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County gets on board with single transit provider

County gets on board with single transit provider

Visalia pumps the brakes on TCAG proposal to consolidate Tulare County’s six transit agencies

By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN

TULARE COUNTY – Public transportation in Tulare County is better than similar-sized areas throughout the country. In fact, it may be a little too good.

A study of Tulare County’s transit systems was completed in June by SBLB, LLC, a transportation consulting firm contracted by the Tulare County Association of Governments (TCAG). The study points out that Tulare County is unlike many rural areas because it has dense population centers surrounded by sparsely populated areas. Tulare County is among the 100 largest geographic counties in the nation. Its 4,839 square miles is rural in nature but is becoming more urban. 

“Just the Valley floor portion of Tulare County is the size of Rhode Island,” said TCAG executive director Ted Smalley. 

Visalia-Tulare and Porterville have a higher population density, 3,000 people per square mile, than Tulsa, Okla., Oklahoma City, Okla. and Victorville-Hesperia, Calif. This combination makes it challenging to provide both urbanized and rural residents with efficient service on the same routes. Density is an important metric for transit demand because it allows efficient grouping of trips for educational, medical and employment purposes. For example, the program allowing students to commute to school on local buses has been increasing but only 0.7% of daily riders use local transit for work, compared to 5% nationwide. 

The consultants are the first to agree that Tulare County transit agencies provide great service. From 2012 to 2017, service hours and miles of service are up 30%. Compared with similar sized populations in San Luis Obispo, Antelope Valley, Solano and Palm Springs, Tulare County agencies have a lower cost per hour and per passenger, yet their operating costs are higher. 

“The services offered to the customers are safe, customer friendly, moderately priced, and reliable,” SBLB, stated. “The fleets are above average for the most part and the transit centers and passenger stops are exceptional.”

During that same five-year period, the operating cost is up 50% and cost per rider are up more than 67% while ridership is down 9% and fare recovery is down 52%. 

“Any county that is facing the transition from predominantly rural transit demand to predominantly urban transit demand would face challenges in changing allocations to focus more on route productivity and less on population,” the study stated. 

Local policy makers are not too blame, the study says, these are just the economic realities for transit. National trends of increased vehicle miles traveled, automobile registrations and wage increases combined with significant employment increases in the lower income strata, and rapid increases in sub‐prime automobile lending combined to create a challenging environment for transit management. In California, this was coupled with a new law allowing undocumented drivers to obtain driver’s license, adding 900,000 drivers to the roadways who may have used public transportation before.

The consultants argue that the increasing cost of providing transit services can be minimized through the consolidation of transit agencies. Tulare County currently has six transit agencies – Tulare County Area Transit (TCAT), Visalia Transit, Tulare Intermodal Express (TIME), Dinuba Area Regional Transit (DART), Woodlake City Transit, and Porterville Transit.  

That’s more transit agencies in one county than in all of the surrounding counties of Fresno (3), Kings (2) and Kern (2). By forming a single transit agency, SBLB states Tulare County agencies could collectively save as much as $1.5 million per year. 

STEERING COMMITTEE

The money saved in transit can be used for road projects, something Tulare County could use more than higher levels of public transit because the roads are used by both personal, commercial and public transportation. 

Board of Supervisors chairman Kuyler Crocker has made transitioning to a unified transit system a focus since becoming chair of TCAG last summer. He said having a single entity overseeing countywide transit would provide economies of scale for purchasing buses, streamlining routes, having a uniform payment system and communicating with riders traveling from communities to cities. 

“Buses are empty more times than they are full,” Crocker said. “The benefits of efficiency far outweigh any loss in autonomy.”

TCAG formed an ad hoc committee to look at the concept of forming a joint powers agreement (JPA) between the six transit agencies or at least try to create uniform pricing, policies and procedures between them. The committee including Bob Link, mayor of the county’s largest city in Visalia, Supervisor Amy Shuklian, representing the transit agency covering the majority of the county, John Lollis, city manager for the second largest transit corridor in Porterville, and Greg Gomez, who represents public transit agencies as well as the City of Farmersville. TCAG executive director Ted Smalley said all of the cities, with the exception of Visalia, have agreed in concept to the idea of forming a JPA. Large cities like Tulare already partner with the county to provide routes within their city limits and small cities such as Exeter and Farmersville are already served by Visalia Transit.  

“Transit is hurting and if we can’t change the current model, it will fail,” Gomez said. “We are all having trouble covering our costs and we need to improve ridership. It makes sense to have a single provider.”

Link said consolidation was probably a “good idea” but was concerned with how the JPA would address buses, facilities, maintenance, funding and even representation on the board of directors. 

“There are a lot of questions on how it would be operated and governed,” Link said.

BACKING OUT

Link’s fellow councilmembers shared his concerns on Sept. 3 when Visalia City Council became the only city to formally oppose the formation of a transit JPA.  

Angelina Soper, transit manager for the City of Visalia, presented two options recommended by the consultants – a transitional and a JPA option. The transitional option recommended reducing most service hours by eliminating the last, and often least used, hour of service. It also recommended consolidating routes around major population hubs. Visalia Transit would absorb TCAT routes 10, 30 and 50 in the north county and Porterville would absorb TCAT routes 40 and 70 in the south county without forming a JPA. 

“This implies eliminating the TCAT system when they just spent $8 or $9 million for a bus facility and compressed natural gas fueling facility, so I’m wondering how the consultants came to this conclusion,” Councilmember Phil Cox said. “Who assumes control of that facility?”

Under the transitional option, Smalley said TCAT would still operate routes in the City of Tulare and rural routes south of Tulare that did not full into the Porterville or Visalia corridors. TCAT also covers three times more distance than city-based transit systems. In a budget meeting with reporters on Monday, Tulare County CAO Jason Britt said the county is moving forward with its plans to build a transportation maintenance and fueling station at its complex off Avenue 256 and Lovers Lane because it is too soon to make plans for a potential JPA between transit agencies.

The proposed consolidation would mean the elimination of routes and less frequent bus trips for Visalia Transit riders. Frequency on Routes 6, 7, 15 and 16 would increase by a half hour on average. Route 8’s stop frequency would increase by 15 minutes and Route 3, a loop through eastern Visalia, would be eliminated.  Smalley said there would be savings even if Visalia pushed its frequency from 15 to 20 minutes on its busiest routes. 

The second recommendation was a “clean slate” option that would bring all transit agencies under the umbrella of a single JPA-formed agency. The transition from six agencies to one countywide agency would happen over a three-year period and would “reflect a closer balance of transit supply and demand.” The consolidation would streamline Visalia to eight routes, Porterville to six routes, Tulare to three and Dinuba to two. The V Line to Fresno, routes to Delano and the Sequoia Shuttle would not be affected by the changes. 

The council was interested in third party services such as app-based ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft which are already operating in Tulare County. The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority in St. Petersburg, Fla. has been using ride-hailing services as part of its approach since 2016. The program subsidizes $5 of every ride taking travelers from homes nowhere near bus stops to a stop. The program currently provides about 3,000 trips per month. The study notes that ride-hailing services can have inconsistent service hours, fares that fluctuate based on demand, and that a significant portion of rural transit riders in Tulare County do not have access to a smartphone. 

“Nevertheless, ride‐hailing and ride‐sharing TNCs can provide expanded transit service options in areas of Tulare County where transit service availability is non‐existent or minimal,” the study stated. “These areas include communities in the Northern part of the County such as East Orosi, Seville, Yettem, Monson and the Southern part of the County including Terra Bella and Ducor.”

Visalia also took issue with its representation on the proposed countywide transit agency. In the study, Tulare County’s largest city was given two seats on the board while the County was given four seats. Every other city was given one seat on the 13-member board. The board members would serve at least two-year terms. 

“No one likes the board composition,” Smalley said. “People would have to agree and those things can be worked out.”

Vice Mayor Steve Nelsen motioned for staff to look at implementing some of the recommendations and continue working with other transit agencies to create efficiencies. 

“I’m not in favor of joining a JPA,” Nelsen said. “We do a tremendous job in transit and it’s a good business model we have.”

Smalley argues that transportation JPAs are not new to the Valley or even Tulare County. Smalley said Kings, Merced and Fresno Counties consolidated their transit decades ago. Inside the county, Smalley points to his own organization. TCAG was formed by a JPA in 1971 and was designated as the Metropolitan Planning Organization for the county in 1982. TCAG is also the Regional Transportation Planning Agency and the Transportation Authority created with the passage of Measure R to manage road projects using the half cent sales tax measure approved in 2006. TCAG has also made Tulare County more competitive when it comes to grant funding.

“It certainly seems a JPA would make us more competitive for funding when we are competing with much larger agencies in Los Angeles and the Bay Area,” Smalley said. 

MERGING OVER?

Even if total consolidation is not amenable, Smalley said there are many other strategies outlined in the study that could make countywide transit more efficient. The most obvious would be providing a single fare rate for all transit systems with a uniform fare payment system, and direct routes from population centers, such as going from Porterville to Visalia. 

The willingness by each county transit agency to improve rider experience is what led to the regional pass. The T-pass is sold for $55 per month and is valid for unlimited adult rides on the six transit systems within the county. The pass is available at five locations: Dinuba Transit Center, Porterville Transit Center, Tulare Transit Center, Tulare County Government Plaza, and Visalia Transit Center.

“That took us years to coordinate but would have taken a few meetings with a JPA,” Smalley said.

If nothing else, Smalley said every agency will have to look at its on-demand or dial-a-ride services critically and creatively to maintain its most expensive service. For example, Smalley said a senior citizen needing to go from Porterville to Visalia for a doctor’s appointment needs to coordinate reservations with at least three transit agencies to make the trip.  

“Right now that system is not seamless,” Smalley said. “The more seamless you can make it, the more ridership you will see.”

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