AC Transit considers raising fares – again
In Alameda County, AC Transit bus riders are also waiting – to find out whether the agency will raise fares for the second time in two years. Like many transit operators, AC Transit has suffered from a severe drop in state funding, and it’s facing a $21 million deficit for next year. Raising fares is one way for them to try and fill that gap. But there’s a tradeoff: many AC Transit riders live on low or fixed incomes. They don’t have cars, and AC Transit is the only way for them to get around the East Bay. KALW’s transportation reporter Casey Miner explains how these changes will affect them.
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HANA BABA: So AC Transit is considering raising fares. Didn’t they just do that?
CASEY MINER: Yeah, regular fares went up by 25 cents in 2009. They’ve also significantly cut service – fewer hours and fewer bus routes. Even with that, though, the agency is still looking at a $21 million deficit for 2012.
BABA: So what is this proposal they’re considering?
MINER: They want to increase basic fares again, by five or 10 cents depending on the rider.
BABA: That doesn’t sound like very much.
MINER: It doesn’t, but it’s an amount that really makes a difference to riders. A lot of people who use the service are on fixed incomes or disability – they’re living on $700, $800 dollars a month. And I should mention that this fare increase is different than those in the past, because it would institute regular, incremental increases. So in two years, that $2.10 ride will go up to $2.25. Three years after that it would go to $2.35. And so on. These predictable increases will help AC Transit plan for more money coming down the pipeline in years to come. And the hope is that this will also keep riders from being surprised with random increases.
BABA: So how have people reacted to this plan so far?
MINER: Well, AC Transit’s board of directors held a public hearing on this recently, and the room was packed with bus riders – I’d say over 100 people were there. A lot of seniors, many disabled people, many young people. There were also representatives from a community group that has organized a bus riders’ union, called the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment.
BABA: And what did they have to say?
MINER: Well, clearly the people who spoke were those who really rely on public transit. One woman named Karen Smulevitz spoke on behalf of United Seniors of Oakland and Alameda County. I think what she had to say was pretty representative of what other people said throughout the afternoon.
KAREN SMULEVITZ: The first thing I do the first week of every month is to plunk my $20 for my sticker. Because transportation is so crucial to me. We have not, those of us on Social Security or SSI or Medicare, we haven’t received a cost of living increase. (applause) However, our copayments have gone up, we pay more for our medications now, everything else has gone up. Everything has gone up. I can look ahead a few years and there’s nothing there. I can’t afford more. I’ve given up my cable so I can have a little wiggle room in my monthly expenses. But I can’t cut water, I can’t cut PG&E, I can’t cut my landlord. There’s no more money. Because at the end of the month I’ve run out of money.
BABA: So Casey, you were saying that part of the point of this change is to make fare increases more predictable. But what will be the impact on their service?
MINER: Well, as I mentioned, service has dropped 15% since the beginning of last year, so they’re hoping the fare increases will keep them from having to cut more in the future. But at this point, nothing is guaranteed. Several people at the hearing actually brought this issue up, and while the full board didn’t address it officially, here’s what board member Greg Harper had to say.
GREG HARPER: My problem is that we’ve got such bad service right now that to keep these passes where they are, and to cut more service – which is what we’re going to have to do – that’s the spiral David’s talking about. There’s another spiral: we keep cutting service and losing passengers, and cutting service and losing passengers. One person’s question was, can you assure us that there won’t be any more budget cuts? And I will tell you absolutely not. This is small potatoes in terms of our budget problems.
BABA: Casey, you’ve got Harper there saying these changes are “small potatoes” for AC Transit. What does this mean for the agency in the long term?
MINER: I think it’s pretty hard to say right now. He’s right, in that these increases will only get them $2.4 million dollars. The deficit is $21 million. That said, fares are one of the only sources of revenue that AC Transit can actually control. So it’s important for them to know how much that’s going to be over the next few years. But the question of how much you can increase fares and cut service is a real one, and they’re certainly aware of that. They’ve said often over the past year that they’re very close to the minimum service they can offer and still be a legitimate transit provider.