everyone else, we’re stuck in traffic.”

Tuesday’s session drew a big crowd of BBB employees in part because King’s report included asking whether the council wanted to consider contracting out bus service.

According to the City Clerk’s Office, 21 people signed up to speak. Many were worried drivers and other BBB employees; others devoted riders of City buses.

Some speakers expressed concern about the elderly, low-income earners and handicapped people who rely heavily on buses that don’t necessarily have high ridership and thus could face elimination.

Still, the number of under-used buses in service was on Councilmember Sue Himmelrich’s mind.

She lives on 14th Street, she said, and commutes to work in Koreatown.

“I do see a lot of empty buses,” she said. “I wonder if there is some kind of fix we haven’t thought of yet.”

Although BBB started as a bus system which operated only within city limits, it has grown into a sub-regional system with 71 percent of its riders from outside Santa Monica.

BBB is now the third largest municipal bus operator in Los Angeles County, providing service to the Westside through 20 fixed bus lines.

It also operates a late night “demand-response” service from one of the Expo light rail stations, and a community Dial-A-Ride service for senior citizens and disabled Santa Monica residents within the city.


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