Faced with strong opposition from riders and questions about agency finances, the board of Southern California's commuter rail service on Friday chose to delay a decision on a proposed 6% fare increase -- just three months after the last rate hike.
After receiving protests from thousands of riders, Metrolink board members opted to review a range of possible alternatives to the ticket price increase, including cuts to lightly used service, at a meeting next month.
"You want to charge us more to ride your trains," law firm employee Charlie McDaniel, who commutes from Riverside to Los Angeles, told the board. "Many of the riders barely have the money to pay their rent." McDaniel presented petitions she said contained the signatures of 2,500 riders opposed to the fare hike. Officials previously said they received more than 1,300 comments opposing an increase.
Among other things, McDaniel suggested Metrolink add bar cars to its trains to increase revenue -- selling coffee in the morning and cocktails in the evenings.
At a downtown hearing, some complained that the proposed increase, on top of a 3% increase implemented in August, was coming at the worst possible time: during a record recession.
Rita Yussoupovao said she already spends more than $400 per month commuting from Irvine to Sylmar on Metrolink. "It's really, really hard for me financially," she said. "Somehow, give us an option so we can continue riding."
Ridership and ticket revenue on the five-county rail system have tumbled about 15% from last year because of job losses across the region and lower gas prices that enticed commuters back into their cars. Ridership is now below levels of four years ago, officials said. Ticket revenue is forecast to be $7.7 million below what had been expected in the current year's budget.
The agency also has increased expenses for safety improvements after last year's head-on wreck between Metrolink and Union Pacific trains that killed 25 and injured dozens more in Chatsworth.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe and other board members criticized the agency's budget process and contract procedures, saying quick action is needed to stabilize finances and obtain better deals from vendors.
"We need to get our arms around this," he said. "We do have other options. We just can't continue to do this to our ridership every few months."
The prospect of higher fares has brought a wave of complaints from Metrolink regulars about everything from train delays and smelly toilets to freeloaders who ride without paying.
"Tickets aren't being checked," said Riverside County board representative Robin Lowe. "I've ridden [and] nobody's come by and asked me for my ticket."
A fare increase is still possible. But board members agreed to first consider trimming some runs (such as weekend service), deferring construction and equipment outlays, looking at stepped-up fare enforcement and borrowing money from Los Angeles County's transit agency, Metrolink's largest partner.