AC Transit Raises Fares; More Belt-Tightening to Come

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Wednesday March 18, 2009 - 07:10:00 PM

AC Transit District, battered by the economic downturn, raised its regular bus fares by 25 cents and youth, senior and disabled fares by 15 cents last Wednesday night. The new fares go into effect July 1, when regular fares will rise from $1.75 to $2, and youth, senior and disabled fares from 85 cent to $1. 

AC Transit bowed to community concerns that it keep a campaign promise to allow its youth, senior, and disabled monthly passes to remain at their current level. 

Board members said that cuts to some AC Transit bus lines are almost certainly to be implemented sometime later this year. 

The meeting marked the first board appearance of At-Large Board Member Joel B. Young, who was selected by the board to fill out the last two years of the four-year term of former board member Rebecca Kaplan. 

In laying out the economic circumstances that made the fare increase necessary, AC Transit Chief Financial Officer Lewis Clinton Jr. said that even with the $20.4 million in federal stimulus money recently granted to the district through the Metropolitan Transit Commission, the district is currently projecting a $27.6 million operating deficit for the 2008-09 fiscal year ending June 30. That operating loss will be offset by the district’s current $35 million operating reserve, but Clinton said that district reserves will then go down to $7.4 million, leaving the district projecting running out of money sometime in the fiscal year beginning in July unless more money comes in from other sources or the district makes service and job cuts. 

In voting for the compromise fare increase proposal, Ward 1 board member Joe Wallace (Richmond, El Sobrante, San Pablo, El Cerrito, Albany, Kensington and portions of Berkeley) said that he was not in favor of increases for passes for the students, the seniors, or the disabled “because they are the ones that have to live on a monthly income, one check, and they have a lot of things to do with that one check. They’ve got a lot of medicine. They’ve got to travel. And that’s not taking into account their rate going up. I’ll never be in favor of that. That’s not why I’m sitting here. I’m sitting here to serve the public.” 

But Ward 2 board member Greg Harper (Emeryville, Piedmont, and portions of Berkeley and Oakland) said he was opposed to increasing regular fares to $2.00 as well. “Looking at other agencies that charge the fares that we’re proposing, we’re just way out of line,” Harper said. “The agencies charging $2 a ride either give $2 service, they have $2 customers who can essentially afford it, or they are suburban services that have very high costs in comparison. We’re none of those. We don’t have the service that merits a fare increase.” 

Harper added that AC Transit’s passengers were not the cause of the district’s economic problems. “We’re getting plenty of money from our passengers in terms of rides,” he said. “We’re not undercharging, and no one can ever say that we’re not charging enough money. Our fares are not our real problem.” 

Harper was the only one of the seven board members at the March 11 meeting to vote against the increase. 

While the updated fare rate is expected to raise $5.7 million a year for AC, it will not be enough to bring the district out of its financial hole. The district is projecting an operating deficit in excess of $20 million for the current fiscal year. District reserves will is looking at running out of money sometime in the fiscal year beginning in July if it does not institute service cuts or find other sources of revenue. 

The 25-cent fare raise was originally proposed by the district last year, but AC Transit officials held it off through the passage of last November’s Measure VV parcel tax increase. During the VV campaign, AC Transit officials promised voters that if they voted for VV, the district would not raise the rates for monthly passes for youth, seniors, and the disabled. 

In supporting the proposal, Board President Rocky Fernandez (Ward 4: San Leandro, Castro Valley, San Lorenzo, Ashland, and portions of Hayward) warned that it might not ultimately be enough. 

Board President Fernandez, not to be confused with AC Transit General Manager Rick Fernandez, said that he understood that “times are tough for people. I know that pay hasn’t gone up for the past few years. But [AC Transit is] in a really big hole.”  

General Manager Fernandez said that with state money drying up and many agencies competing over smaller and smaller pots of available money, the money from last November’s Measure VV passage “is not nearly enough to get us out of the giant hole we’re facing. I made a promise to keep the passes for the seniors, disabled and youth where they are. I’m willing to [keep that promise] now. I can’t say that I’m willing to do that in the future.”