MST has a long way to go.
Thursday, May 8, 2003
Photos by Randy Tunnell
April 29 | 10:10am
The #10 to Fremont Boulevard.
A car screeches, brakes locked, skidding, screaming hard enough that everyone turns to look. It nearly rolls through an aged woman hobbling across Fremont [Boulevard] from the Monterey bus plaza to Safeway. She doesn''t break her shuffle to look. She''s got a cane and keeps her head down and keeps going to Safeway on an unsafe way. She would not have been the first.
"People just need to slow down," says the bus driver, a middle-aged woman named Virginia House. She''s standing on the sidewalk in the morning sunshine in front of her bus, talking to another rider, when the skidding car interrupts her. She''s cool and easygoing, as if she''s one of the people who''s figured out how to just slow down.
She''s got an Egg McMuffin in one hand and a pretty pink flower on a long green stem in the other. "It''s a sweet pea," House says, offering up the flower to me for a sniff. "It''s got a really nice smell." She''s right, it''s subtle and pleasant.
The woman who nearly died on Fremont is a friend of hers, their friendship forged on the bus. The walking woman and her husband used to be regular fares. Now the woman rides alone. Her husband died recently but she and House are still friends. The sweet pea was a gift. "She gives me a little something every time I see her," House says.
It''s about 10:13 and the bus still has two minutes until it has to head to Seaside. House sees another rider she knows come up on the sidewalk. She''s got a cane too; it''s long and white; she''s blind. Virginia House goes over to help.
"You all right?" House asks. "Yeah, I''m all right," says the blind woman, who sits in one of the front seats reserved for the handicapped.
It''s 10:15 and time to go. Virginia House takes her sweet pea and clips it to a stand that juts above her dashboard--a short metal table on a post for making manual transfers when the electronic device doesn''t work. The sweet pea sits perched up there out in the front of the bus like a hood ornament in the windshield as she wheels onto Fremont. There are eight other passengers. I''ll be at work at my desk in 15 minutes.
The Monterey Salinas Transit (MST) system can take you to nearly every corner of the county and beyond. The buses are clean and run on time. The 80 buses run on either compressed natural gas or diesel fuel. MST has 170 drivers--called operators.
In the mid-''70s there were six buses and nine employees driving routes from Monterey to Pacific Grove, Carmel and Seaside. Now the buses cover 32 routes and make 1,272 stops per day over a 110-square-mile area.
The bus fare for a ride within one zone costs $1.75. It is one of the highest in the nation, just less than the recently enacted $2 fare in New York. Nevertheless, an average of 14,000 riders take MST buses every day.
The 2003 budget is $22.3 million, down from $24.7 million last year.
May 1 | 10:10am
The #10 to Fremont Boulevard.
It''s the same bus and the same time but "Sweet Pea," Virginia House, is not there. It''s a man driving her bus today. I shouldn''t be on this bus, either. I was supposed to be on a different bus, at 5am, but I missed it. There were plans, grand plans, that went astray.
MST buses are set up to allow social interaction, or private time, depending on the rider''s mood.
The idea was simple: take mass transit to the ballgame. Leave my house on foot, walk to downtown Monterey, get on the bus, pay my fare, then sometime later, step off the train and walk into PacBell Park. I had it all figured out.
The Giants played the Cubs at 12:35. (With Dusty Baker back for the first time, the series was tied at one game apiece). In order to make it to the game, I had to be at the bus plaza at 5am to catch a train leaving Gilroy at 6:27--no other bus connects with the train. The train would get me into San Francisco before 9.
Once I got to the city I''d have to kill time eating breakfast and checking out a museum, then make my way to the park at noon. I''d watch the game, maybe have a beer or two, some garlic fries, cheer on the Giants (or maybe Dusty). Around 3:30 or so the game would be over. The train to Gilroy leaves at 5pm from 4th and King--right in front of the ballpark. I know a girl up there I could call. Maybe she''d meet me for a drink. I''d get on the train at 5 and get off a bus in Monterey at 9:07. I am home by 9:30. Simple.
I figured all this out just reading the bus schedule and checking the CalTrain website. Sure, a drive that normally takes two hours would take four, making my total travel time at least eight hours. How far can you fly in eight hours? To Peru? And travel cost, round-trip would be $25. More than gas.
The game was sold out, but I called an old friend who works in the city--it turned out that his whole department at work was taking the afternoon off and going to the ballgame. There were extra tickets at a mere $10 a pop. Via email from his desk, he made one of those tickets mine.
We decided to meet at a bar at noon in front of the park--someplace called Moo-Moos or something like that. Done. Settled. The boss liked the plan.
The idea would have been a no-brainer elsewhere. This kind of stunt is not a stunt at all in an urbanized area like New York, Boston, Washington, DC or even the Bay Area.
But here in Monterey County it was not really modest at all. In fact, it was the local public transit equivalent of going to the moon.
I would crumble on the launch pad. I woke up at 5:15.
I had to call my friend and tell him I would not be meeting at Moo-Moos before the game. "Good work," he said. "What do you mean? I''m missing the game," I said. "I''ll just add it to the money you owe me," he said.
"So $200, plus ten? $210?"
"Yeah. Two hundred and ten."
If you talk to the guy who runs the bus system, Frank Lichtanski, you get an idea of what the future might hold. There might be a day, next year even, when you can make your bus plans from your desk and know how close the bus is to your stop, the same way you can track an airliner online today.
Soon, if the money becomes available, that weak link between the Monterey Bay area and San Jose and the San Francisco Bay area will be fixed.
There are big plans in the works for local public transportation. MST is working with the city of Marina to build a proper transit center in that city at a cost of $7 million. A new depot will be built on Fort Ord for some $28 million--MST just got the land at 7th and Gigling from the federal government.
Although ridership has flattened out this year, it''s increased some 20 percent over the last several years, mostly due to the addition of some now very popular lines into the south county.
"It''s been going very well here--better than the national and state trends," Lichtanski says at his office in Ryan Ranch.
Lichtanski has been with MST since 1974. He drove the buses and used to take the bus to work. But now he lives too far from a line, so he carpools. (There are no buses that run to MST headquarters except for a smaller van-type vehicle called the DART. The parking lot at MST is full of cars.)
There''s usually plenty of room on the MST bus. Only 2.5 percent of county residents use the bus on a daily basis.
Less than a third of the MST budget comes from fares. Some 43 percent is generated through a quarter-cent sales tax called the Local Transportation Fund (LTF).
Like all public agencies these days, MST is facing recession-era funding cuts. With increased costs for insurance, retirement plans and fuel, nearly $3 million had to be trimmed for the next budget and worse, MST has to cut back service.
On all the buses these days are bright orange notices in English and Spanish about routes that will be cut. Weekend service is being eliminated on some lines and buses will run less often on others. The cuts represent some $740,000 in savings. Only one line is being completely scrapped, an experimental DART line in North County that Lichtanski says never carried more than "onesies and twosies."
There are public hearings in Salinas on May 6, and at MST headquarters on May 12. The cuts will go into effect on August 30.
"Our ridership has gone flat and we''ve got too much service for the ridership that''s out there," Lichtanski says.
Some day fares will increase, but with the bulk of riders less than rich, fares are staying put.
Frank Lichtanski envisions a day when Monterey Salinas Transit is part of an efficient regional public transportation system.
"We don''t think right now, given what we know about the demographics, that a fare increase is even prudent to propose," Lichtanski says. "It starts becoming not affordable."
What the MST is going through now Lichtanski considers a "blip." In the long run, he sees a future where, because of the development of housing--especially what''s expected on Fort Ord and what''s already happening in south county towns like Soledad, Greenfield and King City--the demand for efficient public transit will increase.
One major piece that''s missing is a system to relieve regular commuter congestion on Highway 68. "We don''t have a really good system of park-and-ride lots in the county," Lichtanski says.
But he believes that the plans to bring passenger rail service into Salinas and re-link the Peninsula to rail service via Castroville will bring the area back into the greater regional public transportation web. By this time next year, he expects travelers will be able to consult the MST website and use it link up with Bay Area public transit systems.
With the MST system running, increased train service to Salinas and the Peninsula will assemble pieces of a puzzle that are now only barely connected.
"We''ve got the basic framework in place to build a pretty good public transportation service," Lichtanski says.
April 25 | 3:07pm
The #20 to Salinas and back to Monterey.
I had to run to catch the bus. That''s the thing about it. Unlike a car, which obediently waits for you, the bus does not. You have to arrange your life to meet the bus. If you miss the bus, you''re out of luck.
I had to be in Salinas for a court sentencing at 1:30. That meant I had to be in front of the Burger King in Seaside at 12:07. It was raining, and luckily it''s a short run.
That bus took me to the Edgewater transit station in Sand City where I had to get out and wait for the #20 to Salinas. People showed up from all over to catch buses from Edgewater. There were pimply school kids with headphones, hoboes with backpacks and guitars, disabled people, a guy with a roll of carpet.
Since you don''t have to drive, you see things from a bus seat you don''t ordinarily see, like the bird''s nest tucked into the traffic light at Fremont and Casanova. You also notice how many people drive and how many people drive alone. For example, when the Monterey to Seaside line stops at Monterey Peninsula College, the bus passes row upon row of parked cars. Usually one or two students get on or off at MPC. There must be hundreds of cars in those parking lots.
It may be a cliche, but riding the bus--around here at least--can be entertaining. Usually people mind their own business and sometimes that''s a good thing. I shared one night bus ride with a huge man, head shaven, wearing all black including black sunglasses, and headphones. He appeared to be awake but made the wheezing sound of someone about to fall asleep. Halfway into the ride he pulled his T-shirt over his mouth and nose. Fine with me.
Other times, it''s just a little odd. On one ride home last week, a man''s cell phone rang, playing a programmed tune that sounded almost like a child''s taunt. He let it play a while then answered and began speaking in Spanish.
A woman sitting next to me was writing in a book, like me, but hers was a calendar. She had April 29 marked in heavy ballpoint pen: "Holocaust Remembrance Day." After the man across from us answered his phone, she turned to me and asked, "Does he know how stupid that sounds? I''d use the Marine Hymn or something."
She was right; it was an odd tune.
"What song is that?" I asked her.
"I have no idea," she said.
You do get to meet people on the bus. Sometimes just being around them is enough. We live such isolated lives today and the bus can be like a trip back to a less-cocooned America. Back when people might have actually needed one another, the way the blind woman needs Virginia House to guide her.
On the trip back from Salinas it was still raining. The sentencing I attended was a thoroughly depressing affair. An 18-year-old boy was sent to prison for 18 years for shooting his 18-year-old neighbor. The victim''s family wept. It was a gang killing, yet another pointless death in a sickening cycle of violence that needs to stop. The bus ride back would take an hour. As soon as I got on, my mood changed.
There was a teenaged boy--maybe he was 20--at the front of the bus, commuting to work in Seaside. He was wearing an apron. At the bus station he''d struck up a conversation with another blind woman--she had a cane, but seemed to still have some vision. They got on the bus together and took seats in the handicapped section at the front. The boy would not stop talking and it was delightful to listen to, considering that it had been a less than cheery afternoon.
He started right in about how much he loves anything made out of vanilla. The blind woman kept him going.
"Every time you think of vanilla you think of ice cream."
"I think of cookies," she said.
"Vanilla ice cream is my very favorite thing. I love it," he said.
"My grandson does too," she says.
The boy was on a roll. Some of the other passengers seemed to enjoy listening. They grinned.
"When I was a kid I used to steal Chee-tos from my sister. I love them," he said.
"I do too," said the blind woman.
"My birthday is December 21," the boy said. "I have my mom make me a chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream and I just slam it on there."
"Have you ever had the Chee-tos that are less salty?" asked the woman. "They''re very good."
They went on like this for some time. The boy asked the driver how her day was going, noting that we should be thankful it''s Friday. Then he and the blind woman started talking about travel. He''d been to New Mexico and really liked the historical museums.
"Carlsbad Caverns. I''ve been down there and they tell me that''s one the best places to visit. Also to Taos. I want to get back and visit one of these days," he says.
"What about White Sands proving ground?" she asks.
"I have an aunt from there. She''s self-employed down there in Albuquerque," he says. "My aunt and uncle live in Whitefish, Montana, in the Kalispell area."
"That''s beautiful up there," she says. "Big Sky country."
The bus was cutting through strawberry fields in the rain. It felt like we were out of Monterey County, like we were in South Dakota or something, running down a two-lane road in the flats before a storm. As we got toward Marina, the boy wound down and the blind woman said she wanted to take a nap.
She rested her head against the window and told the boy, "Just don''t let me miss my stop."
And with that she closed her eyes for a while. And the boy sat in silence as the bus made its way through Marina in the rain.
The human interaction can be refreshing, especially to someone for whom commuting usually means sitting in a car alone. Virginia House, the friendly driver with the sweet pea, has lived here for 30 years and she''s been driving the bus for seven. She loves it. I asked her why. "Getting to meet people," she said.
The bus can also be a very practical mode of transport. I rode the bus all week and it worked well enough as long as I didn''t have to get anywhere too complicated during the day. Convenience and social interaction notwithstanding, there is also the plain fact that riding the bus is good for the world. The simple act of taking the bus one day a week reduces an individual''s traffic impact by 20 percent. Unlike San Francisco, where many people use public transit to commute, only 2.5 percent of daily commuters in Monterey County ride the bus.
With population growing and with it demand for public transit, the MST system is not yet complete without better links to other systems. Likewise, as MST General Manager Frank Lichtanski notes, the park-and-ride lots need to be built. Should rail service be brought back to the Peninsula, the planned intermodal transit center at Fort Ord would do much to relieve local traffic congestion, especially by keeping tourists'' cars off the increasingly crowded Peninsula. Despite the upcoming service cuts, such a strengthening of the public transit infrastructure will make public transit a practical option for commuters and tourists to travel within the area and between Monterey County and the Bay Area. And maybe someday a person won''t have to get up at 4am to catch a ride to the city.