Off the Bus
As feds wrangle over transit benefits, MST worries about long-term survival.
Thursday, March 22, 2012
When the Army decided it needed three new buildings of classrooms to accommodate a growing demand for foreign language, they took the environmentally sensitive route and built on existing parking lots.
“Parking was already tight. Then since 2001 and the War on Terror, this place has grown,” says U.S. Presidio of Monterey spokesman Dan Carpenter.
Incentivizing public transit at the county’s military installations has been a popular success: Monterey-Salinas Transit counted fewer than 12,000 riders on military commuter bus routes introduced in 2009, more than 332,000 in 2011 and projects 558,000 for 2012.
The 55-passenger military commuter bus from San Jose to the Defense Language Institute, occupied mostly by foreign-language teachers, is often standing-room only. “Those are the types of problems we generally like to hear about,” says MST General Manager/CEO Carl Sedoryk.
And even as ridership in Salinas has declined by 20 percent during the recession, military riders help keep MST growing. “By adding these military trips, we’re actually netting an increase in ridership overall,” Sedoryk adds.
Department of Defense entities in Monterey County received $1.9 million in federal tax-free commuter benefits last year. They passed it through to MST to pay for 16 routes, which stretch as far north as San Jose. In South County, it connects Fort Hunter-Liggett to King City and Salinas. Military and DOD civilian employees ride free.
But Congressional politics leave the well-used military routes, which now account for about 10 percent of MST’s ridership, with an uncertain future. Sedoryk needs $185 per rider to break even; the federal stimulus package bumped that benefit from $120 to $230 in 2009, allowing MST to launch the program.
When that benefit fell back to $120 Dec. 31, MST cut its least-used military route, one connecting DLI and the Naval Postgraduate School to Pacific Grove, on Jan. 6. Not two weeks later, letters asking for the route back started arriving.
Military routes, though, are the least of MST’s federal budget woes. Of its $30 million annual budget, MST relies on the feds for $8 million. With conservative Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives threatening to cut federal support of public transportation entirely, and a March 31 deadline approaching, Sedoryk worries about the fate of that cash.
Should the clock run out or the Republicans prevail, “We wouldn’t be able to withstand that,” Sedoryk says. “It’s one of the reasons I advocate for more local funds for transit, so we can chart our own destiny and not be subject to political whims in Sacramento or D.C.”
U.S. Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel, would also like to see matching local funds: “Everyone who’s giving out money always wants to see local agencies put up some money,” he says. “You have to put some skin in the game.”
But after three ballot measures for a sales tax hike failed, Sedoryk has turned to lobbying Congress as an American Public Transportation Association board member. The industry group applauded the U.S. Senate for passing a bipartisan, $109 billion transportation bill March 14, which survived attempts to tack on polarizing amendments on causes du jour, like contraception coverage.
Having watched the Federal Aviation Administration shut down last July, Sedoryk worries the House might not extend the two-years-expired deadline yet again. “They could let the whole thing fall apart,” he says. “That’s the scenario that keeps me up at night.”