The economy sings the blues; the Big Blue Bus goes green

By Stephanie Negriff

One of the primary goals of the Mini Blue service in Santa Monica, CA, is to reduce local traffic by getting residents out of their cars for community-based trips.

This could easily be the best of times and the worst of times. Change is in the air and so is the way Americans think about public transportation. Transit ridership is up and the demand remains high. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) reports more than 2.6 billion trips on public transportation in the first quarter of 2009.

This is excellent news, but still leaves nearly every transportation agency in the country scrambling to find creative and innovative ways to survive during these tough economic times.

In elections last November voters nationwide said yes to legislation that would support public transit. Of 32 state and local public transit-related ballot initiatives, voters approved 23 that authorized expenditures of approximately $75 billion.

But even as ridership soars, the Big Blue Bus here in Santa Monica, CA, along with many other transit agencies, confronts a unique budget crisis.

About 35 percent of our operating budget comes from rider fares, with the remaining funds derived from a variety of county and state sources. In California, as voters were approving $9.95 billion to build high speed rail, the state legislature voted to eliminate all State Transportation Assistance (STA) funds, which are desperately needed to operate public transit.

With the loss of the STA funds, the recently approved county-wide Measure R will be needed to sustain existing transit operations, more so than merely enhance services as the voters had intended.

To operate within these budget constraints, which also include a decrease in sales tax revenues, the Big Blue Bus has had to take a hard look at the services we provide and eliminate those that are the most unproductive. This was difficult given the high productivity of the Big Blue Bus, which is more than double the national average.

After careful examination and analysis we identified select trips that continued to show low ridership numbers, and scaled back using the precision of a scalpel. These decisions did not come without both public and local business scrutiny and controversy, as could be expected. However, in the end we were able to reach a consensus that retains the most productive and efficient services that affect the most people.

Although we have faced our share of challenges this year, there is some great news on the horizon. This month we finally realize the results of decades of savings and nine years of planning when we open our new 66,000-square-foot state-of-the-art maintenance facility that emphasizes green and sustainable technologies.

The structure includes 600 photovoltaic solar panels on the roof that will provide 15 percent of the power used for operations in the building. Recycled materials such as concrete and steel and the inclusion of low-VOC materials will keep the air fresh and clean of toxins.

This new building is part of a facility expansion project that will mean the demolition of our old maintenance facility built in the 1960s, and the redesign of the yard itself to accommodate the growth we have experienced over the past 50 years. The new building contains 21 repair bays, including two chassis wash bays and bays that will fit several new articulated buses. All this is possible through dedicated transportation funds.

The Big Blue Bus is committed to using the federal capital dollars it received through the American Recovery Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to help stimulate the federal economy and at the same time help create a green solution.

With regard to studies that show the transportation sector is responsible for approximately 28 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions that contribute significantly to global climate change, the Big Blue Bus is using its ARRA funds to upgrade the fleet of hybrid buses for our popular Mini Blue neighborhood routes. These vehicles significantly reduce the amount of emissions coming from the tailpipe and they are quieter than traditional transit vehicles.

One of the primary goals of the Mini Blue service is to reduce local traffic by getting residents out of their cars for community-based trips. We are also using our stimulus funds to purchase articulated buses for our busy Bus Rapid Transit lines. These two routes are two of the most heavily ridden in our system and help reduce regional travel by car.

The Big Blue Bus also received ARRA funds for our bus stop redevelopment program. The new program will provide better customer information and amenities for the passenger. Providing a safe place to congregate with static and real time bus information improves the passenger experience and invites new riders to try the system.

So while the current financial road ahead is somewhat unpredictable, the Big Blue Bus will continue to operate the best transit service possible, finding innovative and creative solutions to keep the people of Santa Monica and West Los Angeles moving.

We will deal with the current circumstances while also creating transit services that work well for our customers and the community. We will also continue to look ahead and keep a positive attitude about the future when more funds become available to expand, rather than contract, essential transit services.

Stephanie Negriff is director of transit services for the Big Blue Bus, Santa Monica, CA.