Council defers bus fare hikes

The San Luis Obispo City Council unanimously deferred increasing bus fares and other transit-related fees this week — instead expressing a desire for staff to consider charging more for monthly bus passes.

The proposed rate increases would have raised fares for the general public by 20 percent, to $1.50 from $1.25, and for senior citizens and disabled riders by 25 percent, to 75 cents from 60 cents.

The proposed changes also included charging Cal Poly students and faculty to ride the evening bus, but that request was deferred by staff until more outreach could be completed with Cal Poly administrators and students.

The Mass Transportation Committee recommended the increases to offset a $127,000 operating budget deficit attributed to stagnant ridership and reductions in state funding.

Councilman Andrew Carter said Tuesday he would not support the fare increases because when rates were raised in 2009, it resulted in less revenue because ridership dropped.

The Mass Transportation Committee will meet again in August to discuss additional ways to raise revenue, said John Webster, the city’s transit manager.

“Everything is on the table,” Webster said. “Unfortunately, we either have to cut the structural deficit or we have to cut services. We can only tread water for so long.”

The council’s decision will delay additional revenues needed to offset the deficit, but Webster said a small amount of reserve cash will be used until a solution is found.

“If we get to the point where there isn’t a reserve or any extra funding, we will be looking at eliminating services,” Webster said.

The proposed fare increases and other changes, such as eliminating free transfers, denied by the council Tuesday would have saved the city about $60,000 a year.

Webster said it was too soon to know how much the cost of monthly passes might have to increase to offset the needed revenue.

Fares were last increased in 2009. SLO Transit buses provide about 1 million ride annually — about 600,000 of them to Cal Poly students.

Cal Poly is paying the city $351,000 this fiscal year for its students and faculty to ride the bus during the day for free. Future discussions might include asking Cal Poly to subsidize the evening service or creating an evening pass for Cal Poly students.

Night service was first instituted only as a two-year pilot program in 2007 with a one-time discretionary grant from the state. That funding is now gone, and ridership is not enough to cover all the costs, Webster said.

The issue will come back to the council in September.

Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939.