Transit riders feel 'token' pinch in '81

If you ride the bus or subway to work, prepare to dig a little deeper for the fare in 1981. You might have the correct change ready, too, because it is apt to be more crowded once you get on board.

All indications are that mass transit riders will see higher fares and, in some cities, service cutbacks this year as the nation's bus and rail operators struggle to make it through a difficult financial period.

Figures on the mass transit balance sheet in the United States are looking worse at a time when the incoming Reagan administration is talking of less federal financial operating support.

Transportation Secretary-designate Andrew L. (Drew) Lewis Jr. said at his recent Senate confirmation hearing that the Reagan administration would like mass transit operating subsidies to be reduced to the "lowest possible level." Meanwhile:

* The new year brought to commuters in Washington, D.C., an average increase in bus and rail transit fares of 10 to 15 cents, raising the minimum toll to 60 cents. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) increased fares last July, and normally would not have sought another hike until the middle of 1981. But a mounting deficit forced the earlier-than-usual fare increase. A WMATA spokesman says service also will be cut this year to hold down costs.

* In Boston, the subway fare doubled last June, but that did not avert a financial crunch in December. To lower expenses, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has cut some service and plans to reduce or completely eliminate Sunday service later this months.

* The Chicago Regional Transportation Authority raised the basic fare for bus or rail from 60 cents to 80 cents, effective this month. It has scheduled a further increase to $1.00 for August 1981.

These are three examples of a trend toward sharply higher transit fares that began in earnest last year. After years of letting fares lag far behind increases in operating expenses, public transit operators are now playing catch-up.

Many urban transit systems are being pinched by inflation, particularly rising fuel costs, and higher ridership. Because new ridership has come at the peak commute hours when transit systems are already crowded, systems must hire drivers and buy buses that are productive only for about four hours a day. This only serves to widen the deficit.

The average regular fare reported by public transit agencies in a survey in late 1980 was 43 cents -- up about 19 percent from a year earlier. An official with the American Public Transit Association, the Washington trade group that conducted the survey, points out that the rate of increase is much higher than the 7 percent jump in 1979.

For years, transit operators kept fares low in order to attract new passengers and also because government support at the federal, state, and local levels was growing rapidly. However, the rising cost of gasoline has made transit increasingly popular to automobile commuters looking for an alternative means of transportation. As a result, cheap fares are no longer necessary to lure new ridership.

However, Fares, though rising, still provide only about 43 percent of the funds public transit operators nationwide need to operate day to day. Most of the rest of the revenues come from government subsidy, with the federal government contributing about 15 percent of total revenues.

Should President-elect Ronald Reagan follow through with cuts in mass transit operating subsidies, which are distinct from federal aid for capital purchases of buses and other equipment, transit operators would have little choice but to cut service, asserts transportation analyst Michael A. Kemp of the Urban Institute.

He ventures that the less patronized transit routes, such as those in suburbs , would be cut first. Or private alternatives such as charter bus companies and taxi operators may be allowed to fill the vacuum. In central cities, Mr. Kemp believes "transit service will not be allowed to degrade" and looks for fare increases and new local revenue sources to maintain that service.

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