Santa Cruz Big Basin bus service in jeopardy before it even starts

Do you remember my excitement yesterday over the possible restoration of bus service to Big Basin Redwoods State Park and Waddell Beach?

That excitement might be premature. Budgetary juggling at the Federal and regional level may end up leaving Santa Cruz METRO a little short of cash.

TL;DR SUMMARY – IT ROLLS DOWNHILL

The Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (SCCRTC) receives money from various Federal, state and regional agencies which it in turn distributes to various transportation projects throughout Santa Cruz County.

Among the contributors to SCCRTC is the Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments (AMBAG), which distributes Federal transportation planning funds to Santa Cruz County.

Among the recipients from SCCRTC are Santa Cruz METRO transit agency.

Federal Highway Administration recently informed AMBAG to expect less transportation planning funds. AMBAG told SCCRTC about three weeks ago to expect only 40% of what they normally receive in planning funds. SCCRTC just told Santa Cruz METRO this week that they can probably expect a little less money. Santa Cruz METRO staff are scrambling to figure out where they can cut $43,000 from the budget, which probably means they’ll cut a couple of bus runs and almost certainly means anything new like the Big Basin bus will not be added.

SCCRTC budget committee meets Thursday at 3 PM in the Santa Cruz County Administrative Office conference room at 701 Ocean Street, Public are invited to speak.

U.S. law mandates that all Federal transportation moneys to “urbanized areas” with a population greater than 50,000 must be channeled through a Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). The Federally mandated planning process performed by these MPOs has been funded via something called a “PL fund” which was, historically, determined by formula.

Under MAP-21 – the current Federal highway spending bill — MPOs and their planning operations are still required under Federal law, but the Federal Highway Administration (FWHA) which oversees distribution of PL funds has drastically reduced the amounts of these available funds and making more money available for highway construction.

The Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments (AMBAG) is the MPO for Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Benito Counties. AMBAG has shared planning responsibilities with the Transportation Agency of Monterey County (TAMC) and the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Agency (SCCRTC) to better engage the diverse local communities in all facets of transportation planning and produce transportation planning documents that better reflect the communities’ input as is necessary to meet federal and state transportation planning requirements. AMBAG gives half of their PL funds to the regional agencies so they can perform their local planning work. The Santa Cruz County RTC generally receives about $250,000 per year from AMBAG to perform this planning work. That probably pays for one full time planner and a part time consultant or two.

Are you with me so far? I wish I had a graphic artist to help convey this information in a visual way, but I don’t so take a deep breath as we continue.

Because of the funding changes at the Federal level, AMBAG has drastically cut the PL funds they can provide to TAMC and SCCRTC. Each of these regional agencies will now receive only $100,000. That represents a 40% cut for Santa Cruz County.

The County planning requirements don’t change — they’re still working on the EIR to widen Highway 1 to eight lanes, after all — so they have to cut expenses in other areas to make up for their $150,000 shortfall.

Happy news is that the SCCRTC anticipates receiving $60,000 more than they anticipated from Transportation Development Act (TDA) funds. The bad news: SCCRTC plans to take away a net $43,000 from the Santa Cruz METRO budget.

$43,000 doesn’t sound like much out of METRO’s annual $42 million operating budget, but the Big Basin and Waddell Beach service will cost about $20,000 to run annually, and the Santa Cruz METRO staffers suggest they cannot afford the extra service if SCCRTC cuts their funding.

METRO isn’t the only operation getting the axe due to lower Federal PL funding. SCCRTC says they can reduce administrative costs by $3800 annually. Community Bridges Lift Line specialized transit service will lose $4,255 in the proposed budget. About $2,500 will be dropped from bicycle and pedestrian projects throughout Santa Cruz County. The budget committee also suggests sacking their “Sacramento Assistant,” who is currently paid $36,000 annually, I suppose to run documents to and from Caltrans HQ. All projects related to highway transportation, including all Highway 1 construction and planning and the Freeway Service Patrol, will remain fully funded with no surprise cuts partway through the Fiscal Year.

The SCCRTC Budget and Administration / Personnel Committee will discuss their new revised budget with the proposed cuts at their meeting on Thursday afternoon at 3 PM, which takes place in the Santa Cruz County Administrative Office conference room. I’m not quite sure which room that is in the big stone edifice where Santa Cruz County does their business at 701 Ocean Street, but I’m sure an office directory somewhere can help point the way.

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