Worse Off Than Sardines

Riders of a crowded bus route may be out of luck when asking for more service

Bribes? Threats? What can Sheila Summers do that she hasn't already done to get another bus added to a popular Sun Tran route?

Summers, who rides to her job in the city attorney's office almost every weekday, has been lobbying city officials for another bus since 2005 on behalf of a chummy bunch of workers who take the Golf Links Express Route 83 from the eastside to downtown.

"We really have quite a group," she said. "We all sit in the back. We're loud; we're boisterous; we tease. We're just like one big family."

Despite the jovial atmosphere, Summers said the bus is getting too darn crowded. It sucks for those getting on at Golf Links and Kolb roads, the last stop before the bus proceeds downtown without delay. Many of these poor unfortunates have to stand or sit in the stairwell for the remainder of the trip, she said.

"We have this down to a science, really," Summers said. "I can tell you every day how many people are riding the bus and how many people are standing."

In fact, Summers provided the Weekly with a spreadsheet made by fellow rider Patricia Pittenger that purports to show how many people were standing for most days between Aug. 23 and Dec. 11. The number varies from none to eight, with more days of standing riders than not.

Other members of Summers' 83 group corroborated her story.

"It's crowded," said Pittenger, who has been riding the bus to her job downtown for about a year. "There are too many people riding the bus. Most of the time, the people who get on at the last stop are generally always having to stand the entire ride in, because there's no place for them to sit."

She said there have been a number of "close calls" where the driver slammed on the brakes, jostling people. Their safety is her chief concern, she said.

Mary Thompson, who works for a landscape architecture and environmental company, takes the 83 bus downtown before hopping another one.

"There are people standing up; there are people sitting in the back doorwell," she said. "There's not enough room on it. At times, there have been five or more standing."

She, too, worries about the safety of older riders. "There've been a few who've taken a roll before," she said, with a chuckle. When pressed if she had actually seen someone fall, she said, "No, but I've seen scars. I've heard some horror stories."

Chuo Holliday, a 2 1/2-year Route 83 veteran, has actually seen people take a spill. She said inexperienced drivers are usually assigned to the 83, and they slam on the brakes without warning. "You see people just scream" as they fall into other people's laps, she said, "and that's pretty common."

Summers said she had taken all of these concerns, along with a few dozen comment cards filled out by riders, to Sun Tran management, as well as city Councilman José Ibarra. They've given her promises to do something, but they never follow through, she said.

Ibarra didn't immediately return phone calls seeking comment, and an aide told the Weekly he wasn't aware of his boss dealing with any bus issue.

On the other hand, Jim Glock, director for the city Department of Transportation, was remarkably forthright when asked about getting another bus, Summers said. Glock's department operates Sun Tran.

"He said to me, 'No way--you're not getting another bus for three years. There's no money,'" Summers recalled.

She pointed out to Glock that the $2.1 billion Regional Transportation Authority plan, approved by Pima County voters in May, indicates that overcrowded bus routes would be getting relief, funded by a half-cent sales tax that was part of the plan. But Glock said that wasn't going to happen for three years, Summers told the Weekly.

"It just seems like they've determined that it's not a safety issue, it's not an important issue--it's nothing," she said. "In plain English, they just don't care. They really don't care."

The RTA Web site states that $62.5 million will be spent on expanding express-route bus service, including the 83, in 2009 and 2010. But it also states that Sun Tran will provide "overcrowding relief on major routes" in 2006; a letter dated June 2 from Karen Masbruch, assistant city manager, says that relief came into effect in August.

To Summers, that means Route 83, which she thinks is overcrowded, should have gotten some help. But Glock said that even if there are standing riders, the 83 isn't one of their busiest routes.

He told the Weekly the city's priority is adding buses to routes facing "severe overcrowding," including cross-town routes 3, 4 and 8.

"Severe overcrowding is when it's standing-room only, when we can't fit anyone else on the bus and still have them standing behind the white line by the driver," he said. "I joke that we have them stuffed in there like sardines, but sardines are better off, because they're lying down.

"Buses are actually passing by people waiting for a stop. That's where I'm going to be applying my resources, not to an express route where you get to enjoy a bus that doesn't stop at every stop."

Increased gasoline costs and population growth are pushing more Tucsonans to take the bus, Glock said, with more than 16,000 boardings a day. In addition, the number of people using Sun Tran jumps 6 to 7 percent each year, he continued. All these riders must be accommodated with a 2007 operating budget of $38.5 million.

More buses on express routes are on the way, but to get them, Sun Tran needs to actually buy more buses, Glock said: "And I can't buy any more buses at this point and time until I'm able to expand my maintenance facilities, because right now, I'm operating over 190 buses out of a facility designed for 150."

Glock projected it would be 2009 before express services are "ramped up," underscoring what Summers and other riders of the Golf Links Express have already been told. But that's little consolation to the 83 group, Holliday and Summers agreed.

"It says to me (to) forget it, because there's nothing we can do about it," Summers said. "You know, if it was asking for a lot, I could understand it. But we're asking for one more lousy bus in the morning. That's all."

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