Metrolink fares will hold steady for now, but weekend service in Riverside and Orange counties will be sharply reduced next month to deal with a budget crunch caused by a fall in ridership and revenue at the regional rail service.
The board of the five-county commuter train system, which has been struggling with unprecedented, recession-driven financial turmoil for months, also voted Friday to cut two off-peak weekday trains on the Inland Empire/Orange County line.
All of the trains being eliminated averaged less than 100 passengers as of October, officials said.
The cuts partly reflect the economic woes rippling through member counties.
"We've reduced bus service really drastically," said Metrolink board member Art Brown, who represents the Orange County Transportation Authority. "It's not fair to reduce bus service and keep riders on these trains."
Among other things, counties are grappling with state transportation fund cuts and a dip in transit sales tax collections.
Potential weekday cuts on the Ventura County line and other branches of the service were averted when Los Angeles County officials agreed to at least temporarily increase subsidies for those trains, which heavily serve stations and employers within the county limits.
Fare increases of up to 6% had been proposed at one point, on top of a 3% increase in August. But board members balked at increasing ticket prices again amid the drubbing the region is taking in the economic downturn.
In all, 10 trains will be cut. Half of the weekend service in Orange County on the route near the 91 Freeway will be eliminated. And only one train will continue to run on Saturdays and Sundays on the San Bernardino-Riverside County portion of the line. "The people on this train service have no other options," said Justin Nelson, a Riverside transit activist and UC Riverside graduate student, who urged the board to save the service.
He said weekend bus service from Riverside to Los Angeles and Orange counties is "extremely anemic."
Other spending cuts approved Friday include suspending time-off accruals for Metrolink employees and imposing a "hard" hiring freeze. The actions are only expected to carry the agency until June.
Eric Haley, Metrolink's new chief executive, warned that an even bigger budget deficit, now estimated at $15 million, looms for the 2010-11 fiscal year.
"We're not even out of the weeds yet," he told the board.
As a result, more service cuts and fare increases may have to be considered in the next several months.
The trains being eliminated beginning in February are the 857, 858, 859, 860, 653, 654, 655 and 656 on the Inland Empire/Orange County line on weekends; and the 852 and 853 on that line on weekdays.