July 1, 2004 - From the September, 2001 issue

Santa Barbara Transit District Offers Simple Paradigm: Give The People What They Want- Real Transit Options

Media outlets are enamored with large public transportation agencies because of the amount of money that flows through them and the increased risk of misappropriation of funds. However, it's rare that they focus on the positive stories of smaller transit providers around the state who are using their allocations to expand service and revolutionize public transportation. To curb that trend, MIR sat down with Gary Gleason, General Manager of the Santa Barbara Metropolitan Transit District and MTD Boardmember Lee Moldaver who offer their insights into revolutionizing transit. Their thoughtful answers and idealism pose the question: Why aren't these transit options the norm?


Gary Gleason

Gary and Lee, you're both exceptionally knowledgeable about the Santa Barbara Metropolitan Transit District. How then would you define the mission and objectives or your agency?

Gary Gleason

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GM, Santa Barbara MTD

To quote the circulation element of Santa Barbara, "We make transit a choice, not a requirement." That is the most important thing we've established within the City of Santa Barbara. We've made public transit appealing and user-friendly to the public, no matter what their background or location.

Lee Moldaver

Boardmember, Santa Barbara MTD

Another key objective that the Board looked to achieve was a change in the finance and management paradigm. In many parts of the country, the rule of thumb is that public transportation is a utility that always loses money. We hired Gary out of the private sector because he didn't believe that. In fact one of his first statements was, "I know this is a government operation, but I would like to use my experience to make it run more like a private business."

How have you accomplished this objective? What have you done to make the system more business- and consumer-friendly?

Gary Gleason

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Santa Barbara's population is approximately 200,000. Our transit only carries about 24,000 people a day. However, everybody in this community feels like they are getting the best bang for their buck when it comes to public transportation.

Lee Moldaver

Let me give you a concrete example of what we've been able to implement. The City had to complete some traffic mitigation back in the 1980s. They came to us asking if they could use federal funding for a generic people-mover system. Instead of giving them a generic system, MTD brought together the design team that worked on the NASA Lunar Rover Project and began to design smaller, space age vehicles that ran on battery power so they were quiet and clean. MTD created a transit system that people enjoy, not one that you have to bury or hide behind shrubs.

Gary Gleason

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While the design was space age, the real accomplishment was that it was implemented through public outreach and consensus. We talked to everybody and got a feel for what they wanted. From there we took those principles and built a bus that was quiet, clean and stops often. Those principles helped us create a product that revitalized our public transportation system.

This project was really a coup for the MTD in not only demonstrating what public transit could do, but also garnering the support of people who were otherwise anti-transit. We now have our Downtown merchant organization actively supporting spending money at the MTD to buy more electric buses.

Lee Moldaver

Another area that Gary's been very strong in is trying to anticipate where new technologies and service opportunities will be so that we can continually offer the best service to our ridership. Because of that, we have less lag time between when we test innovative products and when we can add it to our transit package.

Lee, take a step back and talk about Gary's new role as the new Chair of CALSTART. How does his involvement with that organization complement the transit priorities that you have here in Santa Barbara? Will his leadership of CALSTART be beneficial to Santa Barbara?

Lee Moldaver

Let me give you one of the reasons that MTD's involved with CALSTART and why Gary will be successful as the new Chairman. The original premise of CALSTART was to convert defense technology to civilian uses. With Santa Barbara's electric and alternative fuel fleets and our custom designed transit vehicles, we're using people who once designed technology for defense and NASA projects. They're using their knowledge to actually reorient the technology that our system is running on.

We may be small relative to other CALSTART members, but we are proving that the CALSTART premise is a viable option in the marketplace. Those technologies can be spun off and put to use in the civilian community. They will really help improve the economy and quality of life, not just in Santa Barbara, but throughout Southern California.

Gary Gleason

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CALSTART, let me add, is an organization that can support the Research and Development needs of public transit systems. It has a role in other markets as well, but if we stay focused just on public transit system we can help to revolutionize the public transportation market.

If better integrated into the mainstream public transportation market, the alternate propulsion systems that CALSTART is working on alone would revolutionize the way we think about and use public transit. That kind of Research and Development isn't happening at the FTA or Caltrans and that is really where the future of the public transit lies.

You mention Caltrans. Talk about your agency's relationship with Caltrans, its new leadership, and its role in the rest of the State re mobility.

Gary Gleason

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I'm really excited about the direction that Caltrans is going under its new director, Jeff Morales. Caltrans is now genuinely interested in how they can help. They have the ability to coordinate a lot of the interests in public transit from big city to small city just by sharing information and sponsoring joint-development organizations like CALSTART. There's a lot of intelligent transportation projects and there's a lot of bus projects that none of us can handle ourselves. But when we have an organization like Caltrans coordinating it, we've got a lot better chance for making some of the vision turn into reality.

Lee Moldaver

A simple example of the difference between the CalTrans of yesterday and that of today is their semi-annual leadership meeting. They used to bring all the district directors up to Sacramento and meet in the office of the Department of Transportation.

One of the first things Jeff did was start rotating the meetings to different districts in the State so that the Directors understood what the challenges and opportunities were in each of the districts they were creating transportation plans for.

We've transitioned from the local level to the State. What about the Federal role in transportation. There's been a sizeable federal investment of late in transportation. And we've had a number of innovative efforts which attempted to direct that money beyond roads to intelligent transit systems. What do you see coming out of Washington that could benefit Santa Barbara and Southern California?

Gary Gleason

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The single most important thing coming out of the Feds over the last decade has been the ability to deliver flexible funding for communities. Instead of having the lion share of money go to highways and a negligible amount go to public transit, we now have creative funding mechanisms that allow us to fix potholes in one community, improve bicycle facilities in another and create better public transit in yet another. That kind of choice and flexibility is imperative.

Lee Moldaver

ISTEA, TEA-21 and California's SB 45 were good steps forward. And what Gary says is very true. But we haven't achieved all of the stipulations of ISTEA yet. What I am particularly talking about is having major providers of alternative transportation as either voting or ex-officio members of regional MPOs. I don't know how it is in other regions, but our local MPO isn't willing to take that step forward yet.

Gary Gleason

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Those involved in highway construction have never gravitated to public transit. They view it as a bottomless pit, where an enormous amount of money is spent and the results are never as expected. It doesn't carry as many people as highways. It's a drain on resources. And there are always potholes to fill and new highways to build.

But when you show them that there's really something that can be done and there are some novel approaches to public transit, such as the ones we've detailed above, even the highway guys come on board. It's just a matter of using the flexibility that ISTEA and TEA-21 has given us to implement something creative and accessible.

There are three state commission reports about to be released-one from the Governor's Office relating to infrastructure, one from the Treasurer's Office and one from the Speaker's Commission on Regionalism. Each addresses the need for infrastructure investment in hopes of meeting the population growth, density and quality of life concerns of Californians. What do you particularly want to see in these reports that would fit your agency's agenda and contribute to a cohesive and comprehensive State strategy to address the concerns your challenged by daily?

Gary Gleason

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If the State is going to commit to alternative transportation, I want to see a 10-year commitment, anything less will not lead to success. We've got to build the infrastructure and create the habit now so that 10 years down the line we've created a ridership. We've got to be able to persevere because we're building a different transportation tradition. And that's going to take time.

Lee Moldaver

I'd agree with that. This is the old bugaboo of unfunded mandates. We're committed to providing commuter service on a more regional basis and making sure that the operating costs for those services are met. There's nothing worse than the tradition of transit in the last 20 years where you get going for 2, 3 or 4 years and just as you begin to establish a ridership, your grant money runs out and you have to pull the plug. We're hoping that these reports not only identify the needs and opportunities, but provide a blueprint for the Executive and Legislative branches to identify and guarantee some new cost-effective funding sources.

Finally, it's clear that some things that work well in Santa Barbara might not work in L.A. Has, in this regard, SB 45, which supposedly devolved some of a good measure of funding decisions to the local level, really result in greater local decision making and less one-size-fits-all decision-making at the State level?

Gary Gleason

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It has definitely changed the dialogue. I don't know if it has changed the investment strategies yet, but it certainly is a change for the better. ISTEA and TEA-21 are 10-years old and we're just now beginning to realize how important they are. SB 45 is only 2 or 3-years old, it's beginning to be understood and pretty soon all three will be enormously helpful in creating seamless and creative transit alternative for our municipalities.

Lee Moldaver

I'm hopeful that one of the things Jeff Morales is going to do is to try to make these funding mechanisms work better. I think certainly for small, semi-rural counties like ours, the days when Caltrans would come to our MPO or COG meetings and basically tell us what projects were going to be funded are over. We used to have to go to the CTC and beg for whatever crumbs remained on the table. These's been a visible difference in the balance between local transit providers and the State in terms of a commitment to funding. I believe we're turning the corner and hopefully in the next couple years we will see the widespread implementation of more friendly and better transit systems.

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