Santa Barbara MTD opens transit center, shuttle service may be terminated
The Santa Barbara Metropolitan Transit District may terminate its popular downtown and waterfront shuttles as part of its annual service changes.
Many of MTD’s proposed changes are in response to the pandemic, some reversing decisions made a year ago. The changes will go into effect Aug. 16.
The transit district suspended the downtown and waterfront shuttles April 6, 2020, as bus riders were staying home.
If officials were to relaunch the downtown shuttle, the route must change to accommodate the new State Street promenade.
But the largest obstacle facing these well-known shuttles is funding.
The city pays for these routes using parking revenue, Hillary Blackerby, MTD planning and marketing manager, said during a community meeting Wednesday. It brings the fare to 50 cents, down from other routes’ $1.75.
Last May, the city informed the transit district that it didn’t have the money to fund the route, which costs just over $1 million dollars. The city can’t afford it this year either.
“We don’t have a way to maintain that service without that subsidy,” Ms. Blackerby said during the meeting. “It’s a difficult conversation to have, but that’s where we are at this point.
“There’s so much exciting stuff when talking about downtown and state street, housing, revitalization, reimagining what it’s like to get around down there; we must, MTD must be a part of that conversation. Transit must be a component of downtown circulation if it’s truly going to be a successful downtown.”
She asked community members to reach out to the Santa Barbara City Council if they’d like the shuttles to return.
MTD is also recommending the continued suspension of a handful of routes that were canceled at the start of the pandemic: the Cathedral Oaks corridor, the seaside shuttle to Carpinteria and the crosstown shuttle.
In regards to the seaside shuttle, Ms. Blackerby said, “We are recommending suspension for a workforce issue, but we know this is something people really like and use. So while this is also a pretty poor performer, it is vital for a lot of folks. We just want to be conservative in what we bring back so that we can make service.”
She describes planning routes to the News-Press, comparing service to a three-legged stool. MTD must balance community preference with the cost and the supply of buses and drivers.
This is especially important as the transit district serves Santa Barbara Unified’s secondary schools, which have recently resumed for four-day weeks.
When the district announced its intentions to bring students back to campus for nearly a full week, Ms. Blackerby called into the April 6 school board meeting to convey the stress the decision put on MTD.
“We have been working with district staff for over a year to plan, prepare, be flexible, start over and prepare again all to be ready to operate our 17 booster routes to and from the junior high and high schools when students return to campus,” she said.
The schools’ forthcoming plans will impact MTD’s routes. On-campus enrollment at UCSB and Santa Barbara City College will contribute to the amount of drivers on four routes serving campuses.
Those bus lines have been out of service over the past year (because fewer students are on campus), but they will soon partially or fully resume.
MTD’s board of directors will vote on the changes May 18. There’s another meeting for community members at noon May 11.
Riders can voice their opinions through a survey at sbmtd.gov/servicechanges or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Returning May 10 is bus fare. Riders can begin to get tickets at MTD’s transit center, which opened Monday.
The new transit center took the frame of the original building from 1974 but with modern technology, a new bus loop and convenient workspace for employees.
“We didn’t knock down the building, but we did basically everything but knock down the building,” Ms. Blackerby told the News-Press.
The design focused on increased functionality and eco-friendly fixtures, equipped with LED lights and screens displaying the latest schedules.
Employees are keeping the interior of the center closed to lounging. Customers can come in to purchase passes or check schedules but must wait for buses outdoors.
Beginning May 10, riders will start boarding on the front of the buses and paying fare. The drivers, 80% of which are fully vaccinated, are enclosed in a plexiglass screen.
A year of free fare has been hard for MTD’s bottom line, but grants have kept the district from laying off drivers, Ms. Blackerby said.
She sees more people starting to ride the buses again in recent weeks.