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It was 5 p.m. on New Year’s Eve when long-time bus rider Dale Chock overheard a man ask another whether there would be free rides that evening.

In Chicago, the man proclaimed, residents can ride buses for free on New Year’s Eve (it’s actually a penny). “Do they have that here?” he asked.

Chock, a self-proclaimed member of the urban underclass, has been riding the buses and trolleys of San Diego’s Metropolitan Transit System daily for more than 15 years. As he sat at the Fashion Valley Transit Center that night, he considered the visitor’s question.

Yes, usually there are free rides on New Year’s, Chock thought. It’s a fixture of San Diego’s transit system. To his surprise he found out the transit system would not offer them this year.

Indeed, free rides had been offered to San Diego partygoers each New Year’s Eve since 2004, MTS said. A “night owl” all-night service allowed inebriated revelers to find a safe way home until 5 a.m.

Celebrants in the Gaslamp could make good use of the night owl service on bus routes 7, 11, or 901, three bus routes leading out of downtown San Diego toward La Mesa, San Diego State University and Coronado, respectively. And you could jump into any trolley car for free, all in an effort to safely stumble their way to their front door.

The transit system says the free rides stopped two New Year’s Eves ago when a partnership with Mothers Against Drunk Driving San Diego County and a sponsorship from the Sycuan Bands of the Kumeyaay Nation ended.

It was a proactive effort on behalf of the transit system to deal with drunk driving during the holidays, which in particular are among the deadliest times on the road.

So Why Did MTS Stop?

Sponsorship, you see, had been a requirement for the New Year’s Eve free rides and night owl service. But it hadn’t always been that way.

Prior to the partnership, the transit system had itself provided New Year’s Eve free service. But in 2007 the state reduced funding of public transportation, forcing the transit system to raise fares twice in a one-year time period and reduce service, transit spokesperson Rob Schupp said.

San Diego’s transit system has an operating cost of $220 million, more than half of which is paid for through federal, state and local funding. The system gets 40 percent of its money from fares.

Funds are allocated to counties based on population, taxable sales and transit performance through two sources: the Local Transportation Fund and, up until 2009, the State Transit Assistance fund.

That was when, in an effort to balance the budget, state lawmakers eliminated the transit assistance fund for five years, leaving San Diego’s transit system with a $14.4 million budgetary hole.

MTS CEO Paul Jablonski made the decision to require a sponsorship in order to give the free rides.

“It did not seem fair to provide free service when we were also asking our daily riders to pay more,” Schupp said.

Instead, the transit system and MADD partnered together on New Year’s Eve 2008 and 2009. For each of the two years of the partnership, Sycuan sponsored free rides at a cost of $15,000, which paid for operational costs of the night owl bus and trolley services, and lost fare revenue.

But, according to Schupp, MADD and Sycuan chose not to renew the partnership for New Year’s Eve 2010. No one is saying why.

Schupp said attempts to find another sponsor for New Year’s Eve 2010 were unsuccessful. The transit system came close to securing one this past year but the deal fell through at the last minute.

Also, Schupp said last year he decided to put more effort into an existing sponsorship with the San Diego Food Bank.

Other transit systems throughout the state offered free rides this past New Year’s.

San Francisco and Santa Clara counties had free bus and light rail service.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which operates the Muni, provided special New Year’s services, too. “Complimentary” Muni service was offered from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m., and Bay Area Rapid Transit stations were open three hours later than usual.

Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority also offered free fares on the bus and rail from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m.

Closer to home, the San Diego Trolley did operate for extended hours but none of the transit system’s 89 bus routes did.

The California Highway Patrol reported 59 DUI arrests and five fatalities over the New Year’s holiday weekend throughout the county. That’s four more deaths on San Diego roadways than the same time period a year ago.

Sandy Coronilla reports on local government and education for voiceofsandiego.org. She is on the Armen E. Keteyian Scholarship for Investigative Reporting. You can contact her directly at sandy.coronilla@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0528.

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