AC Transit Postpones Fare Hike, Considers Parcel Tax Ballot Measure Instead

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday June 19, 2008 - 09:37:00 AM

Trying to strike a balance between budgetary necessities and political realities, the AC Transit Board of Directors put off consideration of a proposed across-the-board fare increase until after the November general election, opting instead to begin the process of putting a parcel tax increase measure on the fall ballot. 

The board unanimously directed staff on June 11 to come back with ballot measure language—including the exact amount of the proposed parcel tax increase—to be considered at the district’s June 25 board meeting. 

The proposed increase, which could range from $24 to $48 per year per parcel, would come on top of the $48-per-year parcel tax already being paid in the transit district. Voters in Alameda and Contra Costa counties last approved that amount in Measure BB in November of 2004. 

Any parcel tax increase would require a two-thirds voter majority for approval. 

With yearly operating expenses rising at four times the rate of revenue in the past three years, the district had been considering fare increases this year of 25 cents for adults and 15 cents for youth, seniors and the disabled, as well as several proposals to raise the prices of the district’s various passes and monthly tickets. 

But at a packed public hearing on the proposed fare increases held last month in the Council Chambers at Oakland City Hall, board members and transit district staff heard speaker after speaker urge the district to find some other source of revenue to balance its books. 

“That was the number one comment we heard at the fare hearing, and that’s something I agree with,” AC Transit Board Vice President Rebecca Kaplan said at Wednesday night’s meeting. “Public transit needs to be treated as a public good in the same way that we treat our road system. Most of the cost of maintaining our public roads comes out of the general tax funds which are paid by everyone, even by people who don’t own cars.”  

Saying that the general public benefits from having a public transit system in many ways, even if they are not riding on the buses, Kaplan said that the burden of operating that system should be shared by the general public through a parcel tax increase rather than shouldered only by transit riders through a fare increase. 

While the proposed fare hike was clearly unpopular with AC Transit riders, board members were presented with a recently conducted study by Gene Bregman & Associates, a San Francisco public opinion and marketing research firm, showing 64 percent voter support for a $48 per year parcel tax increase ranging up to 75 percent voter support for a $24 per year increase. 

Saying that much support for a new increase was similar to support expressed at the same stage four years ago, before local voters eventually passed Measure BB, Bregman told transit board directors he was “very encouraged by the results.” 

AC Transit General Manager Rick Fernandez cautioned that even if a parcel tax increase is put on the November ballot and passed, a hike in bus fares next year might still be necessary because of rising fuel prices and cuts in state transit subsidies. 

“We know that we are going to be losing state revenue, we just don’t know how much,” Fernandez said. He added that the proposed parcel tax increase was “crucial to help stabilize our funding source.” 

While board members did not directly say that political considerations played a part in their decision to put off consideration of a fare increase, politics was clearly on their minds Wednesday night. In a preliminary discussion over how high a parcel tax increase the district should go for—$24, $36, or $48 per year, with lower polling approval percentages as the tax amount increased—Board President Chris Peeples noted that three board members (himself, Ward 1 Director Joe Wallace of Richmond and Ward 2 Director Greg Harper of Emeryville) will be up for re-election in November and a fourth board member, Kaplan, is in a runoff for the at-large Oakland City Council seat. 

Both Peeples and Harper said that opponents in those races would be expected to mount concerted political attacks against those board members, highlighting recent bad publicity AC Transit has received in the media and possibly driving down support for the proposed parcel tax.