Cary considers bus-fare hike

akenney@newsobserver.comJune 18, 2013 

Cary leaders are considering a fare hike for the town's C-Tran service.

THE CARY NEWS FILE PHOTO

— People who use C-Tran may be asked to pay a greater share of the bill for the bus and van system.

In all, proposed fare hikes of up to 50 percent would bring in up to $138,000 in new revenue by 2015.

That money likely wouldn’t be used to improve the system. Instead, it would allow Cary to use less taxpayer money to pay for transit, according to town staff.

“We’re needing to increase our overall percentage of revenues (from riders), in terms of total costs. We’re very low, when we look at our peers,” said Ray Boylston, Cary’s transit coordinator. “We would like a better balance.”

The proposal, to be discussed over the next few months, may come alongside similar potential hikes to be considered for the Raleigh and Triangle Transit systems.

The Durham City Council already has rejected a unified fare hike, citing the burden new bills put on low-income bus users – and foreshadowing potential debates in other municipalities.

Typically, fare hikes split public opinion, with critics warning of a new burden for low-income residents. Supporters may argue that people should pay more for the services they use, that fares have not kept pace with costs or that increased revenues will allow expansion of transit.

“We’re going to present the proposed fare increases and get their feedback, whatever it may be,” Boylston said.

If approved, the hikes in Cary would bring a 31-day local bus pass from $36 to $54, while individual rides would go from $1 to $1.50.

Those increases would be instituted half in 2014 and half in 2015.

The staff recommendation also would eliminate free fixed-route rides for seniors, while increasing point-to-point fares between 25 percent and about 50 percent.

First, though, the proposal must survive its public hearings and win a vote this fall by the Cary Town Council.

The board also is weighing fee increases for solid waste, water service and development, along with a property-tax increase.

Financial trends

The proposed change would come after years of increasing popularity for the heavily subsidized transportation program, which serves many of Cary’s poorest residents.

In all, ridership on C-Tran has tripled since 2007, the last time rates increased.

That growth has made the program more cost efficient, driving down the town’s cost to provide a single ride from $20 to $2.

Overall costs for C-Tran have grown by about $1.2 million, or 40 percent, since 2007, but federal and state revenues have helped cover the bill. The town itself continues to budget about the same amount of local taxes – roughly $1.5 million annually – as it gave five years ago.

During that time, the program has become more self-reliant. Today, bus fares cover about 10 percent of costs, doubled from 2007.

The share of the bill paid by local taxpayers in general has dropped from a half to just more than a third.

However, the funding remains unbalanced compared to other municipalities, Boylston said.

Large urban transit systems typically cover about 35 percent of their costs with ticket sales, according to the Federal Transit Administration.

A peer study by Triangle Transit showed that similarly sized systems typically charge $1.50 per ride.

Ridership impacts

The fare hike likely would discourage some riders from using the service. Cary may provide 15,000 fewer bus rides in 2014 due to the first hike, according to staff models.

But the drop likely would be erased the next year by the constantly growing interest in the system, staff predict.

As the town enters this debate, Karen Rindge, director of advocacy group WakeUP Wake County, recommends a careful balance of social and financial factors.

“I can understand why they need to do it, given that they haven’t had an increase in so long,” Rindge said.

Maintenance of current service levels is critical to attracting new riders, she said. But governments also must consider that public transit is a service and is almost always subsidized by taxpayers.

“I think they need to look at what percentage of their riders are ‘need riders’ – low-income people, senior citizens – versus those folks who are ‘choice riders,’ ” she said.

Cary staff will collect public opinion on the proposal over the next three months, both at public meetings and at locations convenient to the transit routes.

In the end, it will be up to elected officials to strike the balance of fares and taxpayer funding – and to decide how to use the potential new revenue.

Kenney: 919-460-2608 or twitter.com/KenneyOnCary

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