Fewer people are riding transit in Sacramento. Here’s how RT hopes to bring them back

Faced with declining ridership, Sacramento Regional Transit took a historic step backward Monday – cutting bus and light rail fares across the board for the first time in its nearly 50-year history.

The agency will drop the base fare from $2.75 per ride to $2.50 and reduce monthly passes from $110 to $100. Senior monthly passes will be reduced as will single ride discount tickets.

The reductions will bring fares back to what they were in 2016 before the agency made one of its most unpopular decisions, raising rates to among the highest in the country.

The agency board also agreed at its meeting Monday night to bring back 25-cent transfers. RT stopped allowing riders to purchase transfers in 2009. A transfer allows a passenger to take a second bus or light rail train within 90 minutes without having to pay full fare.

That change will not affect passengers who use smartphone apps or electronic cards to pay for rides. They already can transfer for free.

The price drop is initially temporary, starting Oct. 1 and remaining in effect for six months. But RT General Manager Henry Li said he believes the agency will be in position in March to extend the new fares indefinitely.

The agency will dip into its reserve account to compensate for about $600,000 in lost revenue, but believes the reduction could boost ridership by about 350,000 boardings annually.

Li said the agency is making the move because budget cuts and restructuring in the last three years have allowed RT to rebuild its reserve accounts from nearly zero to $10 million.

“We are listening to our customers,” Li said. “We are more limber and have some more flexibility now. We would like to reinvest that back to our customers.”

RT board vice chairman Steve Hansen, who opposed an even higher fare proposal two years ago, said fare reductions should help the agency in the long term.

“This makes a lot of sense to lower the barriers to riders and bringing back fare transfers which people have clamored for,” he said. “With other system modernization steps, we think riders will continue to find long-term value in RT.”

The one dissenting vote at Monday’s meeting came from board member Pat Hume of Elk Grove, who said he believed ridership would begin to pick up without lowering rates. He said he’d prefer using the money from higher fares to invest in improving the transit product and attracting more riders that way.

RT ridership peaked more than a decade ago, before the recession, at more than 30 million boardings annually. That dropped to 24 million by 2016, when the agency increased fares. Ridership this year declined to 21 million.

RT officials attributed much of the initial ridership decline to several years of dramatic service cuts during the recession.

The agency has since lost some customers to rideshare services such as Uber and Lyft. Agency officials say they also saw ridership drop after the state in 2015 allowed undocumented immigrants to obtain driver licenses.

Part of the agency’s ridership drop in the last two years has been positive, though, officials say. Li said his agency estimates fare evaders accounted for 20 percent of light rail ridership two years ago. The fare evasion rate has now dropped to about 5 percent, he said, due to stricter enforcement. That includes posting transit officers on most trains to check for tickets.

The arrival in central Sacramento in recent months of Jump, a bike-share rental service owned by Uber, has added an intriguing twist.

Some people may be choosing bikes instead of a bus or rail ride. But RT officials say they think the bikes will prompt increased ridership by making it easier and relatively inexpensive for people without cars to reach a light rail station that otherwise is too far to walk to. The agency does not yet have an assessment, though, of the bikes’ effect.

The agency has been making other moves in an attempt to gain riders.

The agency reduced student fares earlier this year and saw a notable increase in student ridership. Officials said it has prompted increased ridership, encouraging them to extend fare cuts across the board.

RT this year has begun experimenting with on-call shuttle buses in some areas to compete with rideshare companies.

Li said the agency will increase light rail service on weekends from the current 30-minute service to 15-minute intervals until 8 p.m. That service addition is expected to take place in January, 2019.

The agency also is studying ways to redesign bus routes.

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