Local Bus Fares May Increase
Four members of the Greensboro City Council, on Thursday, Feb. 6, joined a specially created steering committee and wrestled with potential fare increases and route cuts to dig the Greensboro Transit Authority (GTA) out of a $2.5 million deficit projected for the 2014-2015 fiscal year.
Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan and Councilmembers Jamal Fox, Sharon Hightower and Marikay Abuzuaiter trooped to the GTA’s opulent $20 million headquarters on West Meadowview Road.
There they were joined by Greensboro Assistant City Manager David Parrish, Greensboro Transportation Director Adam Fischer, Greensboro Public Transportation Division Manager Libby James and a gaggle of GTA staff to start the process of selecting route cuts and fare increases and launching a major public relations drive to attempt to make them palatable to the public.
The last time the GTA raised rates, in 2007, it created an uproar. But the GTA loses money on every passenger, and any year it doesn’t raise rates it increases the amount of money it loses.
“It’s not a profit maker, that’s for sure,” said GTA board member Claire Stone. “It’s a public service.”
The $2.5 million projected deficit is more than double the GTA’s usual $1 million annual deficit. According to James, the GTA is expecting an additional $1 million deficit from the reduction in a federal subsidy for riders of the 10-county Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation (PART), which has lost ridership.
James told the deficit steering committee that the GTA is considering a 15.7 percent reduction in services. She said, “This is the first time in the history of GTA that we have made changes in services to that degree, especially reductions.”
James recently said that the GTA Board had not yet considered specific fare increases, and it may not have this year. The GTA says it is considering a $1.75 adult bus fare. But a list of potential fare increases was presented to the GTA Board on July 18, and there’s no reason to think that the fare increases under consideration for the 2014-2015 fiscal year would not be possible.
Even then, the GTA was expecting an unusually high budget deficit for the 2014-2015 fiscal year, a fact which was listed in the July 2013 presentation. But the GTA didn’t do anything to mitigate the foreseen budget crisis.
The normal adult bus fare, which was not increased this year, is $1.50. The GTA Board was presented with options to increase the fare up to $2.
Rate increases were suggested for senior and disabled riders ($0.75 to up to $1); the youth cash fare (potentially doubled from $0.75 to $1.50); day passes ($4 to $5); day passes for seniors and the disabled ($2 to up to $2.50); and the whole range of multi-trip passes.
The GTA did propose increasing the discount for buying an 11-trip pass instead of 11 separate bus trips from 15 percent to up to 23 percent to partially compensate for the increased cost of passes.
The biggest money loser for the GTA is its SCAT service, which provides dedicated transportation to riders with disabilities. The July presentation stated that GTA was “unusually generous” in its SCAT fares and in its youth-pass prices.
GTA charges the same $1.50 fare for its much more expensive SCAT service than it does for regular bus trips. GTA also provides SCAT service throughout Greensboro, even though federal regulations require bus systems to provide such service only within three-quarters of a mile of its fixed bus routes. SCAT also serves the Guilford Technical Community College campus in Jamestown.
The July presentation contemplated increasing SCAT fares from $1.50 to $2.50 within three-quarters of a mile of bus routes and from $1.50 to $5 further away.
GTA contracts out the SCAT service. Fischer said Greensboro will soon rebid that contract, which now costs $16 million a year and will expire at the end of the year. He said the city will go from paying the contractor hourly to paying on a per-trip basis to give the contractor an incentive to be more efficient. He said, “We’re anticipating that there could be some pretty good cost savings from that change.”
Stone presented the steering committee with an alternate proposal for SCAT fare increases. Stone’s proposal would increase the SCAT cash fare from $1.50 to either $1.60 or $1.75 and SCAT fares outside the three-quarter-mile radius from $1.50 to either $1.70 or $1.80. Stone proposed increases of between $1 and $8 for SCAT multiple-ride passes.
Stone said that the GTA had been run inefficiently, and said that James recently spent $53,000 on sensitivity training for employees that the city could have provided for free. She said the SCAT riders who are disabled are the most sensitive to fare increases.
“We just want a reasonable increase,” she said. “They know it’s coming.”
Vaughan said she wasn’t comfortable with the steering committee presenting the GTA Board with a proposal that hadn’t been vetted by staff. Stone said she would provide copies to the board herself.
The discussion at the deficit steering committee was mostly about cutting services. The GTA operates 16 daytime weekday routes, 15 evening and Saturday routes and seven daytime Sunday routes. Members of the steering committee said that some routes could be cut from once every half-hour to once an hour, and others have heavy traffic only during certain times of the day and could be reduced at other hours.
Hightower said GTA should cut unneeded trips before increasing rates.
“If you’re going to raise the rate, you’ve got to present an efficient service,” Hightower said. “It doesn’t look good to raise the rate and reduce the service.”
Parrish said the City Council has options to increase funding, but that some routes were so inefficient that they probably should be reduced. He said, “I do think there is going to have to be some accommodation on some of the low-hanging fruit.”
Fischer said that Georgia, South Carolina and Charlotte use sales taxes to pay for public transit. Charlotte used a sales tax to create its light-rail system.
Fischer followed up, quickly, “That’s big picture, and that’s not a recommendation.”
Meanwhile, the GTA is planning an extensive series of public forums on the service and rate changes, along with a “Real Talk” PR campaign that would include free radio spots and “Real Talk” buttons for GTA employees to wear as conversation starters.
The GTA plans to provide free transportation to the public forums.
By Paul C. Clark
February 13, 2014
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