Sacramento Regional Transit is improving its customer service by becoming more entrepreneurial, more aggressive and getting back to basics. Randy Pench The Sacramento Bee
Sacramento Regional Transit is improving its customer service by becoming more entrepreneurial, more aggressive and getting back to basics. Randy Pench The Sacramento Bee

Transportation

Has Sacramento Regional Transit upped its game enough for arena opening night?

By Tony Bizjak

tbizjak@sacbee.com

August 18, 2016 06:00 AM

UPDATED September 20, 2016 10:14 AM

Last year, a dozen downtown business leaders sent an open letter to Sacramento Regional Transit, calling its trains and stations dirty, and entreating the agency to step up its game prior to this October’s opening of the Golden 1 Center.

“The (arena) provides an unparalleled opportunity to reinvigorate and reintroduce RT to the public,” the group wrote. “This is a wholly unique opportunity that cannot be squandered.”

That letter, a civil but detailed six-page take-down, had a major effect at the bus and light-rail agency headquarters.

RT board Chairman Jay Schenirer, who admits the agency had been lax for years, says it has been on a mission ever since, lately with fervor, to provide better service for the expected thousands of arena attendees, many of them newcomers, but also for current riders, many of whom may never step foot in the new arena.

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The spotlight moment lies just weeks ahead for the usually low-profile agency.

With tens of thousands of people descending on downtown at night and weekends starting Oct. 4, RT’s light-rail trains could serve as pressure-relief valves for people who don’t want the hassle of driving and parking in the central city. If RT does that job well, and impresses new riders, it may instantly turn itself into a bigger player in the regional transportation system. If not, it could give itself a major black eye.

Speaking at a Sacramento City Council meeting last week, Schenirer said he believes the agency is ready. “Five months ago, I wouldn’t have been sitting here saying please come and ride RT,” he said. “We’re saying that now.”

RT is improving its customer service, he said, by becoming more entrepreneurial, more aggressive and getting back to basics.

The agency is investing $6 million to upgrade stations in time for the arena opening, including better lighting. In the last few months, the agency doubled its cleaning staff, and this week is finishing up detail-cleaning every train. Stations are getting more spray washing and trash pickups.

Earlier this summer, the agency hired 25 fare checkers, quadrupling its inspection force. New RT General Manager Henry Li said there will be a fare inspector on every train on arena event nights.

Li, who took over the general manager’s post last month after being hired earlier in the year as assistant general manager, has been lauded by Schenirer as a “game changer” who has refocused the agency on customer service.

The agency had hoped to sign a sponsorship deal that would have allowed arena attendees to ride for free during the first season at the downtown arena. That deal has not come through, however.

Instead, Li will ask the agency board next week for the authority to offer up to 10 free-ride nights when major events are held at the arena, including possibly opening night, Oct. 4, a Paul McCartney concert. The goal is to encourage more reluctant riders to give the trains a try, he said.

The agency will staff key stations with volunteer guides to help new riders. Li said RT management will pull volunteer guide duty as well for the first few events. The agency will have extra security at some stations, and plans to throw station parties on certain arena-event nights.

The agency likely will offer a discount fare for arena attendees of $14 round trip for groups of up to four family and friends riding together.

RT plans, on a temporary basis, to offer $5 discounts to people who take a rideshare vehicle such as Uber or Lyft from their house to light rail on arena event nights. The agency is shopping for a rideshare company to contract with.

It is uncertain how many arena patrons will try transit. City officials have estimated less than 10 percent. That would be 1,750 riders or less for a full house at Golden 1 Center. But RT officials say they hope, over time, for more, and are preparing to handle as many as 4,000.

RT will add trains on event nights at the arena, stationing them so that they can leave as soon as they fill up, rather than waiting for regular 15-minute intervals. The agency is in talks with Folsom city officials about extending night trains into downtown Folsom.

The agency plans to double the number of fare vending machines that accept credit and debit cards.

RT will introduce a mobile app in September called Alert SacRT, allowing riders to report nuisance and criminal issues and, later, to report train and station issues. RT also will join city police at a joint new “real time crime center” near downtown, where police and RT security staff will monitor surveillance cameras at stations, around the arena, and at nearby intersections and garages.

Despite these preparations, agency officials acknowledge they will not be able to provide the level of service that they would like on opening night or in the near future. RT has been under financial duress for nearly a decade, and has been dipping into its now nearly depleted reserve accounts to balance the annual budget.

The agency cut services several times during the recession and earlier this year raised fares, making them now among the highest in the country. New RT chief Li laid off 25 management and administrative staff this summer, as part of an effort to avoid higher fares.

Li said he hopes for a financial turnaround in the next year. The arena opening will offer an opportunity, he said, by introducing potential riders to the system. But the agency also is counting on passage of Measure B, the countywide transportation sales tax measure on the November ballot, to provide a bigger and more reliable income stream.

Most of the service cuts imposed a half-dozen years ago during the recession have remained in place, and likely will for some time to come. RT will not, for instance, increase bus service on arena event nights, saying it is not worth the extra cost. The agency has begun a deeper look at existing bus routes for potential efficiency changes.

Schenirer, other transit supporters and critics alike say the agency still suffers from outdated practices and inefficiencies that likely will take years of work to fix. That work will come after the spotlight of the arena opening has dimmed, and will require the board of directors to maintain their recent vigilance.

Downtown developer David Taylor, one of the leaders of the business group that challenged RT 18 months ago, said he feels the agency has responded well, first under former general manager Mike Wiley, but even more so under his successor, Li.

“The culture change we asked for has started,” Taylor said. “We are hopeful RT has put themselves in a position where they are going to be a viable choice and not a last resort. I feel more confident in that than I did six months ago.”

Golden 1 Center is getting ready for its debut

Work continues at the future home of the Sacramento Kings. The venue will be ready for the Paul McCartney show on October 4.

Jose Luis Villegas The Sacramento Bee

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak