The staff at Sacramento Regional Transit has set the stage for an important discussion Monday over how the district will absorb expected state reductions in operating funding. Among the proposals sure to bring crowds to the board meeting is the elimination of free bus and light rail rides for Paratransit-qualified residents. Instead, they would have to pay the same 50-percent discount as students and seniors.
Without a state budget, RT can't predict exactly how much it will have to cut to make ends meet this year. The cuts proposed by the governor had RT looking at a shortfall of $11.3 million. Thankfully, a compromise is in the works in the Legislature. According to RT General Manager Mike Wiley in his report to the district board, "If the compromise budget is approved as written, RT will experience an operating shortfall of $4.8 million in (state) revenue in (fiscal year) 2008-2009."
That $4.8 million is much better than $11.3 million, but it is still a big hole to fill. Making things harder is the fact that the easy cuts were made last year, when state funding was reduced $14 million below what RT had budgeted. Making ends meet last year required cuts in service. RT wants to do everything possible to avoid more service cuts.
"Staff firmly believes and agrees that RT is in the business of providing service and not cutting service," Wiley told the board.
The one spot of good news in the report is the estimate that the increase in ridership generated by higher gasoline prices and the Interstate 5 fix have brought in about $1.1 million more in fare revenue than the district had budgeted.
That will help, but something else will have to give and first on Wiley's list of options for the board is the elimination of the Paratransit Group Pass.
"The group pass originated to provide a lower cost alternative for Paratransit eligible riders and their qualified care givers," Wiley explains. "The cost of riders to ride Paratransit is now $4, although the cost to RT is $60 per ride."
Anecdotal evidence cited by Wiley suggests that many people apply for Paratransit eligibility just so they can get the free RT pass.
A staff survey of transportation agencies found the free ride option is unusual. "Of the 20 transit agencies surveyed," according to Wiley, "only two, besides RT, offer free ridership."
As Wiley points out, while charging $1 is a big hike from a free ride, it is still a substantial discount from the $4 Paratransit charge.
Making Paratransit-qualified riders pay the same fare as the elderly will generate about $1.1 million in new revenue.
Another proposal that many will find annoying is the addition of a parking fee at light rail park-and-ride lots. Wiley is proposing a $1 to $2 fee, with the $2 option his preferred choice. Wiley estimates the $2 fee would generate $1.1 million, assuming a midyear start.
Wiley and his staff have found some staffing cuts, areas that he admits will cause morale problems, and a couple of options for stringing out how the district funds its pension. (This will not affect the actual pension benefits.)
And, finally, there's proposed fare increases. The staff has put together four scenarios. At one end, riders would see basic fares rising to $2.25, daily passes to $5.50 and the monthly pass going to $95. At the other extreme, basic fares would increase to $2.50, the daily pass to $6.25 and the monthly pass to $106.
Putting all of this together, Wiley offers two examples of how this could play out.
If the district needs to raise $5.3 million, RT could do that with the extra money from increased ridership, the end of Paratransit free rides, reduced staffing levels, a modest shift in the pension contributions and the smallest of the proposed fare increases.
If the state doesn't come through and RT has to make up for a cut of $11.8 million, then the real pain will happen. In addition to the other stuff, RT would institute the parking fee, increase the fares to the highest option, make an even more drastic adjustment to the pension contributions and reduce bus and light rail service enough to scrap together $6.6 million per year to achieve $3.3 million in fiscal year 2009. Wiley provides a number of ways to cut service to raise this money. (See this press release.)
It's time for more of those letters to lawmakers telling them the importance of transit and the reason why it should remain a priority for the state. The alternative is just too bleak to consider.
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The public hearing will be held July 28 at 6 p.m. in the RT Auditorium located at 1400 29th Street (at N Street).