At a time when a record number of people are hopping on buses because they’re a greener, cheaper way to travel, the Riverside Transit Agency is preparing to make public transportation in the IE cost more with fewer options. Officials with the bus agency that serves western Riverside County are proposing to cut routes, eliminate bus trips and increase fares in the coming months but not before giving the public a chance to tell busy officials what they think of the changes.
Ironically, RTA’s plans come at a time when the agency’s ridership is higher than it’s ever been in its entire 31-year history.
The service changes are part of an ongoing effort to cut routes and eliminate trips that too few people are using, RTA spokesman Bradley Weaver tells the IE Weekly. Fare hikes are being prompted by declining local sales taxes, which fund the lion’s share of the agency’s operating budget. The soured economy just makes the agency’s financial issues even more pressing, Weaver contends.
“We don’t like to raise fares, but we believe the decisions we make can preserve our network of service and continue to offer our passengers service for years to come,” he says.
The cuts and new fares are slated to take effect in late June, Weaver adds. A series of public hearings including one in Moreno Valley another in Temecula—are scheduled to allow the public to discuss the fare increases. Bus route reductions will be the topic of five public meetings scheduled this month—including one in Norco and another in Sun City.
“We’re hoping their comments will help steer us in the right direction,” Weaver says.
RTA serves about a million people, including Riverside, Calimesa, Corona, Hemet, Moreno Valley, San Jacinto, Menifee, Banning and Murrieta, according to its website.
Last year, RTA’s ridership surpassed the eight million mark for the first time, a record spurred by high gas prices last summer. However, the increased number of fares collected just doesn’t translate into enough dollars to stave off the RTA cuts, according to Weaver. Roughly 70 percent of RTA’s operating budget comes from local sales taxes—which have been declining and are expected to continue decreasing. For 2007-08, the agency got about $38 million in taxes, but that amount is expected to decrease to $28 million for the current fiscal year and $25 million for 2009-10.
Advocates of public transportation say such issues plaguing public transportation agencies are becoming more common and coming at a time when more people are taking advantage of buses and other modes of transit because they are greener, more convenient, less stressful and more affordable ways to commute.
“So, this is a very exciting time for public transportation but also a very challenging time because of the funding issues,” Virginia Miller, spokeswoman for the American Public Transportation Association, tells the IE Weekly.
Last year 10.3 billion trips were taken in the U.S. using public transportation—the highest number of trips taken in 50 years, according to the association. RTA’s proposed fare increases vary. For example, a general fare that currently costs $1.25 would increase to $1.50, according to a bilingual brochure RTA is distributing. Fare charged to senior citizens would go from $.60 to $.75. A day pass would hike from $3.75 to $4.95. An annual pass would increase from $450 to $575.
The fare hikes would either kick in all at once or gradually increase by increments until 2013, Weaver says. In all, RTA is proposing to change 17 bus routes, either eliminating them altogether or cutting less-used morning and/or evening trips.
For example, Route 3 in the Corona-Norco area will get three morning trips hacked as well as Saturday service. Route 17, which goes to the Moreno Valley Senior Center, will be eliminated. Though most seniors who go to the center drive themselves or rely on other means, a few do use the bus, says Joseph Jones, the center’s coordinator. Route 35, which goes from Banning and Beaumont to the Moreno Valley Mall will also be cut.
Weaver says the agency sought to become more efficient with its resources by targeting routes that were the least used.
“We rely on taxpayer money to provide our services,” he says. “We have to be good stewards and have to take a crucial look at our routes and those that are not meeting our standards.”
Route 36 in Yucaipa and Calimesa—which Calimesa councilman and RTA board member Ray Quinto had previously sought to maintain—carried very few people and is targeted to be eliminated.
“There are days when nobody’s on that route,” Weaver explains.
New technology has enabled RTA to track passengers and where they get on and off the bus. Based on such data, the agency can figure out if some routes or trips need to be changed or cut. And while the recession isn’t a primary factor, it certainly doesn’t help.
“We would be making these changes regardless of the financial climate,” Weaver says. “The climate amplifies that need, however.”
–Roberto C. Hernandez