Metro Transit might lose routes, hike fares

by Nathan Hall

Canceled bus routes and increased fares might be on the way, since Metro Transit’s budget will likely be slashed as part of Minnesota’s worst budget crisis ever.

Metro Transit’s woes are twofold. First, Gov. Tim Pawlenty recently unallotted $2.6 million of its operating budget after the Legislature failed to reach a consensus over how to deal with a $356 million for the current fiscal year.

Secondly, Pawlenty announced Tuesday afternoon he will cut transportation’s general coffers – 64 percent from its two-year funding – as part of his proposal to cover over $4.2 billion in debt the state must pay by July 1, 2005.

“Next Tuesday, we’ll make our initial proposal to the board of directors,” said Bob Gibbons, customer service director for Metro Transit, which is managed by the Metropolitan Council. “The Monday after that, we will publicly announce our plan, which as an absolute last resort may include fare increases and route suspensions.”

In direct response to Pawlenty’s first unallotment, Metro Transit has already agreed to eliminate South St. Paul route 79.

Metro Transit also plans to partly or wholly eliminate over 42 routes, which will coincide with the arrival of the $675.4 million light rail transit project, which is still scheduled to be at least partly open by 2004.

Some University students are unconcerned about the possible changes in public bus service.

“Even if (U-Pass) prices rose to, say, $75, I’d still buy one, as there’s no alternative for me at this point,” said Kapil Bansal, a junior engineering student. “I have to ride the bus as I can’t afford car insurance.”

“We really have to move quickly on this one,” Gibbons said. He said he hopes to have a “reduction plan” hashed out by March 10 in time for the Transportation Department committee meeting and a “target” final agreement by July 1.

“Our goal is to have all service reductions, whatever that may be, implemented by Sept. 13 at the latest,” Gibbons said.

Public hearings concerning the changes will begin in late March, Gibbons said.

“If there is indeed a bus fare increase, it will be in place by July 1,” Gibbons added.

According to Metro Transit statistics, the agency sold over 70 million rides in 2002, a 5.1 percent decrease from 2001. The University transportation department’s data shows U-Pass holders went for over 2.5 million rides in 2002. That is up 45 percent compared with the 1.8 million rides the year before.

Also affected are thousands of Minnesota companies, since state law allows employers a 30 percent subsidy on employee bus passes. In addition, federal law allows a $65 tax deduction per commuter per month for companies.

The last across-the-board rate increase was 25 cents in July 2001, in light of a $2.7 million budget loss after the Legislature took back a promised general fund appropriation.

One possible alternative to a rate increase would be targeting an increase solely at express fares at peak hours.

Nathan Hall welcomes comments at [email protected]