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Bus service cuts in La Jolla and beyond attract a crowd

The disabled and disenfranchised complained of being dispossessed of their access to public transportation at the third of three public meetings held in downtown San Diego by the Metropolitan Transit System March 9.

The heavily subsidized bus transit system has proposed a sweeping set of service cutbacks and consolidations regionwide. Among many proposals, bus routes 34 and 30 serving La Jolla, UCSD and UTC are proposed to be combined into one, an express route going from downtown San Diego, stopping at Old Town and Grand Avenue in Pacific Beach, before heading to UCSD and UTC. That route will service La Jolla Shores Drive, which initially was proposed to be bypassed.

At the March 9 public hearing, a host of citzens, many blind, elderly, poor and disabled, turned out to decry the proposed bus cutbacks, which the Metropolitan Transit Service has proposed to streamline operations while trimming $5 million from annual operating subsidies. According to a study by the transit system, eliminating bus service on unproductive street segments would ultimately yield a net increase in daily bus passengers of 14,200, which translates into $2 million in annual operating revenues.

Those testifying asserted citizens have a right to access public transportation, arguing proposals to cut or consolidate service would cause financial hardship to the infirm and those on fixed incomes, forcing many to lose their jobs or remain homebound because they’re entirely dependent on buses and trolleys for their daily transportation needs.

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City Councilwoman Donna Frye’s testimony before the transit board March 9 took a decidedly populist turn.

“All of the growth and development within the city and county of San Diego is based on the city of villages plan based on transit-oriented development,” she told the transit board. “I know how hard your job is, how difficult the position you’re in is to make these tough decisions. But I encourage you to listen to what the people are telling you. They’re the ones supporting the buses, paying the fees, not the people who aren’t here today and not likely the people who are doing the analysis.”

Mark Silver, a UTC resident and UCSD employee, testified that consolidating bus routes 30 and 34 servicing the university would have a harmful impact.

“I use 34 to get to and from work along with many other employees and students,” he said. “I’m concerned that changes to 34 involving combining it with 30, which would only run until about 10 p.m. at night, that could be a significant issue for students not having a bus to take.”

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Dan Allen, chair of La Jolla Town Council’s transit issues the past two years, said in an e-mail La Jolla began two years ago to try to get improved service from the Metropolitan Transit System, which operates 90 fixed-route bus lines and three trolley lines in San Diego at an annual operating cost of $182 million, $69 million of which comes from public fares.

“It is a tremendous letdown to see that we are now quarreling amongst ourselves over whether and how much to let Metropolitan Transit System take away from us,” Allen said. “Metropolitan Transit Service is cutting millions of dollars from the operating budget. As much as we might hope otherwise, the data show fewer people riding busses and a general decline over recent years.”

Allen said San Diegans voted last year by a two-thirds majority to give the San Diego Association of Governments, the region’s transportation planning agency, $14 billion to spend on public transporation. Much of that money is earmarked for the trolley extension paralleling Interstate 5 to UCSD. Allen believes the money could be better spent elsewhere.

“They’re funding capital projects to build a trolley up to UTC,” he said. “With that kind of support, you don’t think they’d want to destroy the bus system.”

Cutting back on the timing of the buses through La Jolla is a major step backward, contends Allen.

“The mark of a really good mass transit system is that you don’t have to have a schedule: You just show up on the corner of a main street and wait five to 10 minutes for the next bus,” he said. “Now we’re going in the other direction, with buses going by every 15 minutes. The nearest approach of the trolley will be three or four miles away from the Village. Public transit, we’re not getting it. It’s shrinking away from us.”

Conan Cheung, director of planning and performance monitoring for the Metropolitan Transit System, said the bus route revisions as proposed are designed to reverse a trend of declining regional ridership.

“The bottom line is we have certain subsidies coming in from state and local agencies and we need to balance our budget,” said Cheung. “We can try to increase our revenues, or we can reduce our costs. We’re in a downward spiral. Every year we cut service to balance our budget, which means we lose riders. The only way to reverse that trend is to redesign the system to attract more riders, more discretionary riders. The only way to do that is to provide more frequent service so people don’t have to wait, and you do that by going to primary destinations, not meandering through neighborhoods.”

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Milt Phegley, UCSD campus community planner, believes combing bus routes 30 and 34 will not be a major hardship to the university.

“Overall, the changes that the Metropolitan Transit System is proposing are very favorable in terms of UCSD and the University City area,” he said. “The combination of routes 30 and 34 will not have any detrimental impact on UCSD. In terms of saving money, and allowing the Metropolitan Transit System to expand other routes and provide new service, it is something very favorable.”

Phegley said the transit service has plans to provide new service from Mira Mesa to UCSD and the La Jolla area, as well as an express route from downtown San Diego, which will bring new areas never before served into the public transit system accessing the university.

According to Phegley, about 35 percent of UCSD students live on campus, and another 25 percent live within a mile of campus.

Following 3 1/2 hours of public testimony March 9, the Metropolitan Transit System Board continued the public hearing to Thursday, March 23 at 9 a.m. at Golden Hall, at which time the board is expected to debate all of the proposed bus service changes before voting on whether or not to cut or consolidate services on routes with poor ridership.