Joe L. Wallace will fight for bus money. The new director on the AC Transit Board said he wants to keep people who are transit dependent in the forefront of his mind, which, he said, means more money for bus services, the transportation that low-income urban residents depend on.
“A lot of our dollars are going to modes of transportation that do not serve the low-income people,” said Wallace. “A lot of people complain about the bus service. Until we get equity and funding for the bus service there’s going to be complaints.”
Wallace, who is a North Richmond resident and works for the North Richmond Community Career Center, believes that the emphasis on funding BART has taken vital funds away from the AC Transit system.
“BART is sucking up 75 percent of the transportation dollars,” he said, adding that this leaves the other transit systems to make do with 25 percent of funding.
Many bus services were cut in 1995 when the federal government eliminated a transportation subsidy.
The cutback occurred around the same period as the buses were implementing the Americans for Disability Act, which requires equitable bus service for the disabled. City Councilmember Miriam Hawley, whom Wallace replaced on the AC Transit Board, said the expensive bus improvements brought the system up to a necessary standard and vastly improved the lives of many disabled people. “It’s very good and it’s very expensive,” she said.
Hawley agreed that for many years money has been directed towards commuter transportation for the suburbs. “Buses don’t have the same panache and the same sex appeal as BART,” she said, “but they’re the workhorses.”
She added that one-third of the Bay Area residents rely on public transportation. Many of those use buses, said Wallace. “There are certain bus lines that carry more passengers per day than BART does but get less money,” he said.
The BART extension is one project using up millions of transportation dollars. “I think it costs BART $125 million a mile to go to San Jose, imagine if we had the money for two of those miles,” said Wallace, adding that very low-income people don’t ride BART because, “it costs more than a dollar just to get in the door.”
Wallace first became interested in transit issues in North Richmond, where he works and resides, during the period when people were forced off of welfare into work programs.
“About three years ago I’d sit in on community groups trying to make it easier for the welfare-to-work people. The first thing I told them was if a transition is going to take place, the transportation has to be available.”
Wallace facilitated meetings between AC Transit and the community to develop a plan for new bus service. “It showed me that a major company actually cared about my community. It showed me that dealing with the community and the residents in the community was a positive experience for them.”
For two years before his election to the board, Wallace served as chair of the Bus Riders Advisory Committee, a group made up of citizen bus riders who provide the transit commission with the experiences of riders. A bus rider himself, he is no stranger to bus problems in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties. “Since I am transit dependent I know how they feel when they miss a bus because it’s running ahead of schedule or when a bus doesn’t come,” he said. “All of the frustrations that they have, I have too.”
Wallace said a survey of current bus ridership and community needs will help board members figure out how to reinstate service in the most necessary areas.
He hopes to direct funding towards AC Transit to increase bus service in the evenings and on the weekends, to get new technology and to purchase new buses. “Also we have a serious problem,” he said, “especially with low income families, being able to pay for passes for the kids to go to school.”
The Metropolitan Transit Commission appropriates funds for different transit alternatives in the Bay Area. Wallace plans to attend commission meetings to review their funding priorities, and hopes to shift their thinking away from what he considers flashier modes of transport, towards the bus lines.
“I’m going to try to make them understand in the most polite way that I can – because they hold the strings to the purse – that we need more money. Period.”