The Silver Strand State Beach bus stop would lose Sunday service under the new transit plan. (Photo by Dave Maass)
If CityBeat could add to its 2009 Best of San Diego issue, bus route 901 would be named the most beautiful Sunday ride in the county. That isn't just because of the gorgeous views of both the bay and the Pacific, but because the Sunday bus may not be there in 2010.
From its northern end, the 901 winds through Downtown San Diego and past Petco Park, loops across the Coronado Bridge, swings past the North Island Naval Complex, then makes a stop at Coronado City Hall.
If, on Jan. 7, the Metropolitan Transit System's board votes for cuts proposed at its December meeting, that's where the Sunday 901 would turn around.
On a Sunday morning in December, the bus' full route is still in effect. It leaves Coronado City Hall at about 8:45 a.m. to embark on its eight-mile journey down Silver Strand with just short of a dozen passengers. Most wear the black shoes and black slacks synonymous with the service industry. Some wear collared shirts embroidered with their employer's logo, such as the Coronado Cays Yacht Club. They alight at the Naval Amphibious Base, the luxurious Loews Coronado Bay Resort and the Coronado Cays community. The bus terminates at the Iris Avenue Trolley Station after passing through Imperial Beach.
That's where Louis Pruitt, a hotel worker who lives just outside Imperial Beach, usually gets on.
“Sunday is your busiest day; that's your heaviest check out,” he tells CityBeat. “Every restaurant in the city of San Diego is busy. Everybody's just coming from church and you take your family out that day. I'm not mentioning no names, but when somebody said it don't look that busy that day—they just don't know.”
CityBeat will name the speaker: It was Harry Mathis, chairman of the Metropolitan Transit System board, which Pruitt addressed during the Dec. 10 public hearing over the proposed cuts, which largely target Sunday service. Route 901 was one of the most commented upon, but Mathis was addressing the bus system as a whole. Riders, by and large, told surveyors their Sunday rides were more flexible.
MTS spokesperson Robert Schupp says that it also makes financial sense to cut the most from Sunday service.
“On Sunday, those routes are not as highly utilized, and we're not getting the fare-box recovery that we get from the heavily used routes on weekdays,” Schupp says. “When you cut a route on Sunday, you still have those buses going around, and you're not getting revenue. By cutting it, you're saving more of your money than if you took out trips in the midday.”
This will be the fourth major set of route discontinuations as a result of plunging revenue. Schupp identifies three major factors, all tied to the economic downturn: a drop in sales-tax revenue; an increase in unemployment, which itself caused a drop in fare revenue; and the state's withdrawal of some $30 million in transit funding to fill its own budget holes. A state court ordered the state to restore that funding, but Schupp says MTS isn't counting on the money coming through for its annual budget.
All this has left MTS with a $13-million shortfall, about half of which the agency has bridged with one-time federal stimulus money. The remaining hole in the budget, Schupp says, must be closed with transit cuts.
While Sunday riders being more flexible in their journeys might be true across the board, some transit advocates and business interests say MTS' position overlooks the needs of riders on specific routes. System-wide, Sunday bus riders drop to 46 percent of what MTS sees on weekdays. The 901, however, retains 70 percent of its ridership on Sundays.
That may be in large part due to the strand's largest private employer, Loews Coronado Bay Resort. About 40 percent, or 200, of the hotel's 450 employees rely on public transportation as their only way to get to work, according to the Loews spokesperson Anne Stephany.
“It's important to note that, for our hotel, Sunday is essentially our busiest day,” Stephany says. “The fact [the bus service] is stopping is especially problematic.”
It's not just the employees that concern Loews, but the tourists, as well. Though its clientele may be affluent, Stephany says, many are also tourists from abroad who are accustomed to riding buses.
“We have a lot of European travelers who opt for public transportation, and a lot of summertime guests do take the bus to Coronado,” she says. “They don't rent cars and are very comfortable with public transportation. That would obviously have an impact for us during the summertime.”
Sue Schaffner, executive director of Hostelling International San Diego, voiced similar concerns at the public hearing about route 923, which connects the association's 55-bed Point Loma hostel with the airport. Typically in the summer, the hostel operates at capacity with approximately 60 percent from outside the U.S.
“They're not going to go through the hassle of getting a foreign driver's license, and they're used to excellent public transportation,” Schaffner tells CityBeat. “It's surprising to them when they can't get public transportation at all.”
Schaffner criticizes MTS for taking fare increases off the table; for hostel guests, riding the bus isn't about saving money.
“The reality is that our people can buy a pass for $5, and that's super-cheap,” Schaffner says. “If you raised it to $8 or $9, they'd pay it and not blink an eye.”
But tourists and hotel workers aren't the only ones who rely on the 901. One Navy member, Petty Officer Christopher Thompson, complained to the MTS board that stopping the 901 would essentially cut off personnel at the Naval Amphibious Base from Imperial Beach, Coronado and downtown San Diego.
Formerly a Naval ship servicemen—a “supply puke”—who was stationed at the base, Pruitt agrees; the Silver Strand route was his lifeline.
“For 10 years, I took it to the Naval Amphibious Base,” Pruitt says. “It was very convenient. Now you'd have to go Downtown just to come back to Coronado. Then I would have to get out at City Hall and walk.”
Coronado City Councilmember Al Ovrom Jr., who sits on the MTS board, said he's working with MTS on a solution to the 901 problem. Indeed, they might be going somewhere: According to the latest MTS revision, “selected trips” may continue from Coronado City Hall to Imperial Beach, including one late-night bus that would leave Downtown at 11 p.m.
However, the public will not get access to the revisions until the day of the vote, Schupp says.
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