The key to environmental stability for Santa Cruz County? Reliable, frequent public transit

A Santa Cruz Metro bus
Santa Cruz Metro’s “One Ride at a Time” program allows passengers to direct a portion of their fares to supporting environmental program.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

A nearly $40 million infusion of state funding for public transit and transit-oriented housing is good news for our community, says Lookout politics columnist Mike Rotkin. It will kick-start needed climate-friendly improvements, including a push to make our buses carbon-neutral and establish a “bus on shoulder” lane for Highway 1. Transit is the biggest cause of greenhouse gasses locally, so getting more people to ride buses and bikes is key. But we can’t be the national leader we want to be — on par with cities like Boulder and Portland — without even more money, he says. He suggests a small sales-tax increase to get us there.

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Mike Rotkin

The announcement last week that Santa Cruz County will receive almost $40 million in new state funding for public transit and transit-oriented housing development offers hope we can dramatically transform our community to address our serious concerns about housing, transportation and global warming.

I think local residents understand that strong public transit is not just a service for those who ride the bus. It is a key issue in creating an environmentally sustainable community.

That’s why it needs to be supported by all of us, even those who will never ride the bus.

After our extraordinary local fires and storms and the havoc they have wreaked upon our infrastructure and residents, nobody here should need to be persuaded that climate change is real and something we can afford to ignore.

The transportation sector is responsible for somewhere between 40% and 60% of the greenhouse gasses that are the primary cause of climate change. Those figures are national. Locally, the numbers we speak about are close to 60%, although I do not know of anyone who has the precise statistics. So, we need to focus our energy on solutions.

Yes, amazing advances in electric car and bike technology exist and are contributing to efforts to reduce greenhouse gasses. And strong local pushes to support walking and carpooling are also vital. But, by themselves, these initiatives will never produce the quantum leap we need to adequately reduce our overreliance on single-occupancy car use.

Electric cars do nothing to reduce parking demand or decongest freeways and local roads, where all of us waste massive amounts of time. Parking and freeway expansion consume scarce and precious land and other resources.

As long ago as 1978, voters in Santa Cruz County passed Measure G, which provides roughly a half-cent sales tax in support of the transit system. This local funding has been used as a match for state and federal transit-funding grants that have allowed our small community to receive far more than its share of funding based on population alone. For example, based on this additional funding, Santa Cruz Metro runs 18 hours a day, while the larger population of Monterey County has bus service from only 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Students at UC Santa Cruz, and, more recently (2016), Cabrillo College, have imposed transit fees on themselves that support free rides for all registered students. The students have understood that, even if they don’t use the bus themselves, a strong bus system is an important environmental commitment.

UCSC students were among the first in the nation when, in 1972, they approved the original student transit fee. Now, universities across the country include such fees. Currently at UCSC, students pay $163 per year, and (approved by the students) that will rise to $194 by 2029-30. At Cabrillo, the fee is $40 per student per year.

This is a real commitment to addressing climate change — and not just vague desires or abstract protest.

In 2016, county voters supported Measure D, a half-cent sales-tax measure that has produced matching funds for an impressive number and amount of federal, state and other grants in support of transportation improvements, including those for our bus system. In the most recent grants, for example, Santa Cruz County received five times the share of state funding we would have gotten based on population alone.

Santa Cruz Metro, our county bus system, has taken several actions recently to emphasize the key role that public transit can play in addressing climate change and other environmental issues. Metro has now made a commitment to buy only electric or hydrogen-cell buses going forward, even though this might cost more than other options. That will make our complete fleet (currently at 94 buses) carbon-neutral ahead of state and federal mandates.

The Regional Transportation Commission is now committed to the first steps toward a “bus on shoulder” project for Highway 1 that will allow buses to move between Watsonville and Santa Cruz more rapidly than cars.

In addition, Metro has created a pilot program with free rides for youth. This is not only important to rebuild transit use that was declining even before the pandemic, but because it will help build a familiarity and commitment to public transit use among youth as they grow into adulthood.

Officials from a variety of government bodies and agencies were on hand in downtown Santa Cruz for Monday's announcement.
Mike Rotkin (to left of the center oversized check, in hat) was among the officials from a variety of government bodies and agencies on hand in downtown Santa Cruz for last week’s grant announcement.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Both Cabrillo College and UCSC students already pay fees, whether or not they ride the bus. Maybe now, they will use the opportunity to travel all over the county using a student I.D.

Students did this because of their strong environmental values.

Transit use among college students in Santa Cruz County is among the highest in the nation.

Going further, Metro recently launched a “One Ride at a Time” program to help build support for public transit and increase ridership. Participants in the program can direct a portion of their fares toward either the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Foundation or the Bay of Life Fund, both of which support environmental programs. The latter foundation was created by internationally renowned nature photographer Frans Lanting and his partner, Chris Eckstrom. Lanting’s nature photographs from our region now wrap an increasing number of Metro’s buses.

They are iconic pictures that draw attention to and literally reflect Metro’s commitment to environmental protection. Metro vendors, e.g. parts suppliers, consultants, etc., can also choose to direct 5% of their fees toward these two environmental programs.

Metro can have a truly significant impact on climate change and other environmental issues only if we can get more local residents to ride the bus.

But you can’t ask people to take the bus if it is not safe, convenient, reasonably priced and at least as efficient as individual car use.

Study after study demonstrates the key to increased ridership is providing more frequent buses in denser population areas, with transportation experts agreeing that 15-minute service is the right target in attracting a quantum leap in new riders.

We have a pretty good bus system for a small community, but it still falls short of what this community needs and deserves if we really want to have an impact on reducing greenhouse gas production locally.

If we can provide 15-minute service in downtown areas and along major transit corridors — Soquel Avenue, Highway 1, Mission Street, Ocean Street, Water Street, Green Valley Road and Main Street in Watsonville and throughout mid-county — it will allow the construction of more affordable housing because of less need for parking in housing projects. This will help us in addressing our serious affordable housing crisis.

The reduction of car dependence will reduce congestion and greenhouse-gas production, and generally improve the quality of life in our county. But to make this possibility a reality, the Metro Transit District will need more funding.

Locally, we do better than most communities in the United States with respect to funding our public transit system, but we are not the national leaders we need to be. Cities like Boulder, Colorado, and Portland, Oregon, have demonstrated that it is possible to create places with truly modern transportation systems. They have miles of safe, protected bike lanes and rapid and frequent transit service. And these are systems that do not rely on individual sacrifice to create great public transit or extensive bicycle and pedestrian networks. They are communities not dominated and degraded by the use of private automobiles.

A small addition to our local sales tax across Santa Cruz County could make this vision a reality here. The Metro Transit District has hired internationally renowned transit planner Jarrett Walker + Associates to help completely redesign our county’s transit system. The new system will focus on increasing the frequency of bus service on key routes with significant potential for new riders and will start with improvements that we can make within our current financial resources.

But more important, the 15-month study will also result in concrete information about the kind of more frequent and reliable bus service additional local funding would make possible.

Then, we will ask the voters of Santa Cruz County if they share our excitement about the vision of a transit system that can really make a difference with respect to congestion, affordable housing and addressing climate change challenges.

Mike Rotkin has lived in Santa Cruz since 1969 and teaches at UCSC. He is a five-time former mayor of the City of Santa Cruz. His previous piece for Lookout appeared in March.

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