The struggles of public transportation


By Dave Roberts

Mayor, city of Solana Beach

Recently, I received an e-mail from a Solana Beach resident complaining about cuts being made to public transit, so I thought it might be helpful to share some of my thoughts on this complex topic.

First, let me start with a little history on public transit. In 1975, the California Legislature created the North County Transit District (NCTD) to specifically deliver public transit options to the residents living in the 1,020 square miles known as north San Diego County. Up until that time, few public transportation options were available in North County.

When Solana Beach became a city in 1986, it gained a seat on the North County Transit District Board. Today, the eight North County cities each hold a seat on the North County Transit District Board, as does the County of San Diego, which holds one seat. NCTD today is responsible for operating the Coaster commuter rail from Oceanside to San Diego, Breeze buses throughout the region and the new Sprinter light rail from Oceanside to Escondido. In Solana Beach, we have the Coaster/Amtrak train station and two Breeze bus routes (101 and 308).

As a strong believer in public transit and its value to our region, the Solana Beach City Council appointed me to represent our community on this Board in late 2005 when Councilmember Lesa Heebner was selected to represent our community on SANDAG. Then, my colleagues on the North County Transit District board elected me as vice chair the last two years.

As a frequent Coaster rider and an infrequent Breeze bus rider, I knew that I had much to learn about how public transportation was offered here in north San Diego County. For example, I learned that on average the fares paid by public transit riders only account for 23 percent of the total budget to operate NCTD. That means the 77 percent of our NCTD budget is subsidized by outside forces that can change at a moment’s notice.

So where does this 77 percent NCTD subsidy come from? First, let me say that most public transit throughout the United States is heavily subsidized to encourage its usage.

The state of California historically provides public transit funding in the form of State Transit Assistance. The state subsidizes many public functions just like it subsidizes that current I-5 construction project. Unfortunately for public transit, the Legislature has diverted the previously allocated funds from public transit to fund other general fund purposes in order to balance their budget.

Since NCTD was created in 1975 with its heavy dependence on subsidies that it cannot control, it was inevitable that when all three variables took a turn for the worse at the same time, it was going to cause great havoc on public transit.

So what could the NCTD Board do? First, we completed a top-to-bottom look at our staff and made significant reductions to management level staff.

Since I joined the NCTD board, I have tried to strongly support public transit and ensure that every decision was fiscally prudent with the public transit rider in mind. I have challenged the board to look for other sources of revenue so that we don’t have to continue to rely on unpredictable variables that whipsaw our annual budget. I will continue to represent both Solana Beach and the entire North County region on the NCTD board as long as my council colleagues will allow me this opportunity.

If you would like to contact me directly, please just drop me a line at