Why are Sacramento student transit fares among the nation’s highest?

New loudspeakers will allow SacRT security to talk to passengers at stations

Don’t be surprised if sometime soon you hear a voice from above at the light rail station. The new loudspeakers are part of several security changes Sacramento Regional Transit is making.
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Don’t be surprised if sometime soon you hear a voice from above at the light rail station. The new loudspeakers are part of several security changes Sacramento Regional Transit is making.

Sacramento’s main bus and light rail agency is proposing to drastically reduce student fares next month in hopes of boosting long-sagging ridership, especially among teens.

The Regional Transit board on Monday will consider cutting the price of student passes from $55 per month to $20. Low-income students, who currently receive a discounted pass for $30 a month as part of the school free lunch program, also would see their monthly cost drop to $20 under the proposal. The passes are typically sold in half-month intervals.

The new fares, if approved, would go into effect Jan. 1. They are considered a test, however, and are scheduled to last for only six months. If student ridership numbers increase enough, agency officials said they will consider making the lower fares permanent.

The proposed cuts would apply only to K-12 students. Students at local community colleges and at Sacramento State already pay deeply discounted fares through contracts SacRT has in place with the colleges.

SacRT officials said the student fare reduction is part of an ongoing effort to reverse nine years of incremental ridership declines. SacRT bus and rail ridership peaked in 2009 at 35 million, but has dropped to 22 million this year.

Student ridership in particular has fallen even more dramatically, from a peak of 6 million in 2004 to 1.5 million this year. In that time, SacRT has tripled the price of a student pass and reduced bus service.

Sacramento’s youth bus pass costs more per month than in San Francisco ($38); Los Angeles ($24); San Diego ($36 local); Stockton ($40); and Portland ($28).

Most transit agencies nationally have suffered ridership losses in recent years. In Sacramento, transit officials and community leaders have cited a number of reasons for the decline, including the fact that SacRT’s service was cut more than 20 percent when it ran into financial problems in the recent recession, leaving a bare-bones system of infrequent buses and limited destinations.

A 10 percent fare increase last year and a crackdown on fare evaders has helped boost revenues in the last year, but it also prompted some people to stop riding, including students.

The agency in January will launch a year-long analysis of how it is delivering its service, focused on starting from scratch by designing new bus routes, said SacRT spokeswoman Devra Selenis. The agency also may consider new types of service, such as ride-sharing, that address modern travel patterns in the region.

Selenis says agency officials believe reduced fares for students could help the agency reclaim ridership immediately and represents an investment in building a new generation of adult riders.

“It’s our hope that students in grades K-12 will become comfortable with public transit and use it in the future,” Selenis said.

The agency has a long-term goal of providing free rides for K-12 students at some point, but that likely would require new taxes or other sustainable revenues that have not yet been identified.

SacRT analysts estimate the lower student fares could reduce agency revenues by $100,000 during the test period from January through the end of June. Selenis said the agency will heavily market the reductions, in hopes of getting enough new student riders to compensate for that loss.

Folsom Mayor Andy Morin, who is chair of the SacRT board, said the student fare reductions are a sensible experiment that could pay off.

“This looks like a low-risk approach, financially, to see if we can generate some ridership that we hope will last through lifetimes,” he said.

He and Selenis said SacRT has invested in the last year in more security on trains, cleaner stations and more fare checking, hopefully making the system more attractive so that new riders will stick around.

The passes affect students at numerous school districts in the county, including Sacramento City Unified School District, the city’s largest district.

Officials at Sacramento City Unified said the SacRT price experiment should help some students and their families with the growing problem of finding low-cost ways to get to school. Sacramento City Unified provides school bus service for some elementary school students, but not for middle and high school students, some of whom have to travel beyond their neighborhoods to get to school.

“Anything that will help lessen the burden of transportation costs for our families is definitely welcome,” school district spokesman Alex Barrios said. “The more low- or no-cost options for our students, the better.”

Lower fares also could make it more likely students will ride buses to other non-school related events, Barrios said.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak

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