Our fourth annual SacRT ‘Transit Academy’ class just graduated! Here’s what academy members learned

November 13, 2023 Featured, SacRT Blog, SacRT in Community

Operating a transit service in a sprawling metropolitan area is a complex and Herculean task. How are decisions made? Who is behind the scenes maintaining the trains and buses, and planning for the future? And where does the money come from?

Over three dozen curious Sacramento leaders, business representatives, residents and riders gathered this fall for our fourth Sacramento Regional Transit District (SacRT) Citizens Transit Academy seeking answers to those questions, and many more.

The SacRT Transit Academy is a series of five, two-hour evening sessions, spread over five weeks, offering a “peek behind the curtains,” as one academy member put it, at how SacRT finances and operates its bus, microtransit, paratransit and light rail services in a fast-changing region.

The Academy featured presentations and question-and-answer sessions with key SacRT officials and transportation leaders around the county. Participants were also treated to field trips, including a sneak peek at the new low-floor light rail vehicles that SacRT plans to launch in service next summer.

Austin Schlocker, a communications and public affairs consultant in suburban Sacramento, echoed the words of many academy attendees, saying he came away with an appreciation for how SacRT goes about doing its job. Schlocker isn’t a SacRT rider, but said he believes transit is a key public service.

“I wanted to be educated about why it would matter to increase future funds,” he said. “I really enjoyed it. I couldn't tell you one (speaker) who wasn't worth my time to listen to. Overall, they are doing a pretty good job at SacRT.”

“My main takeaway is that it is a complicated process and we need more community involvement.”

Encouraging community involvement is in fact exactly the reason SacRT launched its academy five years ago.

SacRT’s goal is to be transparent about what it does. The Transit Academy represents a unique opportunity to expand the community discussion about transit as a key player as the Sacramento region grows.

The groups in our academies are diverse, both in terms of jobs, backgrounds, ethnicity and interests. Some are local business community leaders and members, as well as city and county planners, members of community service organizations and nonprofits, and college students. One recently was a bus driver who wanted to learn more about her agency.

This fall’s academy included Erle Hall, a state worker and regular transit rider. He signed up to learn more about the system he rides, and to be a voice for transit riders, asking questions and offering ideas.

“l appreciate them putting this together,” Hall said. “I think the academy is really valuable. The whole cost benefit analysis around drivers and adding bus routes was revelatory.

“I’m already sold on the mission,” he said. “I want to help get the word out.”

He was among several Academy members who said they appreciated in particular the detailed and lively discussion about how SacRT decides on bus routes and frequencies. The group gave SacRT Senior Planner James Drake kudos for his candid give-and-take with Academy members.

“I like people who tell it like it is,” Schlocker said. “James was extremely humble and willing to answer questions. He explained a lot of the whys about planning routes. It explains why I might want to support SacRT as a non-rider because what it is doing for the region matters.”

Other discussions centered around SacRT’s efforts in recent years to enhance safety and security, as well as its current program to remodel light rail stations in preparation for new low-floor light rail vehicles. During another evening session, SacRT Principal Civil Engineer Jenny Niello provided insights into how and why the agency is exploring development of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) service on major corridors.

The fifth and final session took place at our Light Rail facility on Academy Way in north Sacramento where maintenance superintendent George Kirbyson gathered the group aboard one of the first of our newly arriving modern low-floor light rail vehicles and explained its features.

Kirbyson also pointed out, along the way, one of SacRT’s original 1970s vintage trains, which was up on the rack for maintenance. “They are basically museum pieces now,” Kirbyson said. Amazingly though, he said, SacRT has kept them in running order.

SacRT Board Chair Patrick Kennedy, a member of the county Board of Supervisors and SacRT Board Chair, was another key speaker. The transit agency must manage its limited budget judiciously, he told the group. But, he said, “it’s not all about the bottom line. It’s about being a public service.”

That’s why, Kennedy said, the agency offers fare-free rides every day to students with its RydeFreeRT program, one of the most expansive in the country. SacRT has an ulterior motive as well, Kennedy said: by letting teens ride for free to school and work, “we’re creating lifelong riders.”

The final session included a graduation ceremony with certificates, as well as cake and class photos, and a request from SacRT officials and Academy hosts VP of Communications and Partnerships Devra Selenis and Senior Community Relations Officer Gregg Fishman for graduates to go out and share what they learned about SacRT in their communities.

Academy participant Connor Jang, a SacRT rider who works in public policy at a public affairs firm near the Capitol, is onboard with that. Jang is among younger academy members who believe deeply in the importance of mobility options besides single-occupant cars. He said he’s excited by SacRT’s plans to modernize its fleet and add bus rapid transit lines and is more than willing to speak to friends and colleagues about those efforts.

“I see myself trying to become a transit ambassador for my friends, family, coworkers, about the good SacRT is doing in our community,” he said. “Our generation thinks about climate change nearly constantly. There are many things out of my control, but to the extent I can make decisions that are in my control, like taking public transit, I am going to do that.”

One academy member, Michael Bevens, is a truck driver who participated because he often thinks about how the region’s transportation picture - trucks, cars, buses, rail, bicycles, pedestrians - can fit better together. Bevens said it was great to get an inside look at how SacRT works. In fact, he wants more.

“It's a great public outreach,” he said. “Maybe have a Transit Academy II? Some of us would come back for that!”

The Sacramento region needs strong and knowledgeable voices for transit as it grows, and the SacRT Transit Academy program has been very successful in building that advocacy and generating a transformative force at the local level. Many of the graduates have since become very active in local citizen-led transportation organizations and are speaking out at community forums – which is exactly the result the program was intended to achieve.

Learn more about the program at https://www.sacrt.com/transitacademy.

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