Thursday, March 12, 2009

Major Fare Hikes Loom for Big City Transit Riders

Massive fare hikes are facing transit customers in major cities around the country. Higher fares could impact ridership trends, which set 50-year records last year.

In New York, where the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has proposed raising fares on subways, buses and commuter railroads by as much as 30 percent, a proposal to mitigate that fare hike by imposing new bridge tolls and a payroll tax has hit roadblocks in the state legislature. According to the New York Daily News:
"Albany sources said Gov. Paterson and other backers of the revenue-raising package, crafted by former MTA Chairman Richard Ravitch, are increasingly frustrated and concerned that time is running out for more than 8.5 million daily bus, subway and commuter train riders."
While Sheldon Silver, speaker of the state Assembly, says he has the votes needed to pass the Ravitch plan in that house, in the state Senate several Democratic members are joining with Republicans in opposing tolls on bridges across the East and Harlem Rivers that are now free. They have proposed higher vehicle registration fees, selling MTA-owned land and a commuter income tax to avoid raising tolls. U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, who until a few days ago was running for Mayor of New York, proposed cutting MTA administrative spending by 10 percent and transferring control of the agency from the state to the city.

The legislature's failure to act prompted an emergency MTA board meeting tomorrow to discuss the problem.

If the Ravitch plan is approved, it would also impose a payroll tax on counties in the MTA service region. Fares would still rise, but by eight percent rather than 23 percent or more. The legislature has until March 25 to act. On that day the MTA board is expected to vote to approve new fares, which would take effect June 1.

State legislature action will also determine what happens to fares on Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority subways, buses, ferries and commuter rail lines. The Boston Globe reports that the "T' preliminary budget "will include an "other revenues" line entry for $160 million, the size of the agency's budget deficit." The agency's board is required to approve the first draft by March 15.

The agency is counting on the legislature to help fill the money gap, but without state assistance the board will have to "reduce service and hike fares to make up the difference." Fares could rise by 25 percent, and off-peak and weekend service face substantial reductions that would take effect July 1.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick has proposed a 19 cents per gallon gasoline tax to keep MBTA fares low, reduce a recently imposed toll hike on the Massachusetts Turnpike and support transportation projects around the state. However, the plan is getting a cool reception in the legislature, according to the Globe.

In the Windy City, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) board will probably impose higher fares and cost-cutting measures next month to help close a $155 million budget gap, The Chicago Tribune reports. Paul Fish, the CTA’s vice-president of budget and capital finance told the board earlier this week the agency could probably reduce expenses by $80 million but would still face a $75 million shortfall that would, most likely, have to be made up at the farebox.

One problem facing the agency is the reliability of sales tax revenue projections provided by its parent agency, the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA). In mid February the RTA told CTA sales tax revenue was running $58 million below projections. CTA had estaimted the shortfall at $87 million. The RTA board meets April 2; the CTA board April 7.

Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) is considering its second fare hike in two years because of a $45 million shortfall in sales tax revenue. The hike would take effect on some services in September and on others, including Trinity Railway Express, as late as December 2010, according to the Dallas Morning News. A day pass for local bus and light rail service would rise by $1 to $4.

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