Rising urban mass-transit fares are putting increasing strain on wallets of inner-city poor

The rising gasoline prices that make public transportation look ever more attractive to many commuters also is affecting bus and subway fares. But such fare increases are hitting hard the already depleted pocketbooks of many of the nation's urban poor, who depend heavily on public transportation.

Inner-city bus and rapid-transit fares have just doubled from 25 to 50 cents in San Francisco and Boston, and the same way soon happen in Atlanta. Smaller increases have recently been adopted in Washington, Philadelphia, and NEw York.

In Atlanta, the reaction among blacks to the proposed fare hike for bus and rapid-rail service has been so strong that a US district judge calls the situation "dangerous."

Acting on a suit filed here on behalf of the poor, Judge Marvin H. Shoob has temporarily blocked the fare hike, pending arguments from both sides.

"You can only put a person in the crunch so long, and they see violence as their only course," says Alma Cochran, director of community affairs for the city, discussing black reaction to the proposed fare increases.

In the post-Miami riot period, such concern is shared by other blacks here, although it may be overstated. But there is little doubt that the poor of Atlanta are feeling the pressures of inflation and unemployment. Doubled transit fares only add to that burden.

Doubled fares are "going to hurt a lot of poor people," says Ethel Williams, a low-income volunteer working with the poor in Atlanta. Other, more affluent blacks, see MARTA as a bargain -- even at higher rates. But opponents are talking of a boycott, using church buses to fill in.

Transit officials are aware of the burden a fare increase places on the area's low-income residents. But they argue that the only alternative is to cut back service. Fare hikes hurt the poor, but cutbacks in service would hurt the poor even more, says Alan F. Kiepper, general manager of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA).

MARTA's cost squeeze is representative of that felt by many major urban mass-transit systems. In 1972, when MARTA began, diesel fuel was 11 cents a gallon; now it is $1. Buses cost about $45,000 each; now the same size costs about $100,000. And union cost-of-living raises have kept salaries climbing, a MARTA official points out.

Opponents to the fare hike say MARTA promised to keep fares low, and Mr. Kiepper does not deny it. However, such promises have no legal status, he says.

One alternative is the expansion of a small-scale program in which special tokens are sold at full price to social agencies, which in turn can provide them to their clients for free or at a reduced cost.

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