When it comes to luring drivers out of their cars and into public transportation, it's the chicken-and-egg argument: Make public transportation better and it will attract more riders. More riders means more revenue. And since, by law, public-transit agencies can't sit on a profit, more revenue means even better service.
But what if your local public-transit agency is operating in the red? On Oct. 19, the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) will vote on a proposal to raise bus and trolley fares, eliminate transfers and reconfigure service for several bus lines in order to close a $9.2 million budget gap. Metropolitan Transit System officials say they've already made cuts to employee benefits and implemented a hiring freeze. At a SANDAG meeting earlier this month, MTS chief executive Paul Jablonksi said the transit system is already “operating at a minimum level of service,” leaving fare increases as the only option.
Starting in January, local bus service will go from $1.75 to $2 per ride and then up to $2.25 the following year. Monthly trolley-bus combo passes for adults will increase $4 in January--from $60 to $64--and then up to $68 in 2009. Monthly passes for seniors, the disabled and Medicare recipients will go from $15 up to $17 by 2009. MTS data shows that only about 10 percent of riders use transfers.
According to SANDAG, two-thirds of the people who rely on public transportation make less than $50,000 a year and one-fifth of riders earn less than $15,000. Before increasing fares, SANDAG was required by federal law to assess whether the increases would negatively impact poor people and minorities--that study found no evidence of a disproportionate impact.
A larger issue is that San Diego's public-transit fares are already relatively high. In L.A., for instance, seniors pay 55 cents each time they board the bus (L.A. doesn't offer free transfers) compared to $1 here; a neighborhood-centric system called DASH charges seniors 10 cents per ride and 25 cents for adults. In San Francisco, seniors pay 50 cents to board the bus--transfers are good for two hours--while adults pay $1.50. A monthly pass costs $20 less in San Francisco than here and senior/disabled passes are cheaper there, too. Mayor Gavin Newsom has proposed making public transportation in San Francisco free.
According to a 2005 study by the Federal Transit Administration, San Francisco spends $147 per capita for public transportation while local governments here spend only $27. In fact, when it comes to state and local public-transit funding, the San Diego region ranks last in the nation among large urban areas. No. 1 Boston spends only $31 per capita on public transit but gets $155 per resident from the state. San Diego gets only $17 per capita from the state.Public transit's popularity influences funding priorities, said MTS spokesperson Luis Gonzalez.
“Most people do not understand that public transit is a lifestyle,” he said. “If more people were to adopt the idea behind public transit and encourage its development, then more resources can be allocated to its development and improvement.”
SANDAG plans to seek increased local funding for public transit via a ballot measure, board member and county Supervisor Ron Roberts said at an Oct. 5 meeting. And pressure on Sacramento to restore public-transportation funding has come from an unlikely local source. In 2004, county Supervisor Bill Horn opposed a ballot measure that allocates a portion of local sales tax to public transportation--he wanted to see more funding for road construction--but late last month Horn sent a letter to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, saying that increases in traffic and concerns about the environment are pushing more people to use public transportation.
“Our ridership continues to grow throughout San Diego County, yet our funding continues to diminish, creating nightmarish budgeting scenarios for our public transportation service providers,” Horn wrote. “Your cuts have eliminated our ability to expand services and have instead called into question our ability to maintain services we have already committed to providing.”