Following the expansion of the operating facility in 2011, the expansion of administrative staff capacity in 2013 and the 2014 upgrade and expansion of the fleet; the future of public transit in Yuba and Sutter Counties appears to be brighter than ever. While most transit operators have cut service, raised fares or both (some more than once) over the last eight or nine years, Yuba-Sutter Transit has been able to avoid such scenarios due to strong ridership growth and a historically conservative fiscal and operational approach. Yuba-Sutter Transit still operates limited or no evening, weekend or holiday service; and, half of the six local fixed routes operate on hourly frequencies. At the same time, passenger fares and operating costs per hour of service both remain among the lowest of any system in California.
The 2006 passage of State Proposition 1B; the 2009 Federal stimulus program; 2011 changes to the State Transit Assistance (STA) program; multi-year reauthorizations of Federal transportation funding in both 2012 and 2015; and, the new State greenhouse gas reduction programs have combined to establish a strong capital and operating funding foundation for the future. Even the local transit funding source, which took a severe hit during the prolonged economic downturn, is beginning to approach pre-recession levels. Key future financial factors include the 2018 end of the 10 year Proposition 1B bond program and annual grant renewals for the FRAQMD funded fare subsidy program beyond 2017. As a result, agency attention over the next few years is expected to focus on fine-tuning, improving and maintaining the existing system while carefully considering future growth opportunities in response to demonstrated service demand.
While the quarter century trend in ridership growth stalled in FY 2016, Yuba-Sutter Transit’s ability to efficiently and effectively meet the anticipated demand for service in the future will continue to be in doubt as all of the planned or approved large scale developments in Yuba County, Yuba City and Sutter County are in areas that are not now served. The potential demand for services of every kind from these projects will severely stretch what in most cases is still just a minimal level of service as available operating revenue sources may not grow at the same pace. To compound the problem, routine impact fees have yet to be required from new developments for the capital and operating revenue necessary to serve those developments. Yuba County, however, has collected fees for the development and operation of two park and ride lots.
Plumas Lake and Sutter Pointe are two examples of this challenge because of their size; location entirely outside of the existing service area; primarily low density, single-family residential design; and, a primary market of out-of-area commuters. In addition to these large developments, thousands of new homes along with many hundreds of thousands of square feet of new commercial projects have been constructed, approved or are under consideration in other jurisdictions as well. Even individual projects such as the 2012 opening of Yuba College’s Sutter County Center at the north edge of Yuba City present significant operational and financial challenges because of the placement of an obvious transit trip generator far from any existing service.
Yuba and Sutter Counties have both been among the fastest growing California counties over the last 15 years and this is likely to continue to be the case in the future. Another population boom would be problematic for Yuba-Sutter Transit as little funding has been identified in the multi-year capital and operating plans for service expansion. To further complicate the issue, many new residents, attracted by the lower cost of living and proximity to other employment centers in the Mid-Valley, will commute to work in Placer, Sacramento and Yolo Counties and beyond. Even without population growth, the demand for specialized services for seniors and persons with disabilities is expected to grow significantly according to all population projections. In addition, specialized services now provided through the Alta California Regional Center for the developmentally disabled are limited and subject to annual funding cuts and Yuba-Sutter Transit's own Dial-A-Ride service already operates at or near capacity levels during peak periods.
In summary, Yuba-Sutter Transit has undergone an amazing metamorphosis over the last 25 years to become a vital component of the local service network, but further adjustments will be necessary for the agency to continue playing a role in the ongoing renaissance of both counties. Yuba-Sutter Transit operates what is certainly among the widest range of services at one of the lowest local cost of any urban system in California; but the mix, level and relative priority for these services must continually be evaluated in light of local funding and policy priorities as well as passenger demand.