For thousands of riders, the cost of taking the bus will go up on April 1.
The Capital District Transportation Authority’s board of directors voted unanimously Tuesday to increase basic bus and other fares to help CDTA close a widening budget deficit.
The basic fare will rise from $1 to $1.50, effective April 1. It is the first basic fare increase since 1995.
CDTA officials said they had no choice, given higher costs for things like diesel fuel and tires and declines in other revenue.
“We are very aware that to a lot of our riders, that 50 cents is difficult to come up with. We have no other alternatives,” CDTA board Chairman David M. Stackrow of Rensselaer County said during the board meeting at the Albany-Rensselaer Amtrak station.
The increase still leaves the authority with a $5.2 million budget gap next year. Service cuts remain a possibility, officials said.
The new rates include a 25 percent increase for prepaid use of the Northway XPress commuter buses between Saratoga County and Albany, which have a separate fee structure based on the distance of the bus trip.
The Northway XPress has seen ridership grow 30 percent this year, with numbers remaining up even after gasoline prices dropped this fall. The fare increase was scaled back from 50 percent after users said a large hike might send them back to commuting by car.
Also, users of the STAR service for disabled riders will see an increase from $2 to $2.50 per trip. Rates for long-term parking at the Rensselaer train station will also rise by $2 per day.
The increases were approved even though a number of people spoke against them at public hearings. A petition signed by 800 people asked the board not to impose the increase, which petitioners said would hit low-income public transit users, who may not own cars, the hardest.
“The poorer you are, the more often you have to pay,” said Lucile Brewer of Citizens for Public Transit. “If they’d only jumped it up 25 cents instead of 50 cents, it would have helped people.”
But CDTA officials said their biggest problem is that federal and state aid and other sources of revenue are flat or declining.
“The [public] pleas were well-justified, but they were to the wrong people,” said board member Arthur F. Young Jr., an Albany County representative.
CDTA, which serves Schenectady, Albany, Saratoga and Rensselaer counties, has seen double-digit ridership increases this year and expects to have 15.5 million passenger boardings.
“We believe ridership will remain stable, even with the fare increase,” said CDTA Executive Director Raymond J. Melleady.
He acknowledged places like the city of Schenectady and Saratoga County remain underserved.
“There’s a lot of demand out there we cannot meet because we don’t have the resources,” Melleady said.
In addition to federal and state aid cuts, the four counties’ mortgage recording tax, which brings CDTA around $11 million annually, has declined in the last year along with the regional housing market, Stackrow said.
The higher fares were going to help the authority close a projected $9 million deficit. But a new $3.6 million transit aid cut proposed last week by Gov. David Paterson has increased the projected deficit again, so that even with the higher fare revenue it will stand at $5.2 million.
If CDTA can’t find other funding sources, Stackrow said the authority may have to cut less-used bus routes to save money.
“The reality is they’ll pay more and get less, and that’s a hard concept,” Stackrow said after the meeting.
Melleady has already warned the basic fare could rise from $1.50 to $2 next year, if the authority continues to struggle financially.
“We have a number of challenges in front of us,” he said.
At the same time, officials plan to promote available discounts, such as half-fares for senior citizens and disabled persons, and discounts for corporations that buy Swiper cards in bulk for their employees.
The board also approved a draft $74.5 million operating budget for CDTA’s 2009-10 budget year, which starts April 1. The budget will remain a draft until the authority figures out how to close the remaining funding gap, officials said.
The CDTA vote came one day after the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority in western New York voted to raise bus and rail fares by 25 cents to $1.75. Officials there said the fare increase is needed to close a $3 million deficit caused by reduced state funding and decreasing revenues.