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Martha Brock rides Cary’s buses and vans from her apartment to the library, the grocery store and the doctor’s office. A proposed hike in transit fares, she said, could knock her fixed-income budget off course.
“All I know is that people that use the system are like me. They’re poor, they don’t have much money, they need to be able to budget. And with the proposal they have, it’s a budget buster,” said Brock, 63, who lives on Social Security disability payments.
Brock is one of more than 150 people to weigh in on the potential fare hike, which Cary put out for public debate this summer. In recent months, the town has solicited comments on the plan at a series of public meetings and presentations, the last of which was last week at Cary Towne Center.
In doing so, town staff have walked a narrow line, explaining the financial logic of a proposal that would affect some of the town’s poorest and oldest residents. The 4,000 people who use the C-Tran door-to-door service are disabled or elderly, while the vast majority of fixed-route riders report family incomes less than $30,000.
It would be the first fare increase for buses in seven years, and the first for the shuttles in five years. If approved by the Cary Town Council, door-to-door van trips for the disabled and elderly would increase in cost from 25 percent to almost five times more, depending on the trip.
Single rides on buses would go from $1 to $1.50. And senior citizens would lose their free rides on the fixed-route lines.
The increased revenues wouldn’t pay for improvements to the service – instead, the change is meant to reduce the service’s reliance on taxes, potentially freeing more than $100,000 annually for other parts of the budget by 2015.
For her part, Brock expects her monthly transit budget would balloon from about $32 to about $54, out of her monthly income of about $1,300.
Brock primarily uses Cary’s shuttle service, riding weekly to the grocery store and the library, and once per month to doctors’ offices in Cary and Raleigh.
She would be most affected by the proposal to eliminate midday discounts; combined with a fare hike, it would increase the cost of her in-town round-trip shuttle rides from $2 to $5.
She would pay significantly less if she took the bus, but her respiratory illness makes it hard to walk the half-mile to the bus stop, she said.
“The disabled population’s going to be hit really hard,” said Ginny Lou Laughlin, a Raleigh resident who is legally blind. She frequently meets a C-Tran shuttle at South Hills Mall en route to her volunteer duties and doctors’ appointments in Cary.
Laughlin estimates that her shuttle costs would increase by about $60 per month.
Eduardo Vargas takes the bus every day. He rides C-Tran to his landscaping work, while his wife rides to her retail job.
“I use every day the pass,” said Vargas, a 25-year-old Cary resident, as he waited for a bus. “For my work, for my house, for my shopping.”
If approved, the bus fare hike would come in two waves – 25 cents next year, 25 cents more in 2015. For the Vargases, who have an infant and a 2-year-old, that works out ultimately to $36 more per month.
Vargas thinks he and his wife could handle the first wave of increases, but the full hike would be too much, he said. He and his wife make a combined $40,000 per year, about one-third of the median household income in Cary.
That $36 could cover most of the power bill, Vargas said. If the full increase passes, he’ll “start working extra,” he said.
Arguing for change
The proposed rate hike is part of a Triangle-wide push by government staff. Durham already has rejected a similar rate hike, while staff at Raleigh and Triangle Transit have considered but not proposed a matching increase.
Cary town staff have not formally recommended the change, and they say they’ll listen to their riders as they adjust the proposal. Still, they’ve laid out several arguments for changes to C-Tran fares:
• Ticket sales pay for little of C-Tran’s costs. Fares cover about 8 percent of the Cary service, compared to a norm of 15 to 25 percent nationwide, according to town staff.
Increasing ridership already has brought the town closer to the norm recently.
• Town staff argue that the off-peak discount for the shuttle service isn’t necessary any longer. It has fulfilled its goal of drawing people to the service, staff say.
• Staff also cite the increasing cost of gas to explain the fixed-route and door-to-door increases. This rising operational cost has been partially offset by the rapidly increasing number of people who ride C-Tran, and by funding from state and federal grants and fees. Still, the town government spent significantly more money on the program in fiscal year 2013; the local cost now is about what it was in 2008 and 2009.
• Staff say that a move to mileage-based fares for parts of the shuttle service could make fares more equitable for riders.
Cary staff have publicized the potential changes through posters, information kiosks and their public meetings. Ray Boylston, the C-Tran administrator, has diligently answered questions and complaints, even manning an information booth himself recently.
As is typical, he said, he will adjust the fare-increase proposals before the Cary Town Council holds a public hearing this fall. Already, there are signs that the changes will meet scrutiny on the elected board.
To Councilwoman Gale Adcock, the question will be one of priorities.
“This is a values-driven decision – what you believe is important. As a town, if Cary can’t afford to subsidize transportation for its elderly and disabled, who can?” she said. “If we don’t help in this way, these people aren’t going to be able to live in Cary.”
Nonetheless, she said “it’s the right thing” for Cary to examine C-Tran’s fares and finances.
Councilman Jack Smith argues the opposite. He said that Cary’s fares are low, and contribute relatively little to the cost of operating the service.
“I want to be respectful of people’s concerns, but you can’t do things for free. That’s what you have the federal government for,” Smith said. “Viscerally, I don’t see a real problem trying to be consistent, with the sharing of that burden of cost. But we are unique in Cary, and if there’s an argument that says differently, I’m willing to listen.”
Town staff will compile all the comments they’ve received and will present them alongside financial data at the council’s public hearing on Oct. 10.
Kenney: 919-460-2608 or Twitter: @KenneyOnCary