There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Monday, August 25, 2008

My hero and the RT budget

Sacramento Regional Transit directors called a stop to further consideration of service cuts tonight. Despite the chance that the state could punch an $11.8 million hole in the district budget, directors took the possibility of service cutbacks off the table. The majority also doused cold water on the staff's idea of charging a fee at the district's park and ride lots.

The staff had asked the board to set priorities to be followed to reach various levels of savings necessary once the state finally agrees on a budget. After a lengthy public hearing, the board agreed that the staff's top five ideas were OK:

  • $2.3 million of the shortfall will be covered by the fare revenue brought in with the ridership increases.
  • $1.5 million will be covered by not filling current vacancies in RT's staff.
  • $1.3 million will be saved by changing how RT amortizes its pension obligations.
  • $0.3 million can be raised by renegotiating fare and transfer agreements with surrounding transit providers.
  • $2 million will be generated by ending the free ride Paratransit-qualified riders currently receive on the district's fixed routes. Instead, those riders would pay the same discounted fare that other disabled and elderly riders pay.
Those changes could cover a $7.4 million shortfall. But it's possible the state cuts will be more than that. If so, then the board gave staff authority to implement fare increases. When the new fares would be instituted would depend on how much the district needs to raise.

The lone dissenter on the fare hike -- and my hero for the night -- was Roger Dickinson, who pointed out that recent increases in ridership will generate a lot more money than the staff was suggesting.

RT General Manager Mike Wiley told the board that ridership continues to run significantly higher than last year. Light rail ridership is up 21.3 percent higher than last July, and bus ridership is up 13.4 percent. Wiley pointed out that the increase in the bus ridership comes after bus service was reduced by 5 percent. The fare recovery is 4.2 percent above the district's goal and the cost of operating the service is running 7.4 to 7.9 percent below budget estimates.

Dickinson pointed out that in the month of July alone, the district's increased fares and reduced staff costs amounted to a $700,000 gain. If that continued for the entire year, the district would have an additional $9 million. If just the ridership continued, it would add up to an additional $6 million.

"Why rush to raise fares?" Dickinson asked.

Wiley tried to argue against being too optimistic on the fares, explaining that for many years the district had budgeted using unrealistic fare recovery estimates. But after some consulting with his staff, Wiley admitted that if current fare recovery rates continued, the district could expect to raise $4.5 million.

The question of whether there will be a rate hike will now be up to the Legislature. It's time to write more letters.

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