Bus transfers, discount cards and student passes may be eliminated because of AC Transit’s projected budget deficit of $40 million.
In two public hearings on Thursday, June 11, the AC Transit Board of Directors will listen to community response to the planned changes, which could take effect as early as September. The hearings, which were advertised with brochures and posters on all AC Transit lines, will be held at the Scottish Rite Center at 1547 Lakeside Dr. in Oakland at 3 and 6 p.m.
At the hearings, bus riders will be asked to consider two options to increase fare revenue. The first proposal would reduce regular cash fares to $1 from $1.50, but would eliminate all bus-to-bus transfers and discount passes. The second option would retain the $1.50 fare and maintain monthly discount passes for seniors and disabled riders only. Both options eliminate the pilot program that provides free passes to low-income secondary school students.
AC Transit spokesman Mike Mills said the company chose to reduce discounts instead of increasing basic cash fares.
“The cash fare, at $1.50, is already at a level that is relatively high compared to other transit organizations,” Mills said. “But the discounts, in many cases, are substantial, and eliminating them would bring in considerably more revenue. Ideally we’d like to keep everything, but with the budget deficit we need to find ways to increase revenue.”
The second part of the plan cuts operating expenses by reducing services. The proposal calls for the elimination of up to 20 bus lines and reduced frequency, hours of operation, and/or coverage area of as many as 25 additional lines.
Mills said that AC Transit general managers decided on the basis of ridership which lines could be reduced while affecting the smallest number of people.
“It is a relatively nominal number of passengers that this would hurt; a small percentage of our 230,000 riders per day,” Mills said. “But those small changes combined with the other changes will allow us to cut $15 million for the next fiscal year.”
AC Transit managers emphasized that the fare changes and service reductions were the last resort in their cost-cutting moves. Although the company raised fares two years ago, more recent steps have included laying off workers, imposing a hiring freeze, deferring capital projects and spending financial reserves.
“Internal cost-cutting actions, up until now, largely have not affected many passengers,” said AC Transit general manager Rick Fernandez.
Many bus riders said they would no longer ride the bus if discount passes and transfers were eliminated. Kaaren Bock, who rides the 51, 40 and 43 bus lines, said more than half of the passengers she spoke to while handing out fliers told her they would find other methods of transportation.
“I use the 31-day pass every month to go to work,” said Mark Cinsert, a passenger on the 43 bus line in downtown Berkeley. “Eliminating that would almost double my transportation costs, so I would most likely create a carpool instead. They’re not going to increase fare revenue if they lose lots of riders.”
Steve Geller, president of the Bus Riders Union, a public transit advocacy organization, said the service reductions and fare changes are necessary because of the operating deficit.
“Increasing fares is never popular, and nobody likes the prospect of increasing the already high sales tax,” Geller said. “But if the East Bay wants bus service, the money has to come from somewhere.”