In response to the coronavirus pandemic and a drop in ridership, the Santa Barbara MTD Board of Directors unanimously adopted a resolution declaring a fiscal and public health emergency during a special meeting on Friday.
The emergencies are effective March 27, and authorize the general manager to “take all actions necessary or intended to protect MTD employees and the public from this health emergency” and to begin emergency bus service reductions as may be necessary.
“This declaration was made in light of the evolving public health situation, and to allow MTD to plan, prepare, and react to future fiscal and public health developments appropriately,” said MTD’s General Manager, Jerry Estrada, in a press release.
The resolution also authorizes Mr. Estrada to implement employee policy changes that “have budgetary impacts.” The changes will be brought to the board at a later date with any necessary budget or policy amendments.
“What it means for us is really the board giving authorization to the general manager to basically be nimble and take any action deemed necessary on a wide range of things,” said MTD spokeswoman Hillary Blackerby.
On the public health front, MTD has already taken several steps over the last two weeks to protect drivers and passengers, including additional cleaning and having passengers who are able board from the rear. MTD has also reduced the amount of people allowed on each bus, with 40 foot busses restricted to eight riders max and 30 foot busses to five.
“If we see the need to go further, we certainly will,” said Ms. Blackerby.
“We’re paying attention to everything that the state and local health officials are telling us to do.”
In addition, MTD announced that all fixed-route buses will be fare free until further notice to reduce drivers’ exposure. However, this change, on top of a two-thirds reduction in ridership, is something MTD hadn’t planned for, said Ms. Blackerby.
“Obviously we budget to have fares and to have riders, so that does make a hole in our budget,” said Ms. Blackerby.
MTD also faces a loss of sales tax revenue, of which they receive a sizable amount every month. As the pandemic has led to the shuttering of business across the county and residents are told to stay home, that revenue has fallen, leading the MTD board to start preparing for the worst.
“We don’t have a full picture of what this means fiscally but we know that it is an emergency,” said Ms. Blackerby.
To offset the impact from the emergency, MTD is seeking funding from state and federal authorities.
“The bill that was just signed (Friday) on the federal level will bring some relief. We don’t know exactly how much, but we are still pushing on the state level too,” said Ms. Blackerby.
While there were no service reductions announced Friday, Ms. Blackerby said plans are being made that take time to gear up, and that it depends on MTD’s workforce.
“If we were to see a further reduction in our workforce then we may have to scale back service further. We’re doing contingency planning on all of that right now,” said Ms. Blackerby.
“We’re preparing in case things take a turn. It’s such a dynamic situation and we’re trying to be prepared for things that we can sort of only imagine at this point.”
Another update on service reductions is expected some time next week.
MTD customer service representatives are still available over the phone at (805) 963-3366.
The public is encouraged to contact MTD with any questions or concerns via the sbmtd.gov website, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, or through the agency’s Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter accounts, all @santabarbaramtd.