Night Owl bus may be groundedBy Denis Cuff
It was billed as a bus service to stay up as late as the public did, but it's in danger of shutting down in a big stretch of Contra Costa County.
Three years after five Bay Area public transit operators joined forces to run a network of "Night Owl" buses after BART closes at midnight, Central Contra Costa's bus system is considering dropping its service for late night shift workers, entertainment fans, and other travelers.
The problem: too few passengers.
Only about 14 people on average are taking the Night Owl bus that makes hourly weekday runs after midnight on County Connection route 820 between 14th Street in downtown Oakland and BART stations in Concord, Pleasant Hill, Walnut Creek, Lafayette and Orinda.
County Connection officials estimate it costs $74 in public subsidies per passenger.
"The Night Owl service was a model of cooperation in planning and operating by transit agencies. The only thing it lacks in our area is riders," said Rick Ramacier, County Connection general manager.
Transit officials had hoped the bus would provide a safe, nonstressful and effective transit option for riders left in the cold when BART closes.
Ramacier suggested the Night Owl might have failed to catch on in Central Contra Costa in part because development there is more spread out than in more densely built up areas such as San Francisco and Oakland.
Also, some areas such as San Francisco already had late night buses and agreed to expand them for the Night Owl network. The service was new in Central Contra Costa.
In a meeting this morning, Ramacier will urge the Central Contra Contra Transit Authority to take the first step toward dropping the service in December. The 9 a.m. meeting is at the CCCTA paratransit facility board room, 2477 Arnold Industrial Way, Concord.
The move would save $90,000 a year for County Connection as it begins to consider cuts in regular bus service due to a loss of state assistance and higher fuel costs.
Scuttling the service also would save about $300,000 a year in bridge toll money that would be returned to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and possibly reallocated to other, more popular Night Owl buses on AC Transit, San Francisco Muni, Samtrans, and the Wheels bus system in Livermore Valley, transit officials said.
A network of Night Owl buses by the five transit operators was funded by a $1 per vehicle increase in Bay Area bridge tolls that voters in the region approved in 2004.
In order to keep getting the bridge toll money, though, the Night Owl providers are supposed to cover at least 10 percent of operating costs with fare money. County Connection's Night Owl covers just 2.7 percent of its costs with fares, according to a report.
Ramacier said some people have suggested his agency consider hiring taxis or vans to carry late-night passengers, but there are obstacles to that.
The 2004 public vote on the bridge toll increase specified that Night Owl money be spent on buses, not taxis, he said.
Copyright ©2008 Contra Costa Times. Published 09/17/2008.