By Tony Burchyns
BENICIA — With a decision over whether to merge bus systems with Vallejo looming, Benicia officials are facing a disadvantage. They may not have a choice but to give up local transit control, if they want to avoid major service cuts.
"It feels like this is being forced on us," Benicia City Councilman Alan Schwartzman said about the proposed merger of Benicia Breeze and Vallejo Transit.
Benicia, however, faces a problem many small suburbs face — rising costs, more required paper shuffling and declining revenues are driving small transit systems out of business.
"The trend has been toward consolidation," said Elizabeth Richards, Solano Transit Authority's director of transit and rideshare services.
Richards helped deliver a presentation to an apprehensive Benicia City Council last Tuesday, explaining Benicia Breeze should merge with its much larger neighbor.
Unless Benicia does something, major service cuts may be inevitable, Richards said after the meeting.
"They're probably a couple of years away," Richards said.
But City Council members said they are not entirely pleased with the proposed solution — a joint powers association that would oversee a two-city system.
"I don't want to go into this unless Benicia has an equal voice," Schwartzman said Friday.
Schwartzman said the decision last year to scrap local route 75 and start a consolidated commuter line with Vallejo has had "some bumps."
While the new route 78 line, which connects Vallejo Ferry Terminal and Walnut Creek BART, provides a streamlined urban service, many people feel it is less productive for local travelers.
"The old route went through Southampton on a regular basis," said Rob Sousa, finance director. "Now it's not as easy for Vallejo residents to go back and forth to the shopping center."
Also, the recession has widely hurt public transportation in general: Fewer people working means fewer commuting, which is one reason why the Vallejo-Benicia-Walnut Creek line hasn't yet met its full potential, transit officials said.
"At a time when we need ridership to increase, we have a loss of jobs and loss of transit riders," Sousa said.
Despite some shaky nerves, the City Council reluctantly agreed during the next several months to study a merger.
But it took some reassurance from Solano Transit Authority leaders, who have told Benicia officials that nothing is written in stone.
Richards said a merger could mean gains for both Benicia and Vallejo — although Vallejo already has Solano County's most efficient bus system, in terms of fare box returns.
"By joining together, as a bigger entity, sometimes you can plan things better, and go after more funding," Richards said.
"The intent is a new entity," she added. "Not Vallejo takes over."
The proposed model would look different from Fairfield and Suisun City's combined bus operation. In that case, Fairfield's City Council is the decision-making body.
The next steps in the process will be to study the merger concept and hold public workshops. Route changes, fares and other issues probably will be addressed, officials say.
The likely study period would last until early next year.
"I think it will be something that will be beneficial to both communities," Vallejo Mayor Osby Davis said. "The economy has required all of us to look at doing things differently."