Metro Bus and Rail riders will need to open their wallets 33 percent wider if a fare hike plan unveiled Thursday becomes a reality.
The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority is proposing a two-step fare increase, with bus and rail tickets going from the current $1.50 up to $1.75 as of Jan. 1, followed by another 25-cent increase next July 1, taking fares to $2 per ride.
The proposed fare hike won't go through without a fight.
The Erie County Legislature voted, 14-0, Thursday to urge the NFTA to abandon its plans to raise fares. Lawmakers argued that it would be wrong to raise fares in one of the nation's poorest cities and that the poor and middle-class would be hurt by the hikes.
"It's not something we want to come in here and recommend. It's the last thing we want to do," said NFTA Executive Director Lawrence M. Meckler, as he explained the double fare boost recommendation.
All-day, monthly and 30-day transit passes also would cost more under the two-step fare hike. For example: The price of a monthly, all-zone, adult Metro Pass would climb from the current $66 to $77 on Jan. 1. Next July 1, it would cost $88.
The price of monthly, all-zone passes for senior citizens, disabled and Medicare-eligible riders would increase from $33 to 38.50 and then to $44.
Bus riders were none too pleased with the news.
"It stinks," said Tammy Granata, 43, of West Seneca, who has been taking the bus three to five days a week since June because high gas prices had made driving her car to her job at the Red Cross on Delaware Avenue unaffordable.
"Now, it might be cheaper to drive again," she said.
Quiana Flemming, 29, an administrative assistant in downtown Buffalo, said she has no choice but to rely on public transportation. She takes the train and the bus every day to get to work.
"I would say: Do not raise the prices for those who are low-income. Low-income people can't afford cars . . . People can't afford [a price hike]. They are taking [public transportation] for a reason," Flemming said.
"It's terrible," said Vida Stallings, 51, of Buffalo, who relies on her discounted bus pass to get around. "I know there's inflation and everything. But my goodness, let the bus be. Give people a break about it. We're all trying to make ends meet here."
Just last month the NFTA floated a plan for a single, 25-cent fare boost, citing a projected $3 million budget gap by the end of March, the close of the authority's fiscal year. NFTA Chairman Gregory Stamm said that after further examination of the agency's bus and rail finances, it was determined a 50-cent increase will be needed to plug holes in its 2009-2010 budget.
"If we're going to ask for an extra quarter in January, it would be dishonest not to talk about the extra quarter we'll need in July," Stamm said.
Over a full year, the combined 50-cent hike is expected to generate an extra $6.7 million.
After weighing service cutbacks against a fare increase, NFTA staff concluded riders would face a greater hardship from route eliminations and less-frequent service. It also was determined a single 50-cent fare hike would be too painful for passengers.
"We didn't want to do this in one fell swoop," Meckler said. "It would have been very difficult for riders to absorb."
The NFTA's Surface Transportation Committee voted to air the proposed fare hikes in a series of public hearings in early December. The full NFTA board is expected to confirm that timetable at its Monday meeting.
The board of commissioners is required to take formal action on the fare increases by Dec. 31 as part of the authority's 2009-2010 budget process.
NFTA Bus and Rail fares were last increased in 2005, from $1.25 to $1.50. At the time of that fare hike, there had not been an increase since 1995, when fares rose 15 cents.
Commissioner James J. Eagan was the only dissenter in the vote to put the fare hearing process in motion. The West Seneca financial consultant called the proposed July increase "premature."
"We don't know what the next six months are going to bring," Eagan said, referencing the national economy's wild mood swings.
NFTA executives blamed a combination of budget busters for what would be the biggest fare increase in the authority's history.
A $1.9 million drop in Erie County mortgage recording tax, a revenue stream that has been dented by the slowed real estate market, leads that list. The transit agency also is reeling from reductions in state and federal operating aid, soft sales tax revenues and a $400,000 gap resulting from the state's failure to purchase the NFTA's outer harbor marina and beach.
"These are things we have zero control over," Stamm said.
But not every commissioner agrees with that assessment. Board member Kevin Helfer said the agency needs to put "everything on the table" and look at spending cuts ahead of fare hikes.
"I'd be shocked if we can't cut $1 million from a $180 million budget," Helfer said.
Helfer said that examination should run the gamut from staff cuts, to doing without lobbyists, to getting help leveraging state and federal funds, to eliminating bus and rail routes. He suggested putting the brakes on its Buffalo Bills Game Day Express Bus service.
"Is it nice to have? Sure. Do we need it? I don't think so," Helfer said.
County legislators also urged the NFTA to first "exhaust all budget-cutting avenues" before considering raising fares.
Meckler said the NFTA has already done so.
"We have frozen hiring except for safety and operational issues, we have a moratorium on out-of-town travel, we have reduced advertising costs, eliminated management personnel through unfilled vacancies and deferred many projects to outer years," he said.
There's a chance the NFTA may not have to raise the fare all the way up to $2.
The NFTA must submit by the end of this year a balanced budget for the fiscal year that begins April 1. With state government facing a deficit, the authority is waiting to see if its state aid will fall off next year. If the NFTA were to receive more state aid than expected, it might abandon the second 25-cent increase, Meckler said.
News Staff Reporter Matthew Spina contributed to this report.
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