Frequently Asked Questions

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Q:  I often see empty buses and why is METRO running the service during the hours in which there is low ridership?

A:  There are many reasons why you may see a nearly empty bus providing service.  The most common reason is that a majority of METRO’s service is structured around “peak hours” when riders are commuting to work or school.  During these times ridership is heavy in one direction, but not the other.  This is best shown by ridership on the HWY 17 bus between Santa Cruz and San Jose.  During the morning peak hours there are more Hwy 17 riders going to San Jose than there are coming to Santa Cruz.  During the evening peak hours the opposite is true.  This creates full buses in one direction and relatively empty buses in the other.

During “off peak” hours in the middle of the day or late at night there tends to be fewer riders in all directions.  During these times METRO does reduce the number of buses that provide service.  However we cannot stop service entirely because METRO is a public agency and must provide service to all parts of the county throughout the day.  We constantly monitor the ridership on our routes and adjust service levels as appropriate every 3 months.

Another reason a bus may be empty is because it may be “deadheading”.  Deadheading is when a bus either starts or finishes its route with “Out of Service” displayed on its headsign.  Every night METRO buses are parked at the bus yard meaning each bus must get from there to the start of its route the next day.  For example buses that operate on the local Watsonville routes must deadhead from the bus yard to Watsonville at the beginning and end of their routes.

Ultimately, depending on the time of day, direction of travel and operational considerations one may see a bus with few or no customers on board.

Q:  Why run these big buses when there are fewer customers, and instead, why not purchase smaller vehicles that carry fewer customers?

A:  METRO does not use smaller buses during “off-peak” hours because of two reasons.

First, this would require METRO to purchase and maintain a new fleet of off-peak buses.  METRO is currently in the process of updating and replacing our full-sized bus fleet.  Funding for that comes from fixed sources and grants that require a competitive nation-wide application process.  Therefore, METRO can’t afford to both replace its current fleet AND acquire a new fleet of smaller buses for off-peak operation.

Second, the cost of operating smaller buses is not much different than full sized ones and smaller vehicles would have to be replaced more frequently than larger buses.  For operating cost, this is mostly due to the fact that regardless of the vehicle in use, there would still be an operator being paid to drive the bus.  Because METRO cannot save money operating smaller buses, they are an expensive investment (nearly $100,000 each) that would not make much business sense for the agency as a whole.

Q:  Why doesn’t METRO have the phone app feature which allows you to see where your bus is located on a map in real time and when it will arrive at your bus stop?

A:  These features are known as NextBusTM, Predictive Arrival & Departure System (PADS), or Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) systems.  For METRO to provide this information our buses must have GPS devices on board each bus, along with specialized software, to identify where a bus is located in relation to your stop; such a system would cost from $1-2 million.

The good news is that with increased competition in the marketplace, the technology has been improving while prices are gradually coming down.  METRO has been actively comparing systems, and once grant funding can be found, will proceed with a request to the METRO Board to authorize the purchase of an AVL system.

Q:  How is a transit agency like Santa Cruz METRO funded and how do you pay for capital purchases?


Current Funding for Operations

The Operations side of the business is substantially supported by the ½ cent local sales tax approved by the voters in 1978, State and Federal grants and customer fares.

Operating Grants vs. Capital Grants

Think of the operating budget as “running buses” and the capital budget as “buying buses.”  State and federal discretionary (competitive) grants do not typically provide revenue for the operating budget, and local grants that might provide operating funds are few and far between.  Nearly all state and federal grant opportunities are for capital improvements and bolster METRO’s ability to buy buses.

Formula Grants

State and federal formula grants come to Metro as a result of legislation; usually require an annual application; and always require follow-up information on how METRO used the money.  While this is a cumbersome and time-consuming process, Metro always follows the dictated processes and never risks or jeopardizes its state and federal formula grant allocations.  These state and federal formula dollars are typically used for operations; are sometimes flexible for use in both operations and capital; but are most often restricted to capital only.

Discretionary (Competitive) Grants

In any given year, there are a number of state and federal discretionary grant programs offered.  Metro always submits highly competitive grant applications for programs for which it qualifies.

When grants become available for competition, they are always way oversubscribed.  Typically, there are nine to ten times as many applications nationwide as actual grant awards, and the amount awarded is a fraction of the amount requested.

The Changing Landscape of Grants Availability

The grant funding landscape has changed dramatically over the past five years.   Here are just a few examples:

  • Up until 2012, the federal transportation authorization included a Bus and Bus Facilities Program, which was a discretionary capital grant program.  Up until then, Metro had competed successfully for some of this funding.  With Map21 in 2012, the Bus and Bus Facilities discretionary grant program was eliminated.  It was not until the FAST Act reauthorization in 2016 that the Bus and Bus Facilities program was reestablished, albeit at a substantially reduced funding level.
  • In 2006 the California voters created a capital funding source through Proposition 1B.  This ten-year capital program, which expired in 2016, funded numerous Metro security, facilities and bus procurements, which were all capital projects.  Fortunately, the Governor signed the Road Repair and Accountability Act in April 2017 to partially replace Proposition 1B and to provide additional State Transit Assistance (STA).  Again, this legislation favors capital projects for the use of this money, although some of it can be used for operating assistance if METRO meets specific performance criteria.
  • The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) signed into law by President Barack Obama on February 17, 2009 was an economic stimulus package which provided Metro valuable capital dollars.  ARRA was a one-time program and did not provide recurring resources.
  • In 2012, the US Congress eliminated federal “earmarks,” a process which provided legislative appropriations to specific projects in a congressman’s district.  Up until then, Metro had frequently secured federal earmarks to fund multiple capital projects.

Each year federal subsidies for public transit are threatened.  The result of this constant threat is often flat or nominal growth in federal transportation funding, in an environment where operational costs typically grow at a rate equal to or greater than the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

With the loss of several substantial capital funding programs since 2012, Metro’s capital challenge in the coming years will be one of trying to find the resources with which to replace 62 buses that have reached the end of their useful life and are in need of replacement at an estimated cost of $38 million to $60 million, depending on whether Metro purchases CNG or electric buses.