Can’t get there from here

I don’t know if you caught this story in Comstock’s magazine about Sacramento Regional Transit. It was a first-person account by the magazine publisher Winnie Comstock about her experience taking light rail to the Paul McCartney concert at the new downtown arena.

It was maybe the most disappointing, baffling thing I’ve ever read about public transit in Sacramento. Comstock uses the word “unsavory” twice in her lede, explaining how she dreaded the unsavory people and unsavory smells she might encounter on the light rail train, how she worried she’d be mugged, or that her car would be broken into at the park-and-ride lot. She had to call up Sacramento RT’s public information officer to get a special one-on-one explanation on how to use the train.

A lot of people made fun of the piece. Others thought Comstock deserved credit. Lots of older white ladies are scared to travel downtown on RT, and she ought to be applauded for getting out of her comfort zone, they said.

But Comstock is not some random older white lady screwing up courage for a big urban adventure. She’s publisher of a long-running Sacramento business magazine. The Comstock’s magazine board of directors includes reps from local banks, Chamber of Commerce, major builder and developer groups, and a few big non-profits. Comstock’s magazine has been around almost as long as light rail has. It’s a little ridiculous that Winnie Comstock, given her position in the business community and as publisher of a magazine that purports explain Sacramento’s important institutions, should be so out of touch.

Of course, in this way she’s not unlike the Sacramento Regional Transit Board of Directors, none of whom are regular transit users. (Compare this to, say, the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Agency, which requires all of its directors to be regular Muni riders, because maybe people who don’t know anything about using transit shouldn’t be making transit policy.)

Thing is, Regional Transit seems convinced that people like Winnie Comstock are the future of the system. People who don’t really like downtown, or mass transit, or, it seems likely, the masses. And while there’s an argument to be made that the RT system ought to do more to appeal to ‘“choice riders” and not just the transit-dependent, we should be eyes-open about the consequences. A few years ago, when RT was at its peak ridership, the agency’s leadership talked about building up the system with the goal of “full access and full mobility for all.” Today, RT is in a downward ridership spiral, and pursuing policies that improve access and mobility for some (more affluent) groups, while taking it away from others.

Anyway, I’ve started on a new project. It’s a series of recorded interviews about policy problems in Sacramento. I’m starting off with a mini-series of interviews on Sacramento Regional Transit and the future of public transportation, with a focus on Measure B which is coming up on the ballot on November 8th.

The first interview is with Katie Valenzuela Garcia, a community organizer and Oak Park resident who is voting “no” on Measure B. She acknowledges that failure of Measure B may mean more short-term pain at Sacramento RT, which is already down 10 million annual riders because of service cuts and fare increases. But really, she asks, what difference would it make? Voting down Measure B could be a first step to coming up with a better plan.

I’ll post two more interviews on the subject of Regional Transit and Measure B over the next couple of days. I’m hoping and planning to do more of these interviews, not just on public transit, but on the variety of problems that arise as we try to get along in the monkey house that is Sacramento.

I know what you’re thinking, “Ugh, another podcast?” Yeah, I guess. But if you don’t like it, you can certainly have your money back. And I do think it will be a bit different. There are some great local podcasts that do “Gabfest”-style panel discussions, and some very good guest-oriented local podcasts. But my plan is to focus more on a particular policy question or problem, and then go deep into it. Think of it as problem oriented podcasting. Let me know what you think.

Other interviews in this series on the future of public transportation in Sacramento are here and here.

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