The Sacramento Regional Transit board has agreed to hike fares 10 percent this summer to address budget shortfalls. The troubled bus and light-rail agency is nowhere near out of its several-year financial tailspin yet, several members said.
“There is an anvil hanging over RT’s head,” board member and Sacramento City Councilman Steve Hansen said the morning after the Monday night vote. “If there is not another source of funds, that anvil will drop. It will be painful.”
The new fares, to go into effect July 1, as well as upcoming cuts to four bus routes, will enable the agency to balance its budget next year. But they don’t provide enough funds for RT to replenish its reserve funds, nor to provide the staffing levels and service quality RT will need long term to offer a safe, clean and convenient alternative to freeway travel.
RT officials have their sights set on a major new revenue source. Several board members said they hope to team with the Sacramento Transportation Authority to ask county voters to approve a half-cent sales tax increase in November that could raise $3 billion over 30 years, some for RT, but most of it for road repair and congestion relief spread out among cities and Sacramento County.
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STA officials on Tuesday said they have not yet decided whether to go to the voters in November. The measure would require a two-thirds yes vote. The county sales tax rate currently is 8 percent. The rate in the city of Sacramento is 8.5 percent. Those rates include a similar 30-year, voter-approved, half-cent surtax designated for transportation projects that was approved by voters in 2004. The two funding measures likely would overlap.
STA officials said RT would receive an as-yet undetermined portion of that money to supplement annual operating expenses and to advance expansion projects such as light-rail extensions to Elk Grove and to Sacramento International Airport. Notably, eight of Sacramento RT’s board members also serve as STA board members, making up half of the STA board.
RT officials said it is uncertain what their next step will be if the STA does not put a measure on the ballot, or if voters reject the measure. It may mean the transit agency board will consider another fare increase next year. RT staff, in fact, attempted Monday to get the board to commit to another 10 percent increase next July, but board members refused.
“Fare increases should be the last resort,” said RT board Chairman Jay Schenirer, a Sacramento city councilman. “We can’t rule them out because we don’t know what other revenue” the agency can secure in the next few years.
Dozens of riders and representatives from the disabled community argued vehemently Monday against any increases at all, saying the hikes are harsh and fall disproportionately on the poor. The Eye on Sacramento watchdog group submitted a list of cost-cutting suggestions, including mothballing the little-used Green Line to the Richards Boulevard area for now, hiring a law firm to negotiate upcoming labor contracts and temporarily suspending planning for a light-rail line to the airport.
RT officials say the agency must retrench and focus on quality service before it can consider expanding service.
RT’s financial troubles go back to the recession a half-dozen years ago. Faced with dropping revenue, RT cut service by 20 percent and increased fares. The agency has increased service modestly since then, but ridership in the same time dropped dramatically. Several agency officials said low gas prices are partly to blame. But riders have complained about spotty service and unclean stations and trains. With both ridership and revenue down, the agency has had to dip into its reserve accounts the last two years to balance its budget. Those reserves are expected to drop to near zero this year.
Operations chief Mark Lonergan acknowledged RT has difficulty with basic tasks. It can clean trains for the morning runs, but doesn’t have the resources to do a midday cleaning. The agency has launched an improvement effort, included some creative contracts to boost station cleaning, and potentially rail car cleaning. Agency officials said they also found a cost-neutral way to hire 25 to 30 new transit officers, who will be on board most trains this summer, checking for fares and adding to the sense of security.
Staff officials acknowledged they should have proposed periodic, smaller increases over the previous years to ease the impact on low-income riders. The last increase took place in 2009. To avoid waiting too long in the the future to impose fare increases, the agency board agreed in principle last fall to consider fare increases every two years. The plan at the moment is to increase fares 6 percent in 2019 and 6 percent in 2021.
The board’s Monday night vote sets in place a broad range of increases in July. The basic single ride fare will increase from $2.50 to $2.75. The daily pass will go from $6 to $7. The monthly pass will increase by $10 to $110.
The board backed off slightly on student discount passes, increasing them from $12.50 for a half-month to $15 instead of the $17.50 proposed by staff.
The board also took a compromise action on what turned out to be the hottest fare issue, Paratransit passes, which allow disabled and elderly people to get door-to-door service on shuttles. RT staff had initially proposed eliminating the monthly $125 Paratransit pass, leaving patrons paying a proposed $5.50 per ride fare. The agency backed off, though, instead proposing a $150 pass and capping the number of monthly rides at 44.
Paratransit users complained, often emotionally, that RT was forcing them disproportionately to pay the price for RT’s woes. “These fare increases are killing people,” said Russell Rawlings, a transit user who is running for Sacramento mayor.
The board ultimately decided to raise the monthly pass to $137.50 and a 60-ride monthly cap. Paratransit pass holders who agree to a 44-ride cap, however, will be allowed to use their Paratransit pass to ride RT’s regular bus and light-rail train service.
Board chair Schenirer lauded the board vote. “I think the board took a step forward. The reality is we have to at least have a balanced budget.”