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Why another city bus service might be leaving Stanislaus County

Ceres is being presented the same option that Riverbank and Oakdale faced years before for their bus service - hand over the reigns for transit or pay a penalty.

CERES, Calif. — Another bus service in Stanislaus County might be coming to an end. The Ceres Area Transit [CAT] is the latest bus service in the county that may have to hand their operation’s reins over to another agency.

“The bottom line is if we don’t want to pay penalties we need to find someone else to operate our transit system for us,” said Fred Cavanah, transit manager for Ceres.

Years of declining ridership on the CAT have translated to a possible $15,000 penalty, payable only from the city’s General Fund. The only way to avoid making that payment is to hand the reins over to another agency.

In recent years, it’s been a trend as the cost of operating a transit system fails to meet the fares paid to ride it. Oakdale and Riverbank handed operations of their transit service over to the county years ago, and now Ceres is tackling a similar dilemma. 

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A national and local trend

Across the nation, transit ridership is down. California is no exception

Cavanah said Ceres was in a better position than smaller cities like Riverbank and Oakdale, who had also struggled to meet the farebox recovery ratio, but now Ceres is looking at the same issue.

So far, the trend has hit Oakdale, Riverbank, and Ceres. The next city along the population scale in Stanislaus County would be Turlock. However, Wayne York, transit manager for Turlock, said it's difficult to draw comparisons between other cities and counties considering the geographic, political, legal, and social factors that play into decisions to change service or consolidate.

“While meeting the fare recovery standard remains a challenge, we [Turlock] continue to evaluate ways to effectively provide transit service to the community,” York said in an email to ABC10. “Currently, that involves the City providing local transit service as a standalone provider with regional connectivity to other providers.  In the future, services could be provided through a different model.  Either way, I’m confident that the City will continue to strive to provide transit services in a manner that is effective and efficient.”

Turlock has the benefit of serving Stanislaus State, and the much larger Modesto service has the benefit of serving Modesto Junior College, Vintage Faire Mall, McHenry Avenue, and a downtown with a lot of employment. Ceres doesn’t have those kinds of boons for ridership.

“We’re about as small a transit agency as you can find,” Cavanah said.

“With a small town like Ceres, we don’t have a real thriving downtown employment scene and that’s what drives ridership in most big cities - the fact that their downtowns have lots and lots of jobs,” he added.

How do things get to this point?

When an agency tackles the possibility of handing transit service over to someone else, there are a lot of contributing factors. In Ceres’ case, it’s been the result of years of declining ridership and the inability to meet to the farebox recovery ratio, a state-mandated ratio reflecting fare revenues paid by passengers and the cost of operating a bus service.

The ratio rose to 20 percent after Stanislaus County grew to more than 500,000 people. Ceres struggled to meet the previous ratio at 15 percent, and the goal post only got further away when it went to 20 percent.

If an agency doesn’t meet the ratio, its state funding is reduced by the difference between the amount of money the service needed and the amount of money actually collected. For Ceres, that’s a $15,000 penalty – payable only through their General Fund.

“That kind of money is really hard to come by in our city and many, many other cities as well – particularly in the San Joaquin Valley,” said Cavanah.

If they find another agency to take over their transit operation, then they’re off the hook for the penalty. Cavanah said the city paid a penalty years before but, even after transit changes and a few years of exemptions, the city is looking at another one once their exemptions end in 2020.

A possible solution to problems

As far as options go, the City Council told staff to look at possible MOUs with transit providers like the Stanislaus Regional Transit and Modesto Area Express bus services.

During a City Council meeting, Cavanah, a former Modesto transit manager, told officials that absorbing Ceres transit wouldn't even be noticed by a service as large as MAX.

The caveat in handing those reins over is that there's a general risk of service decline. Ceres would just have to hope that whoever takes over would maintain a similar level of service, however, as far as service cuts go, Cavanah told city officials that service is already so minimal that it couldn't be cut any further.

While some might argue that more stops and more hours would help ridership, Cavanah says those efforts don't always work out. 

“Everybody that rides the bus wants more frequent service, stops closer together, all stops to have shelters, the buses to start earlier, the buses to run later, every day of the week and all of that is very, very expensive," Cavanah said. 

"Every time you add on little tidbits like that it just reduces your Fare Recovery Ratio and you wind up having to eliminate those little extras just to meet the state-mandated Fare Recovery Ratio,” he added.

The council would have to approve an MOU for a new operator before June 30, 2020, to avoid paying the penalty.

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