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25-Cent Hike in Bus Fares Urged : Transit: Culminating heated debate, MTA seeks to end discount passes and cut services, which could take effect Sept. 1. Officials fear that the poor will be hit the hardest.

May 28, 1994|NORA ZAMICHOW and MARC LACEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In an effort to balance its budget, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority on Friday recommended raising bus fares for the first time in six years from $1.10 to $1.35, eliminating most discount passes and cutting service on some lines.

All of the MTA's 1.1 million daily bus riders would feel the impact of the proposed changes. For the first time, blind passengers would be asked to pay fares, and college students would be excluded from special rates. Senior citizens and disabled passengers would still be eligible for discount passes, although they would have to pay $2 more for them.

Opposition to the proposed fare increases, which must be approved by the MTA board of directors, was prompt and furious. City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg condemned the fare increase as "unconscionable" and predicted that many people, particularly minimum wage workers who stretch their budgets to pay for monthly passes, would no longer be able to ride the bus.

"I think you will find people who will not be able to go to work," she said. "The result of that will probably be more pain and probably more disorder in the society."

For workers such as Mario Vazquez, the proposed fare increase means further scrimping. Vazquez sometimes takes four buses a day to commute from his home on the Eastside to job sites throughout the area.

"Maybe now I'll have to walk more," said Vazquez, 36, a day laborer from Mexico. "We rely on the buses. There's no alternatives for those of us who don't earn a lot."

The proposed fare increase is expected to reduce the number of bus riders 7%, or 75,000 passengers, primarily among the poor. Sixty-two percent of bus riders earn less than $15,000 a year, according to an MTA survey.

The proposed changes, which could take effect as early as Sept. 1, come as the MTA is spending hundreds of millions to create a subway and rail system that offers quicker commutes for suburban workers but lacks the expansive reach of the region's buses. To encourage ridership, fares on the Metro Rail Red Line subway are only 25 cents--and will not be affected by the fare increase.

"Rail has higher political visibility," said Tom Sovinec, 39, a city engineer who takes the bus to City Hall from his home in North Hollywood. "We need rail lines, but we need better bus service too. . . . Buses have been ignored somewhat."

The budget allows for continued construction of the Pasadena Blue Line trolley and the Green Line trolley, which will run between Norwalk and El Segundo. It allocates $752.3 million for rail construction projects.

MTA officials defended their actions, saying it is necessary to help eliminate a $126-million deficit in the agency's $2.9-billion budget for the coming fiscal year. They emphasized that the budget calls for belt-tightening throughout the entire agency.

"You either raise the fare to retain the service or you cut service," said Frank White, the agency's chief executive officer. "The reality is you cannot buy anything in 1994 for the price you paid in 1988 (when the fare was last increased)."

The MTA board will review the proposed budget at its June 22 meeting. The board could adopt it then, or decide to make changes.

Under the proposal the following changes would take place:

* The standard fare for bus and rail lines will increase 25 cents from the current $1.10 fare. Transfers will remain 25 cents.

* Discount fare tokens will be available for $1.

* 50-cent zone surcharges will be started on express bus lines and the Blue Line trolley. The surcharge will also apply to the Green Line when it opens.

* Monthly passes, which cost $42 for unlimited use, will be eliminated, except for those for the elderly and schoolchildren.

MTA officials said eliminating monthly passes will lead to a more equitable fare system. About 100,000 passes are issued each month, which drives the average fare down to 55 cents. But low-income riders, often unable to afford $42 for the pass, pay the full $1.10 fare. In effect, the monthly passes have resulted in subsidizing more affluent riders, officials said.

"This proposal seeks to provide equity to all persons using our services, and at the same time recognizes the economic needs of those most dependent on transit," White said.

He also said there is a significant forgery problem involving monthly passes, and busy drivers are often unable to detect fakes. "The present way we use passes is as close to pouring money out the window as you can get," White said.

By raising the fares, the MTA is merely catching up with other major urban transit agencies, which have a fare base of $1.25, White said. The proposed fare increases would generate $51.4 million a year for the MTA, he said.

Planners had originally suggested raising fares by a third, to $1.50. But bus riders and critics say even raising the price by 25 cents would create an enormous hardship for low-income riders, many of whom rely on buses as their only means of transportation.

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