Sacramento transit agency proposes 20 percent fare hikes

Sacramento Regional Transit is proposing to raise bus and light-rail fares by as much as 20 percent this summer, saying increases are overdue and desperately needed to pull the agency out of the red.

RT has struggled financially for nearly a decade. Ridership has stagnated since the agency cut service during the recession. RT reports it has lost money in each of the last two years, forcing it to dip into its reserves. The transit district has launched several plans to cut costs and raise revenue in the last year. Despite those, it forecasts annual operating deficits over the next five years unless it raises rates.

Bank lenders recently increased the agency’s borrowing rates and added loan restrictions as a result of decreases in RT’s financial reserves and fare revenues.

RT board members are scheduled to discuss a complex set of fare changes – including some notable fare reductions – on Monday at 6 p.m. at RT headquarters at 29th and N streets in midtown Sacramento.

The transit board expects to vote on whether to impose the fare changes at its meeting March 14. The new rates would take effect on July 1.

Agency officials say they hope to achieve a fare increase of 20 percent overall across a variety of ticket and pass types.

Agency Chairman Jay Schenirer acknowledged the proposed increases will be tough on customers, but pointed out the transit agency hasn’t raised fares since 2009 and needs money to stabilize itself.

“Our operating revenues are not sufficient to pay for the service we are providing, and the service we want to provide,” Schenirer said. “I will be listening to what the public says (Monday.) Raising fares is not an easy thing for anyone.”

Under the proposal, the single bus fare as well as the single ride fare on light rail would go up from $2.50 to $3. Discount bus fares would increase from $1.25 to $1.50.

The regular daily pass would rise from $6 to $7.50. The discount daily pass would go from $3 to $3.75.

Monthly passes, now $100, would increase to $120. Senior monthly passes would go from $50 to $70. Fares for Sacramento State students would go from $1.25 to $1.50. Students pay for those as part of their university fees.

RT’s monthly pass for Paratransit riders would be eliminated, and Paratransit single ride fares would increase.

The proposed increases are being challenged by some community members. Pam Haney of the Wellspring Women’s Center complained the fare increases are unfair to poorer people and disabled riders who rely on transit.

“Fare increases need to happen sometime, but a 20 percent increase is significant, and the elimination of the Paratransit monthly pass is huge,” Haney said. “That is going to all but eliminate some people’s ability to use public transportation. This is going to dramatically decrease the quality of life for some people who rely on RT.”

Beverly Valley, an Oak Park resident who lives on her Social Security check, said she has been riding RT for 20 years. She appreciates the bus service, which she uses to go to the store, to church and to visit museums, but is displeased RT cut bus frequencies several years ago during the recession. Increased fares may require her to rethink her usage.

“Cutting routes and increasing fares does not increase ridership,” she said. “I’m going to be able to take the bus less. I may ask a friend to drive me.”

In an effort to reduce the financial impacts on riders, RT is proposing to test a lower fare option for riders who take short trips during off-peak hours that start and finish in the Central City area. Those fares are expected to be in the $1 to $1.50 range. Riders would have a one-hour time limit to ride buses or trains.

Some of the proposals represent an effort by RT to use new technology, including smartphone apps and smart transit cards.

The agency proposes to reinstitute transfers for riders who use RT’s new Connect Cards, saving them the cost of using a second bus. The agency also will discuss creating a new time-based fare through its mobile phone app. The time-based fare, as proposed, would cost $3 for the first 90 minutes of bus or rail riding, then $1 for each additional hour of riding.

Midtown resident Brian Wickes said he’s willing to pay a $3 fare for a long-distance ride, such as from downtown to his workplace in Rocklin, if RT ever extends light rail that far. “I would pay that in a heartbeat,” he said. But, fares for shorter rides should be less expensive, he said. “I’d recommend zones, where fares increase the farther away from downtown you go.”

Seann Rooney, of Friends of Light Rail & Transit, a group that supports transit use but has criticized RT, said his group needs to look at the proposal in depth. But he said RT is in a tough position and has to find a way to push forward.

“If we don’t do something about our anemic fare box recovery and perennial funding issues, we can’t expect the transit district to address needed changes, let alone expect them stay on the cutting edge of technology, or grow the ridership base,” he said. Among RT’s needs, he cited improving safety and sprucing up its stations.

Retiree and Sacramento Kings ticketholder Don Moura of Lincoln is among non-riders who are looking to RT to improve its service before they hop aboard. He would like to take light rail to games when the team moves downtown but wonders whether the agency will be able to provide late-night trains, and more lighting and security at transit stations.

“What will the additional 20 percent income do to improve the overall quality and quantity of its services?” he asked.

The RT board voted several months ago to begin instituting fare increases every two years.

Agency officials also say they want to make a bigger push to reduce fare evasion on trains. Inspectors currently check 10 percent of riders to see if they have tickets or passes. RT’s goal is to increase that figure to 20 percent.