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

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Sacramento Regional Transit's budget woes

In January 2008, Sacramento Regional Transit cut bus service 5 percent in order to balance the 2008 fiscal year budget. To balance the 2009 budget, RT eliminated the free rides for Paratransit-qualified riders, raised the price of monthly passes from $85 to $100, daily passes from $5 to $6 and single fares from $2 to $2.25.

Now for 2010, RT is again standing in a budget hole looking for a way out.

Monday evening, RT staff will present its proposals for balancing the coming year's budget and get some direction from the district's Executive Board Committee on whether any of these ideas will fly when the issue gets a public hearing before the full board on June 8.

The fare increases that took effect in January aren't generating as much cash as staff had hoped. It is now estimated that fare revenues have fallen $2.6 million below the levels anticipated when the fare increases were adopted. Fare revenue in 2010 could be as much as $3 million below earlier projections.

The decline in RT's share of Measure A sales tax revenues combined with the fare shortfalls has dug a $9.0 million hole in the coming 2010 budget.

What to do? Fare hikes and other potential changes are in the works, including the possible elimination of the lifetime pass, the free ride RT offers to residents who are age 75 and older.

First the handicapped and now the elderly. Children next?

Actually, RT hasn't given up its efforts to balance the budget on the backs of the handicapped. Staff are suggesting that the monthly Paratransit pass either be eliminated or the cost significantly hiked. Staff point out that the Paratransit monthly pass is not required by federal ADA regulations. And in the 18 years that the Paratransit monthly pass has been offered, there has been just one price increase – from $80 to $100 in 2003. During the same period, the single Paratransit fare has risen from $1 to $4.50. It's no wonder sales of monthly Paratransit passes have quadrupled since 2003.

I admit it's a cheap shot to suggest RT is picking on the handicapped and the elderly. None of RT's riders will be spared as staff look for ways to fill the budget hole. Well, that's not completely true either. Staff haven't tried to resurrect the twice-rejected parking fee proposal. But everyone else will have to contribute if RT is going to balance its budget.

Staff are proposing single fares increase from $2.25 to $2.50 and the discount fare from $1.10 to $1.25. The daily pass would go to $6.50. Only the monthly pass would remain unchanged. RT wants to encourage riders who stopped buying the monthly pass after this year's price increase to start buying the monthly passes again.

But even those fare increases won't be enough to cover the 2010 shortfall. RT estimates $7.2 million in service reductions and other cost-containment options – a continuing hiring freeze and no wage or benefit cost increases in pending union contracts – will still be necessary.

The service cuts proposal deserves a separate discussion. Staff are proposing some interesting choices for the board.

Here's the staff budget report to the board

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