Waving farewell to 50-cent bus fares

Millions of US subway and bus riders are being jolted by new, and in some cases, unprecedented fare increases this year. A recent US Conference of Mayors survey of 100 major-city mass-transit authorities showed that two-thirds are planning increases.

Last year, the average basic transit fare rose 19 percent. Michael A. Kemp, senior researcher for the nonprofit Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., forecasts that the average increase nationwide could be "significantly higher" in 1981.

As unwelcome as higher fares are to many people, studies by the Urban Institute, the American Public Transit Association (APTA), and others reveal that most riders are more concerned with improving the quality of service rather than clamping a lid on the amount they drop into the fare box.

But faced with the prospect of sizable cuts in federal and state transit subsidies, many communities are going to have trouble maintaining their current level of service, let alone improve it significantly. An APTA study indicates that from 1972 to 1978, the average opeating deficit of the nation's public transit systems increased by 19.5 percent per year. At the same time, the study shows passenger revenues dropping by 2.1 percent a year in real terms. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that faced with such deficits, almost half of the 100 major cities questioned in the US Conference of Mayors survey planned to reduce service.

Nevertheless, many analysts remain optimistic about the viability of public transportation. Some stress that these circumstances may force transit operations to become more innovative, productive, and cost-effective. For example:

* On Aug. 1, the basic city bus fare in Battle, Creek, Mich., will rise from 35 cents to 50 cents, an increase of approximately 43 percent. Officials there anticipate a big loss of federal operating subsidies. Thus, they are taking a conservative approach "to be a little ahead of the game," even though raising the fare may mean a loss of perhaps 3 percent of the system's ridership, said a top transit official. Officials also are moving vigorously to eliminate waste and increase productivity.

* In New York City, with transit ridership in the first quarter of 1981 down 7 percent compared with the same period last year, it may not seem the right time to raise fares.But several weeks ago, transit officials raised them from 60 cents to 75 cents to help fill the rising operating budget gap. To prevent a further hike, at least for the foreseeable future, the state Legislature on July 9 raised state taxes for the first time in six years. While ridership could sink a good deal more, state and local officials are finally, as of this year, taking long-neglected steps to address the transit system's ailing infrastructure. Enhancing service on some lines while cutting it on others is also a strong possibility.

* Like many other major cities, Chicago's public transit ridership has fallen , dropping 5 percent in the first quarter of the year compared with the first quarter of 1980. The failure on June 30 of a state Legislature plan to bail-out the deficit- ridden system, left one alternative: Chicago Transit Authority officials raised the fare 10 cents, and a further ridership erosion is possible, transportation experts say. But officials, faced with a system pushed to the brink of economic collapse, are examining every possible means of cutting costs, including what critics see as "feather-bedding" by rank-and-file employees and unreasonably high salaries in top management.

Overshadowing these developments is a Reagan administration proposal to gradually phase out federal funds for public transit operation by fiscal 1985. The administration's proposed fiscal 1983 budget, now before the housing and urban affairs subcommittee of the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee, however, earmarks more than $1 billion for operating subsidies, and is designed to give transit systems time to prepare for diminishing federal assistance in future years.

The administration's proposal also curbs support for capital improvements over the next several years, when inflation is taken into account. In dollar terms, however, the federal funds proposed for capital expenditures will go up to $2 billion by fiscal 1986 for major cities as opposed to $1.75 billion proposed for fiscal year 1983.

The administration's view is that it will continue to pay for a substantial cost of revamping of old public transit systems, but it will not help underwrite new projects such as those planned for Los Angeles and Houston. The administration also wants cities to get their fiscal operating budgets into balance completely without federal help.

However, many public transit experts say that US Secretary of Transportation Drew Lewis has been dropping hints around the nation that more money for capital needs and new projects might become available should the economy rebound as the administration anticipates.

How basic transit fares have risen 6/77 6/78 6/79 6/80 Now Chicago 50 cents 50 cents 50 cents 60 cents 90 cents Cleveland 25 cents 25 cents 25 cents 40 cents 40cents Detroit 50 cents 50 cents 55 cents 60 cents Indianapolis 50 cents 50cents 50 cents 50 cents 50 cents Los Angeles 35 cents 35 cents 45 cents 55 cents 65 cents Miami 50 cents 50 cents 50 cents 75 cents New York 50 cents 50 cents 50 cents 60 cents 75 cents Pittsburgh 50 cents 50 cents 50 cents 50 cents 75 cents Source: The American Public Transit Association

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