SANTA CRUZ – After experiencing significant usage declines during the COVID-19 pandemic, Santa Cruz METRO has plans to double its ridership within five years, returning it to levels last seen in the early 2000s.
In a recent presentation to the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission, Santa Cruz METRO Planning and Development Director John Urgo said it is aiming to increase ridership to more than 6 million by 2028.
It is a tall task, but things are trending in the right direction, Urgo said.
In September, METRO ridership was back to 91% of its pre-pandemic levels; UC Santa Cruz specifically was at 104% of early 2020 numbers and non-student ridership at 87%.
Urgo acknowledged that the returnof UC Santa Cruz students likely inflated these numbers, adding that the three-month average was about 71% compared to pre-pandemic rates. But overall, “it’s all good news that I wanted to share with you today.”
According to Urgo, the simple truth is that ridership tracks closely with the amount of service provided.
“Were there a way to maintain a stable source of operational funding, ridership would stay more or less stable,” Urgo said. “Achieving the goal that we’ve set will likely require an increase of service to previous service levels as well.
METRO spoke to roughly 900 individuals that use its service less than once per month and found that 49% were likely to use it once per month or more if buses arrived on a more frequent basis and had stops in more convenient locations. The study’s more than 1,000 respondents also preferred an increased frequency of service compared to a larger number of stops, Urgo said.
Two additional goals in METRO’s 5-year strategic plan are an investment in zero-emission vehicles and the development of affordable housing.
Urgo said that the transit agency will only be purchasing zero-emission vehicles moving forward and plans to convert its entire 96-bus fleet to zero-emission by 2037.
It also set a goal of developing 175 housing units at METRO transit centers across the county. Included in this effort is a joint project with the city of Santa Cruz to redevelop Pacific Station North, which will have more than 100 extremely low and low-income units.
METRO is also in a “conceptual phase” to develop its Soquel Park and Ride and Watsonville Transit Center stations, where an estimated 75 additional units can be included.
Measure D spending
The commission also unanimously approved an annual update to its five-year spending plan for 2016 Measure D funds proposed by its staff.
Three significant updates arose from previously approved projects:
• Adding $24 million for a Highway 1 project from State Park to Freedom Boulevard that includes bus-on-shoulder/auxiliary lanes and development of Rail Trail segment 12.
“We’re focused on leveraging other grants, looking at opportunities to utilize these funds to secure significantly more funding from state and federal agencies,” said Senior Transportation Planner Rachel Moriconi during a staff presentation.
Guy Preston, the commission’s executive director, also shared an update regarding the status of a contract recommendation for an early phase electric passenger rail analysis along the Branch Rail Line. He said the recommendation was originally intended for the Nov. 3 meeting, but the application process was competitive and led to a second round of interviews.
“Staff now has a top-ranked firm and has started negotiations. We now expect to make a recommendation at the December RTC meeting,” Preston said.