Foul or Fare? Increase in cost to ride bus riles transit advocates

Tom Giffey, photos by Andrea Paulseth

STEPPING IT UP. Starting Jan. 1, Eau Claire Transit riders will have to dig deeper to pay their bus fares.
STEPPING IT UP. Starting Jan. 1, Eau Claire Transit riders will have to dig deeper to pay their bus fares.

The new year will mean new fares for Eau Claire bus riders, and the end result likely will be more money for the transit system but fewer people riding the bus.

The City of Eau Claire’s recently approved 2018 budget contained increases in nearly every kind of fare that Eau Claire Transit collects, including the regular cash fare, which will jump from $1.50 to $1.75, and the monthly pass, which will go from $45 to $50. Fares will go up on Jan. 1 for elderly, disabled, and student riders as well.

According to Eau Claire Transit estimates, the higher fares will generate an extra $49,000 to keep the wheels on the bus going ’round and ’round. However, they will also lead to a decrease in the number of rides taken on the bus system by 31,000 annually, an assessment that worries some public transportation supporters.

At a recent City Council meeting, Councilwoman Kate Beaton said that increased fares will lead to difficult decisions by transit users with low incomes. “We’re seeing (fare) increases as high as 25 percent, and though the actual cost of increase per ride might seem small to some of us, I think when we add those rides up over the course of a week we’re talking about $5, $10, $15 per person, and I think that is incredibly significant for some people,” Beaton told her colleagues. She and Councilman Andrew Werthmann sponsored a budget amendment that would have eliminated the fare increase and filled the gap in the transit budget by transferring $37,300 from the Police Department budget, mainly from parking enforcement. The amendment failed on a 4-7 vote.

At a subsequent meeting, however, the council unanimously approved a resolution calling on city staff members to create a plan to reduce fares for low-income riders.

Tom Wagener, the city’s transit manager, said the fare increase was necessary to meet the system’s rising expenses. Fares last were raised in 2009, when it cost $66 per hour to operate a bus. By last year, Wagener explained, the cost per hour of operation had jumped to $84.46. And while the city’s contribution toward the transit system has grown over time, state aid has been flat. Without a fare increase or a budget infusion from the city, bus service cuts would have been possible, Wagener said.

However, public transportation advocates say that fare increases have essentially the same impact as service cuts. “We’re bringing fares up to the point where the people who need (public transit) most are being priced out,” said Jeremy Gragert of the Chippewa Valley Transit Alliance. Gragert’s primary argument is this: What kid of “service” is being provided by the transit service if fewer and fewer people can afford to ride it? “The point is to provide a service, not to make money,” he said.

While fares were last increased in 2009, they had been increased in 2008 as well, and the one-two hit boosted some fares by as much as 50 percent, Gragert noted. And because Eau Claire Transit’s expenses have been relatively flat in recent years, so there seems to be little justification for an increase.

Declining use of city buses worries Gragert, who noted that, according to Eau Claire Transit figures, ridership peaked at nearly 1.1 million in 2011 but had since dropped roughly 17 percent to 915,000 last year. Most categories of ridership have slipped during this period, including riders who pay the full fare and those who use full-fare monthly passes. Meanwhile, the number of passengers per mile has gradually declined, too.

Wagener, the transit manager, said the ridership decline in Eau Claire is reflected in similar transit systems statewide. This is due, in part at least, to the fact that flat budgets have prevent bus systems from changing or improving their services. In addition, the main competition to public transportation is people driving their own cars. If something happens to make driving more expensive – for example, a spike in gasoline prices – riding the bus becomes more attractive.

Whatever happens with ridership, if there’s a silver lining to the situation it’s that the cost to ride should remain flat for a while after Jan. 1. “I don’t foresee expenses rising that dramatically that we would have to look at another fare increase soon,” Wagener said.

Meanwhile, the City Council has asked city staff to explore ways to ease the pain of the fare increase for those who can least afford it. At its Nov. 28 meeting, the City Council unanimously approved a resolution by members Kathy Mitchell and Terry Weld that asked City Manager Dale Peters to explore ways to reduce fares for low-income people. According to the Leader-Telegram, Peters is expected to report back by March 1. Possible approaches to identifying and subsidizing low-income riders including working with nonprofits and other community groups, council members said. 

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