Howard County's bus riders will have to pay higher fares starting July 1, despite service cuts that took effect March 14, Howard Transit operators told the county's Transportation Board last night.
Rising costs and pressure from state transportation officials to increase fare box revenues got the blame from Ray Ambrose, manager of Corridor Transportation, the firm that operates the system's 25 bright-green buses.
Board members and several people who attended the meeting seemed to agree that the increases are inevitable, especially because fares have not been raised for at least seven years.
Ambrose presented several options to the advisory board, but said he favors raising the $1 base fare to $1.50. Transfers would remain free on the system, which has grown vigorously over the past five years, more than tripling ridership by adding buses and stops.
"We've got to look at alternative sources of revenue," Ambrose said, explaining that Howard Transit recoups 7 percent of its costs from the fare box, and state transportation officials want fares to account for 10 percent to 20 percent of costs.
Carl S. Balser, the county's transportation planner, said the public will be urged to attend the board meeting April 27 to comment on the increased fares, and the board will be asked for a recommendation at its May meeting.
"As the economy continues to struggle along, the state is going to look more closely at how they spend each dollar," Balser said. The bus system costs about $7 million a year, of which county government pays $3.8 million, Ambrose said.
Board Chairman Andrea Paskin wondered about the effect the increases could have.
"If the fare increase is not well accepted, do you kill the goose?"
Ambrose said raising base fares to $1.50 and reversing last year's fare cut for students and senior citizens would boost revenues by $117,000, assuming a ridership drop of 5 percent. "We know with a fare increase there is some level of ridership loss," he said.
The system has resisted raising fares, trying instead to boost revenues by increasing the number of riders, but Ambrose said that would take too long given current economic conditions. In March last year, the system reduced the 75-cent fare for senior citizens and students to 25 cents while deciding not to increase the base fare.
He argued it is better to impose a higher fare now to avoid raising fares again in a year or two. He also suggested it is better to raise the base fare than to charge separately for transfers, which makes transactions more difficult and annoying.
His proposals also include increasing fares for disabled riders who use the appointment-based paratransit buses, though several board members questioned that move. Ambrose said many disabled riders get reduced fares or ride free, based on income.
"The $1.50 fare seems like the place to go," said board member Theodore Buxton, rather than a $1.25 fare, which was also offered as an option. John Eberhard, a member of the county Commission on Aging's new transportation committee, said a fare increase seems inevitable.
Bus system officials also have been meeting with community groups to win support for a plan to sell advertising on bus shelters to raise money, said Sharon Smith, a Corridor Transportation official. Any signs would be strictly controlled, and no alcohol or tobacco ads would be accepted, she told the board. Advertising signs would also require a County Council bill to change zoning laws.
Ambrose said roughly half of Howard's riders are people traveling to jobs, which is a big reason County Executive James N. Robey has spent more county money on the system. Despite heavy traffic that chokes major county roads at rush hours, business leaders frequently complain to the executive that they can't find enough hourly wage workers who can afford cars. Overall, 4.3 percent of Howard residents lack private transportation.
The service cuts, which increased waits between buses from 45 minutes to as much as two hours on weekends and evenings, took effect March 14. The reductions were put into effect mainly because of a $6.3 million budget error over two years. The county budgeted the money, but the funds were never placed in the cash account.
The bills were paid with other operating cash for two years, until a new round of general county budget cuts uncovered the error.
Robey was forced to use contingency funds and an $800,000 budget cut this fiscal year to bridge the gap, which caused the immediate service cuts.