Sacramento Regional Transit’s plan to raise bus and light-rail fares by 20 percent appears to have died only days after it was proposed.
A majority of RT board members said at a Monday night meeting they could not support a level of rate hikes that one community member called “blackhearted.” They told staff to look for ways to improve the agency’s shaky financial situation without leaning so heavily on riders.
Board members were reacting to a staff proposal, aired last week, for hikes in July that would have affected all riders, including students, the elderly, the disabled and people on fixed incomes. The proposed one-way single ticket hike – from $2.50 to $3 – would have resulted in some of the highest transit fares in the country.
In a presentation to the board, RT staff pointed out that the agency has not raised fares since 2009, and said the district needs to catch up with rising operations costs. The agency has had to dip into reserves to balance its budget the last two years, and is facing projected deficits in each of the next five years.
After listening to community members describe the hardships the increases would cause, RT board members said the agency needs to come up with other options.
“To hammer a catch-up fare increase all at one time is fairly unconscionable,” said board member Patrick Hume, an Elk Grove city councilman. “I can’t support doing that.”
Several board members agreed the agency likely will have to raise fares, among other financial steps, this year. Don Nottoli said a 20 percent fare increase would prompt many poorer riders to simply stop riding, having the unwanted effect of reducing RT’s revenue.
“Charging more to fewer riders, that can be a dead end too,” county Supervisor Nottoli said. “We just shoot ourselves in the foot.”
Board member Steve Hansen, a Sacramento city councilman, suggested the agency consider raising rates 5 percent in July, then possibly another 5 percent next January.
Hansen pointed out that the Sacramento Transportation Authority is considering putting a measure on the November ballot that likely would raise the county sales tax by a half-cent for 30 years to finance a variety of transportation improvements in Sacramento, including providing new money for RT.
“I think we should pause any other (fare) increases depending on whether that measure passes,” Hansen said. “If it doesn’t, we have a very serious set of questions to answer.”
RT staff members said they will come up with a new set of lesser fare increases and present them to the public at a series of five workshops around the county, beginning in mid-February, then bring a new proposal back to the RT board in March.
RT has historically provided a series of discounted fares and passes to low-income and disabled people. Advocates said those lower fares are critical to allowing many people to get around town for shopping, doctors’ visits and recreation.
“I’m not talking about the frivolous ‘let’s go to a Tupperware party’; I’m talking about the necessities of life,” said Kathleen Berman of the California Council of the Blind.
An emotional Genelle Smith of the Wellspring Women’s Center in Oak Park, told the board to rethink its proposals.
“You have options; so many people don’t,” she said.
The RT bus and rail agency has been on a downward financial spiral on-and-off since the recession hit in 2007. A series of service cuts and fare increases in 2009 eroded ridership, which dropped another 2.3 percent in 2015.
Partly as a result, RT’s fare box revenue now represents only 21 percent of the cost of providing the service. The rest of the money comes from local, state and federal transportation programs and grants. The agency risks losing state grant money, however, if it doesn’t raise its fare box revenue percentage to 23 percent.
The agency is in talks about increasing the number of fare checkers on light-rail trains. Sacramento Bee calculations based on the most recent RT monthly fare evasion estimate in December suggest there are more than 8,000 instances of fare evasion a month on the light-rail system.
In addition to catching more fare evaders, RT officials have been looking into ways the agency can raise revenue other ways besides increasing fares, and have been looking for new ways to cut costs. Board member Hume touched on that issue at the Monday meeting, challenging RT staff officials to look harder at why its operating costs went up 28 percent in the last five years, and why it has been losing riders.
“We can blame it on the economy, but unemployment is down, and people are going back to work,” Hume said. “If you don’t know why people are leaving, you aren’t fixing your system.”
Several RT directors said the agency should push to make real headway this year on a long-stated RT goal to establish a new fare system that is based on how far each passenger travels. Board member Roberta McGlashan, a Sacramento County supervisor, said the agency could attract more riders if it offers cheaper fares for shorter trips.
“We’d have many riders for short distance rides if there was a distance-based fare,” she said. “I think that would be the most fair system. There is a big difference between riding one or two stops and the entire length of the system.”
Several board members said the situation calls into question the need for more discussion at RT about balancing the agency’s two primary roles – offering a lifeline service for the poor and others who do not own cars, and providing a good enough service to attract “choice” riders who will only take transit if it is clean, efficient and is cost-competitive with driving.
Hansen called that RT’s “existential quandary. “What is our mission? We haven’t had that conversation.”
The agency has been taking heat as well recently from the business sector. Early last year, a group of downtown business leaders challenged the agency to improve light-rail security, and the cleanliness of stations and trains, before the new downtown sports and entertainment arena opens this fall.
Some of those same business leaders last week issued a policy statement – directed at Sacramento mayoral candidates – saying the next mayor should appoint four business people to the RT board instead of four City Council members, which is now the case. The city has four seats on the 11-person RT board.
Annual boardings on Sacramento Regional Transit buses and trains:
Source: Sacramento RT