In Madison, you can bet that if you propose a bus fare increase you’ll have a fight on your hands.
“It’s going to be a tough sell,” says Ald. Chris Schmidt, a member of the Transit and Parking Commission. "It has an impact on people who are using the routes. It has an impact on people who are low-income.”
In his executive budget unveiled Tuesday, Mayor Paul Soglin included a fare increase of 25 cents, which would mean riders would have to dig in their pockets for a quarter in addition to the $2 they pay now. Multi-ride bus passes would go up as well, ranging from a $2.50, or 17-percent, increase for an adult 10-ride card to a $12.50 increase for a senior/disabled 31-day pass, a 45-percent hike.
A complete list of price increases can been viewed here.
As happened three years ago, the last time the city raised bus fares, the proposal will likely generate heated debate.
"That was pretty brutal," says Gary Poulson, chairman of the Transit and Parking Commission, of the battle over the fare increases in 2009.
Soglin's proposal would raise $686,600 in 2013. Of that, $258,000 would be used to expand service. Madison Metro plans to extend service to the Owl Creek neighborhood, a recently developed, largely low-income outlying neighborhood on the city’s southeast side. Metro would also increase service on the popular Route 18 from the south to west transfer points, and Route 2 between the west transfer point and the Capitol Square. The cost of the service improvements, when fully implemented in 2014, would be $435,000.
According to Madison Metro spokesman Mick Rusch, Metro General Manager Chuck Kamp made the request for the hike after Soglin requested budget proposals with 5 percent cuts to help the city weather a drop in state aid and a state-imposed property tax cap.
“Our way of meeting that was this proposed increase in fares,” Rusch says.
Susan De Vos, president of the Madison Area Bus Advocates, spends a lot of time with city transportation officials trying to keep up on things. But she didn’t see this coming.
“This thing came totally out of the blue,” she says.
De Vos says she’s mystified by the proposed hike by a mayor who has made a priority of helping the city’s growing poor population. The increase would most burden hit low-income riders.
“The mayor is doing all these things to try to create neighborhood centers and deal with the fact that Madison is changing, yet doing this is a step backward,” she says. “I just don’t understand it.”
Attempts to get a comment out of the mayor's officer were unsuccessful.
Three years ago, Mayor Dave Cieslewicz proposed a hotly debated 50-cent hike, which was rejected by the Transit and Parking Commission. By state law, the city needs the commission’s blessing for a fare hike, except under "exceptional circumstances." An exceptional circumstance was provided by citizen, now alder, Lisa Subeck, who crafted a plan to use the fare increase to fund a plan for reduced fares for low-income riders. Subeck appealed the commission's decision and the City Council eventually overrode it and adopted the fare increase, handing Cieslewicz a victory.
Subeck, who did not return calls seeking comment, is now on the Transit and Parking Commission.
The low-income program now provides 300 monthly passes at half-price to people making less than 150 percent of the federal poverty level, which falls short of the demand, Rusch says.
“We sell out the first week of the month,” he says.
How do riders feel about the proposed fare increase?
“Twenty-five cents isn’t a lot for the service we get,” says Lasha Shaffer, who gets around by bus and approves of boosting service.
“They need as much service as it necessary for the public,” she says.
Ken Thompson recently rode the bus exclusively. Although he now has a car, he still often takes Metro.
“It’s no problem, unless I don’t have that quarter,” he says. “It probably wouldn’t bother me if it would be used to expand the service.”
But not everyone agrees.
Brandon Herrmann is disabled, and while he would still ride, he says, the extra expense would be a burden.
“It would be more expensive for people with disabilities like me,” he says.
Linda Turner would see her senior 31-day pass price rise, which she says she can probably handle. But she isn’t crazy about the fare increase proposal.
“I have income,” she says. “A lot of people out there don’t. It’s not fair to them.”
John Hendrick, a County Board supervisor who also works with the Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups, says the increase will disproportionally affect seniors on fixed incomes who depend on buses to get around.
"If you’re taking a bus to work and making a good salary, then 25 cents isn’t much." he says. "But 50 cents round trip -- $180 a year if you take the bus once a day -- it’s a significant amount of money for somebody whose only income is $750 or $1,000 a month."
At this early stage, it’s difficult to say what kind of support the proposal will get from the Transit and Parking Commission.
“My initial reaction to a fare increase is to be very cautious and want to see very strong justification for it,” says Schmidt. “And since we haven’t had the discussion yet I can’t say either way that I’ve seen justification or not.
Poulson, the commission chairman, says bus fare increases are inevitably an emotional issue.
“Whenever we deal with something like a fare increase it’s really difficult for a lot of folks, especially the transit-dependent,” he says. “Twenty-five cents doesn’t sound like much, but I suspect for some folks it could be a pretty big expense if you’re on a really tight budget.”
But he says there is a need for bus service in the Owl Creek neighborhood, where some have complained of having no way to get to their jobs.
"Over the last several months, folks from the Owl Creek neighborhood tell us that they really need the transit service for employment, the kids need it for after-school activities," Poulson says. "So it's needed in that area. But to provide new service you either have to raise revenues, or switch service or reduce service somewhere else.”
He’s leaning in favor of the proposal, but he hasn’t made up his mind yet.
He expects a lively debate when the public weighs in.
“I want to see exactly what the proposal is for additional service, and I want to hear from the public,” he says.
A public hearing on the proposal will be held Nov. 7 at 6 p.m. in Room 201 of the City-County Building, 210 Martin Luther King Blvd.