Cuts could mean higher bus fares

The Met Council is considering raising fares to offset significant proposed funding cuts.

by John Hageman

Higher fares could hit Twin Cities bus riders as early as next year as the Metropolitan Council looks for ways to patch its budget.
Reports last week suggested that the council was going to increase fares soon as a way of alleviating significant proposed funding cuts. Although council officials downplayed the possibility of a fare increase, they didnâÄôt shun the idea.
The Met Council, which operates Metro Transit, presented its 2011 budget to the House Transportation Policy and Finance Committee on Wednesday, where the reports of fare increases were an early topic of discussion.
âÄúThere is a fairly lengthy process for public input, but [raising fares is] not something weâÄôre planning to do now,âÄù Met Council Regional Administrator Patrick Born said. âÄúThereâÄôs nothing imminent.âÄù
But a possible fare hike didnâÄôt get the cold shoulder from state legislators.
âÄúIâÄôm paying 60, 70 cents more per gallon on gas this year than last year,âÄù said Rep. Mike Beard, R-Shakopee, the chairman of the committee. âÄúRaising fares by a quarter a trip just strikes me as a reasonable expectation.âÄù
Dave Van Hattum, policy and advocacy manager for the transportation nonprofit Transit for Livable Communities, doesnâÄôt see merit in BeardâÄôs argument. Bus fares havenâÄôt come down since 1970, even with dips in gas prices in recent years.
But the Met Council is facing bigger difficulties than rising gas prices.
If the council doesnâÄôt raise fares or cut some services, it will have to get creative to make up the difference in Gov. Mark DaytonâÄôs recommended $10.8 million cut to its base funding for transit operations over the biennium.
In DaytonâÄôs proposed budget, he recommends that the council begin considering a 25-cent âÄúacross the boardâÄù fare increase on trains and buses effective Jan. 1, 2012. The move would generate $9.3 million over the biennium.
âÄúOur hope is that [fare increases] can be avoided, but itâÄôs going to take some new thinking,âÄù Van Hattum said. âÄúItâÄôs a very real concern.âÄù
Met Council officials declined to comment on what other options they are considering.
The council will have a better idea of what itâÄôs up against when the revised state budget forecast is released Monday.
Those projections will include the revised revenue projections from the motor vehicle sales tax, which is the Met CouncilâÄôs largest source of revenue.
Also complicating things is the upcoming reappointment of Met Council members in March, with 12 of the 16 members seeking reappointment.
An increase in bus fares could also mean higher U-Pass costs, said Jacqueline Brudlos, marketing coordinator for Parking and Transportation Services. But any increase would likely happen when PTSâÄôs current contract with Metro Transit is up in August 2013.
In 2007, a U-Pass cost $64 per semester. That has jumped to $97 per semester today.
Van Hattum is concerned that fares are already relatively high compared to other transit systems.
The Twin Cities had the third-highest percentage of operating costs covered by passenger fares among 13 peer regions in 2009, according to a 2010 Met Council report.
âÄúThe challenge is that youâÄôre looking at people who are primarily using the bus to get to work and donâÄôt have a lot of discretionary income,âÄù Van Hattum said. âÄúThere are a lot of people that would like to use the transit system, and keeping it affordable makes sense.âÄù