$40 million later, Metro CEO Michael Tree’s priorities remain doubling ridership, zero emissions and housing

Santa Cruz Metro CEO Michael Tree.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Having managed four transit systems before making his way to Santa Cruz, Michael Tree lives and breathes public transportation. With a recently secured $40 million from the state, the head of the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District sat down with Lookout to discuss what that money will help fund, how his past experience informs what to do in Santa Cruz, the difficulties in building passenger rail, and more.

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Michael Tree says he has an “addiction” to working in public transit. After all, he has managed five different transit systems — in Porterville, the Morongo Basin and Livermore in California, the Missoula Urban Transportation District in Montana and now Santa Cruz. Even when he was city manager in Twentynine Palms in Southern California, he found himself pining to return to working primarily in transportation.

That wasn’t always the case, though. Tree got a finance degree from Brigham Young University and initially looked to pursue a career on the business side of the golf industry. Difficulty finding work in the industry led Tree to form Sierra Management with his father in his hometown of Porterville, about halfway between Bakersfield and Fresno. The company holds the operations contract for Porterville’s transit system.

“We put in a bid and got the bid in the city of Porterville to run their public transit,” he said. “That was my first introduction into public transit.”

From there, it was full speed ahead into the world of public transportation. By 2000, Tree had finished a transportation management master’s degree program at San Jose State University, and quickly became the general manager of Morongo Basin Transit in the Joshua Tree area. He hopped around a few areas over the following years, including Missoula in Montana, Twentynine Palms and Livermore, where he worked as the executive director of the Livermore Amador Valley Transit Authority for eight years. He also served as executive director of the Tri-Valley-San Joaquin Valley Regional Rail Authority for about four years before coming to Santa Cruz as CEO of the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District.

In the six months leading up to COVID lockdowns, Livermore’s ridership increased by double-digit percentage points each month. Tree homed in on efficiency, shortening wait times and getting buses through busy intersections faster in order to increase connectivity and reliability. That had a direct impact on convenience for riders — a major factor he is observing in Santa Cruz, given the parallels in transit use.

“Here in Santa Cruz County, you have good transit but not great transit,” Tree said. “For as progressive a community as you have here, you don’t have a lot of public transit.”

In Late April, the California State Transportation Agency awarded the county $38 million. That money is expected to push the funding for Pacific Station North, a mixed-use transit, housing and retail hub in downtown Santa Cruz, and the 60-unit Watsonville Transit Center projects across the finish line — a big step, Tree says, toward getting more riders on buses.

“It may not be that massive ridership infusion where suddenly, all the buses are full, but those units are going to be occupied by families that will enjoy the public transit system,” he said. “It’ll be right up their alley for economic and other circumstances.”

Tree has been with Metro for a little more than a year, but the nearly two decades of experience in public transportation has him confident that he can accomplish his big goal of doubling ridership by 2027.

He sat down with Lookout in Abbott Square in downtown Santa Cruz — the heart of many of the county’s transit-oriented changes — to discuss how Livermore compares with Santa Cruz, the importance of connecting housing and public transit, having tough discussions with local leaders and community members, and what the big state money will be funding, including a new development for ParaCruz — Metro’s Americans with Disabilities Act door-to-door transit service for those with physical, cognitive or psychiatric disabilities — just off of Highway 1 still in its early stages.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Santa Cruz Metro CEO Michael Tree
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: What was your big focus in Livermore? Were you successful in making a better system?

Michael Tree: There are three things every rider hopes to get in public transit: Is it convenient and easy to use, is it fast, and is it frequent. A lot of people were working in the downtown area where transit hubs are, so in Livermore, we focused on 15-minute rounds — getting the routes to where every 15 minutes the bus came on key corridors. Then we worked on transit-signal priority to make sure that as the buses came in at the intersections, they got priority and got through the intersection, which was huge in getting it fast.

We also put in queue jumps, which are kind of cool. The bus basically comes up to an intersection, and it uses that right-hand turn lane. As soon as the light goes green, it goes green just for the bus at first, so it jumps out in front of this long line of traffic and gets that priority.

Then, the Valley Link rail project went from the Dublin/Pleasanton BART station, through Livermore, through Mountain View, Tracy and up into Stockton. It’s about a 45-mile rail project with seven stations, and we took that project from basically just a concept, went to Sacramento, and they established the rail authority and put the board in place. We basically did the environmental work and the preliminary design for the train.

Absolutely we were successful. As a matter of fact, in the six months prior to COVID, they had double-digit ridership gains every month compared to the previous year. We put in place convenience, and people reacted to it really well. Same concept here. You got a lot of students living off campus, which has a lot of impact in the community from housing to congestion. In Livermore, they were all funneling to the BART station; here, they’re all funneling up to campus.

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Lookout: What does Santa Cruz do well and poorly in terms of transit?

Tree: Well, a big reason I wanted to come to Santa Cruz was the employees. I got to know at least some of them before I took the job, and I’ve run about five transit systems now and these guys are an amazing crew, so that is half the battle.

A second reason is, here in Santa Cruz County, you have good transit but not great transit. For as progressive a community as you have here, you don’t have a lot of public transit. I thought, you know what, let’s talk to the public about this stuff. There is a better system out there and I think we can get it there. We can come up with routes that are more direct, faster, and frequent and I think you’ll see your ridership go through the roof.

Santa Cruz Metro CEO Michael Tree
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: How do you incentivize people to ride public transit?

Tree: We did a poll of all community residents, and 70% of those polled, whether they were bus riders or not, said they wanted more frequency, and then 50% of people who weren’t bus riders said if the buses were more frequent and direct, they would ride the bus. That’s the building block, right? Straight, frequent, fast, reliable.

The other thing we can do are things like youth ride free. That’s not an expensive program, and we’re working with the state on some grants to keep it going. But, long story short, in a couple of months, our ridership doubled on students in 12th grade or below when they took away the barrier, which was money. You give them that freedom of opportunity when you just take care of a simple thing like covering the cost of youth on your system.

We’ve got a couple other things we want to get going. If you’re riding ParaCruz, the door-to-door service, we’re going to introduce a program here pretty quickly and take it to the [county] board [of supervisors] for their consideration, where during non-peak hours when there is high capacity on the buses, ParaCruz riders can get on a fixed route and ride it no cost. I just think there’s convenience things that we can build into the system, but what really drives ridership is fast, reliable and low-cost.

Lookout: So, as for the $38 million in state money, what project components is that money going toward?

Tree: So there’s three projects we’re involved in, and they’re at all different stages of development. The Pac Station North in downtown Santa Cruz is 120 affordable housing units with some retail space, and that is basically fully funded. The $38.6 million grant adds a bike hub into that project to improve the connectivity between the transit system and bicycling even more so. The groundbreaking target is before the end of the calendar year — it’s right at the doorstep of having bulldozers.

The Watsonville redevelopment project is on the Watsonville Transit Center, and that building is in disrepair. So what we envisioned was to scrape the whole site, and build on the bottom floor with a lobby, meeting space, bathrooms — basically a Metro lobby for customers. We’ve had some interest from Dientes [Community Dental] for space in there, so the bottom floor would be community services and the Metro lobby. We’ve partnered with MidPen [Housing] on the second, third and fourth floor and basically have planned affordable housing, and it’ll be very coordinated with the development around it that MidPen has done on Metro land next to that transit center. Now that it’s got funding, it will go into final design, and I would view it as maybe 24-36 months until we can stick a shovel in the ground.

The third project that we’re working on is in its infancy stages and in preliminary design, and it is actually at a location at the corner of Soquel [Avenue] and Highway 1. We’ve got some acreage over there and we’re looking to do a ParaCruz facility where seniors and disabled residents can get signed up for ParaCruz and put housing all throughout that center, probably senior housing, to complement the service that will run out of that site.

So, that means there’s a total of 240 units currently in development and they’ll all drive ridership.

Santa Cruz Metro CEO Michael Tree
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: Is that enough housing to really increase ridership? How can Metro be involved in actually planning and building more units?

Tree: I think it’ll help, right? It may not be that massive ridership infusion where suddenly all the buses are full, but those units are going to be occupied by families that will enjoy the public transit system. It’ll be right up their alley for economic and other circumstances. They’ll be positioned right at these hubs and right on quality transit, so I do think it’ll increase.

I think there are a lot more opportunities for Metro to do housing. Scotts Valley has a very large park-and-ride where our transit center is, and that could have some potential for future housing. We’re looking at a South County operations and maintenance facility down in Watsonville, and we’re looking at property that would have ample space for workforce development housing. One of the massive issues is the price of housing in the county, and we’re figuring out how we can put a dent in that and help solve the equation.

However, if the transit is not fast, frequent or reliable, it’s a problem. It’s not a complete waste, but you have to have that system in place first, and then you build housing around it, not the other way around. So, it probably won’t have a huge factor in getting us to 7 million trips by 2027, since that’s well before a lot of additional housing will be built. But if you want good, solid ridership with sustained growth, that’s how you get there.

Lookout: You obviously have a lot of ideas and experience. What are some of the tough decisions you have to make or conversations you have to have?

Tree: Giving priority to the bus system is a hard conversation to have with cities and counties, because usually that means taking a look at intersections and how they work. And generally speaking, there’s not a lot of staffing in cities and counties, so it’s fairly low priority unless you figure out a way to elevate it. It also takes resources, and that’s the other tough thing.

We haven’t gotten something from Metro on the ballot for more than 50 years. That’s a conversation that should happen a little more often than that. It’s kind of like lifting weights — you lift all the time and it gets easier, because you’re investing and seeing great results. If you only do it once every so often, it’s very sore.

I keep telling the board [of supervisors] that it’s been a long time since you’ve talked to the public about your system, and every year because of inflation, it becomes more difficult. Insurance goes up 10% to 20%, and fuel costs go up constantly. It gets tougher and tougher if you’re not staying on it and having good dialogue with the community to envision where you want to get to.

Lookout: A tough conversation we’ve had locally is around passenger rail. What are your thoughts on that?

Tree: There are great things about passenger rail, and real challenges, too. It’s not just a people mover, but also a community developer. When you’re sinking money into a rail system, there’s a real responsibility that comes from the federal government, which provides a lot of that funding, and from the state government to basically develop high-quality, dense housing around those stations. It doesn’t need to completely change the character of the community, but they’re not going to provide that level of investment unless there is significant investment around the stations, housing and jobs.

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With the Valley Link rail project at my previous position, there was a lot of support there. Cities viewed it as transformational when the stations went in, and they were really looking forward to putting in that transit-oriented development.

Cost is the downside. Rails are expensive, and that will become the challenge. I think the money’s out there to complete a rail system over time, but the local community would have to come together and fund the operations and maintenance with local dollars. I think that’s worthy of serious conversation with the public.

I think, overall, [the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission] made the right moves. They basically said that they don’t have all the information like total cost, what the stations will be like, what the environmental costs are, and what it would look like here. I think they’re doing the right things — they went to the next step, which is to have a deeper conversation with the public about whether they’d like to have passenger rail in the community.

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