(Editor’s Note: As Part of the Living For The City Debt series examining the financial strain of local government agencies in the Great Recession, Oakland Local is running news stories on how reduced services in Oakland are impacting the everyday life of residents.)

By Oakland Local Contributing Editor Jennifer Inez Ward

Despite turning 50 years old this month, AC Transit is hardly in a celebratory mood.

The bus agency, a lifeline for many Oaklanders, is wilting under continuous service cuts, worker layoffs, rider dissatisfaction, labor issues, and low morale.

And riders must now brace themselves for even further cuts as the agency is set to deliver a one-two combination of service cuts, with more likely to follow in 2011.

It’s a bleak way to start a silver anniversary.

 “We are really right now kind of in a survival fight,” said AC Transit Spokesman Clarence Johnson. “Our biggest hope, right now, for the next 50 years is to find some dedicated, ongoing streams of revenue that will allow us to provide this service and enhance it.”

 On Sunday, October 31, AC Transit service changes include reduced or reconfigured service on nearly 70 bus lines. About 30 layoffs came as a result of the service cuts.

The changes, affecting half of the agency’s bus lines are driven by the continuing financial challenges facing AC Transit.

In December, the agency will deliver another round of cuts which will reduce weekend bus service as well as eliminate four of six “All-Nighter” lines. The cuts will eliminate about 60 union jobs. Weekend bus service on 34 bus lines will be eliminated.

The October and December actions are just the latest in a series of cuts and service readjustments the transit agency has put in place as it grapples with the Great Recession.

 “It’s a pretty bad situation,” said Lindsay Imai, a transportation expert at Urban Habitat. “It’s really dire.”

AC Transit is a public transportation workhorse. The agency has 105 bus lines that carry roughly 236,000 riders daily on weekdays. The Bay Area bus agency connects with nine other public and private bus systems, 21 BART stations, six Amtrak stations and three ferry terminals.

“It’s one of the most important systems in the region,” Imani said. As a result, she said, the cuts will hit the Bay Area hard.

“They (AC Transit) are looking at cuts that will result in service levels being at their lowest in 30 years,” Imai said.

AC Transit is also tussling with its workers over healthcare benefits and workplace rules. Imani said financial difficulties are playing the main role in the tension between management and workers.

“It is pitting a really beleaguered agency against their drivers who are working class, and against the riders who are also working class folks,” she said.

AC Transit and transit experts said declining funding for the agency has been a major reason for the reduction in service and layoffs.

“The funding has been chopped away over the last 10 years,” said Imani.

Only 18 percent of the Oakland-based agency’s funds come from the fare box. AC transit derives two-thirds of its funds from sales or proper taxes. That revenue has been steadily declining over the last few years.

“AC Transit’s finances are being squeezed like never before,” Imani said.

“I’ve been a bus driver for 31 years and I’ve never seen AC Transit get to this point,” said Claudia Hudson, president of ATU Local 192. “Money is not the issue. The agency is cutting service and not being aggressive in getting funding.”

Both Imani and Hudson said the Metropolitan Transportation Commission has not provided the needed funds for AC Transit to work effectively.  MTC is the government umbrella organization that oversees and hands out funds to all Bay Area transportation agencies.

Rocky Fernandez, an AC Transit Board member, said it will likely be awhile before riders see a positive turnaround on services.

“It’s going to be challenging in the coming years,” he said. “It’s going to get a lit bit tougher before it gets better.”

Fernandez said both board members and AC Transit workers are concentrating on keeping the most heavily traveled lines with either the same amount of service or as few changes as possible.

“We understand the frustration that’s out there,” he said. “Most of us ride the bus and two board members don’t have cars.”