It may seem like a little change, but this move just might save Sacramento Regional Transit

A Sacramento Regional Transit District light rail train makes its scheduled run on June 8.
A Sacramento Regional Transit District light rail train makes its scheduled run on June 8. dkim@sacbee.com

Here’s something you don’t see very often these days: Prices going down.

But riders of Sacramento Regional Transit will be the beneficiaries after its board voted Monday night to reduce fares for the first time in its half-century history.

The board agreed to cut the base fare from $2.75 per ride to $2.50 and the monthly pass from $110 to $100 starting Oct. 1. RT also is bringing back 25-cent transfers – allowing passengers to take a second bus or light rail train within 90 minutes – which it nixed in 2009.

These are the right moves, both for riders and for RT.

The transit agency needed to do something dramatic to reverse its declining ridership and to regain public support. In 2016, the agency made the highly unpopular decision to raise fares, making Sacramento’s among the nation’s highest, after already slashing routes during the Great Recession.

For riders – especially those living paycheck to paycheck – the new reductions will help their daily expenses. For RT, lower fares will help it compete for customers, who have an ever-increasing number of options to get around Sacramento, including Uber, Lyft and now Jump bikes.

Earlier this year, the RT board lowered the cost of student passes from $55 a month to $20 a month starting Jan. 1. That led to an increase in student ridership of 225,000 a year and a decline in fare revenue of only $200,000, according to RT General Manager Henry Li. Student ridership had plummeted from 6 million in 2004 to 1.5 million in 2017-18.

Li would be very happy if the results of the new fare decrease were similar. The agency predicts 350,000 more boardings a year, and plans to use its reserves to cover a projected $600,000 in lost revenue. Overall, RT ridership plunged from a peak of 35 million in 2009 to 20.8 million in 2017-18.

Officially, the new fare cuts will end after six months, but Li expects them to be extended.

Thankfully, lowering fares is only one part of RT’s turnaround. It plans to improve service in January by extending more frequent light rail service on weekends until 8 p.m. It is also studying an overhaul of bus routes, a strategy that has helped other transit systems boost ridership.

These measures are even more important after voters narrowly rejected a sales tax increase in November 2016 that would have been a godsend for the agency. Of the $3.6 billion for transportation and transit the half-cent tax would have raised over 30 years, RT would have received more than $1 billion. There may be another try for the sales tax, but not this year.

Without that windfall, there’s a long hard road ahead for RT. This decision puts it in the right direction.

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