Thursday, April 30, 1998
At a meeting last week at the Monterey Public Library, officials from Monterey Salinas Transit (MST) tried to explain to an unhappy crowd of mostly senior and disabled bus riders why after almost 20 years of continuous, if inefficient service, there were going to be some changes. Though the officials spoke patiently of efficiency and productivity, the crowd wanted none of it. Familiar bus lines and stops were being eliminated and many riders in attendance felt they were not being treated fairly.
"As an overall picture of that meeting, it seemed to me they are not going to care too much for the seniors," says Isabelle Franceschini of Marina, a 77-year-old who''s been riding MST for 12 years.
"These cutbacks are a slap in the face of poor people," says Mike Echols, a bus rider from Carmel.
MST officials strongly deny that the proposed changes in bus service discriminate against the poor, saying the Service Improvement Plan, as it is called, seeks to better meet the needs of all riders, including the elderly and the disabled.
"To say that MST is discriminating against the elderly and the poor is just plain not true," says Ann Jamison, a consultant with San Francisco-based Nelson/Nygaard, a firm assisting in the overhaul of MST''s system.
MST, like many government agencies, has the difficult task of meeting a tremendous need with limited resources. In 1997, riders made over 4 million trips on MST''s 93 vehicles. This service, which operates on a $10 million annual budget, is stretched to the point of breaking as it tries to meet the county''s diverse needs. What''s more, the basic service plan has remained static for 20 years while rider demographics and demand have changed drastically.
"There are so many needs and a very limited amount of resources available to address them," says Jamison. "We are trying to address operational concerns. As you patch a system together, you end up with a system where time schedules are not being met."
Under the proposed Service Improvement Plan, MST''s current 28 bus lines would be reduced to 23, and many of the lines would be re-routed or combined with other lines in an effort to improve service. This is part of a greater plan to prepare for anticipated transportation needs of the 21st century. The plan will be taken up by the MST board of directors on June 8, and if approved, would be implemented at the earliest by February 1999.
"This new system will be designed to stay in step with growth patterns in Fort Ord and Marina," says MST Planning Manager Alan Forrest.
In addition to altering current bus lines, MST would replace traditional bus service in some areas with DART (Direct Access Rapid Transit) vans that would pick up riders and take them to "Transit Centers," where they could catch buses to their final destinations.
According to Forrest, "we''ve reduced the number of routes but haven''t decreased service because the buses are going to run more frequently."
Having MST''s buses run more frequently, and serve more people, are the overall goals of the plan. In large cities it is not uncommon for public transit buses to stop every other block, every five minutes. But as any bus rider in Monterey County will tell you, MST doesn''t quite meet that mark. On off-peak hours, buses on many lines come by only hourly, and even then, are often late.
Under the Service Improvement Plan, the frequency of stops on principal lines, such as the Carmel-Monterey-Marina-Salinas trunk route would increase to every 15 minutes. Additionally, bus lines which currently wind their way through residential neighborhoods would be "straightened out," and stay principally on larger thoroughfares. This means, for instance, that some riders accustomed to catching the bus as it goes by their houses will now have to walk to catch it. Fewer stops means getting there faster, or so goes the thinking.
It is this proposed change that has many riders, particularly the elderly, up in arms. For those who can''t make the trek to the new bus stop, MST plans to establish the DART system. This proposal leaves some uneasy because of its perceived similarity to RIDES, another MST van program that currently serves the disabled and others who cannot take the bus.
"They are trying to push the seniors off to the DART system, and I am afraid that DART is going to be a lot like the RIDES program, which has not been dependable," says Franceschini.
Jamison says DART systems have been tested in places like San Diego and Seattle and have been "very well received" and that in some areas of Monterey County, DART will be an improvement over existing service.
But to many seniors, a change in bus schedules and stops--around which some plan their day--is disorienting.
"It is hard for seniors to change," says Franceschini. "They get dressed up, they go out, they go to Safeway to get their groceries and they see people. With these changes, they may feel isolated."
Judging by the reaction to last week''s meeting at the Monterey Library, many seniors are afraid of being left high and dry without transportation.
"What we tend to find is that at public meetings, you tend to hear from people concerned about change," says Jamison. "They can''t imagine change would be a good thing. This is particularly true of seniors concerned with their mobility."
Echols says their fears are justified. "Yes they may be afraid of change, but understand that the elderly have moved into places where the route is accessible and now it will not be."
Jamison says that overall, the improvement in service using DART and the new fixed bus routes justifies the short-term inconvenience.
"There is a big misunderstanding that a [bus] line on a map means better service than DART. There is a tradeoff involved, but it meets the needs of more people than a fixed [bus] route."
MST officials stress that the proposed Service Improvement Plan is a work-in-progress and insist that public feedback on the plan is being taken into consideration before the MST board of directors makes a final decision.
While many may bristle at the thought of a change in routine, the changes, say MST officials are coming, in some form or another.
Says MST Assistant General Manger Edwin Fincke, "We are trying to listen to the customer as best we can, but the old system is going out." cw
Public hearings on the proposed MST Service Improvement Plan will be held May 11 at Marina City Hall, 10am; May 13 at Cesar Chavez Library in Salinas, 7pm; and June 8 at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Seaside, 10am. For additional information, call 393-8184 or online www.mst.org