Area transit agencies are going the wrong way on a one-way track

In 1991, American shoppers could buy a pound of Red-Delicious apples for $0.81. Twenty years later, the price is $1.24, an increase of 53 percent.

And two decades ago, an Apple laptop computer cost $4,500. Today, a MacBook Pro with 1,000 times the storage space is just $1,200.

If only public transit riders were so lucky.

During the past two decades, average fares on BART, Caltrain, Golden Gate Transit, Muni and SamTrans have increased by more than double the regional inflation rate, which totaled 66 percent.

Click the picture to see infographics on Bay Area transit agencies' fares and the rate of inflation.

SamTrans, which serves the Peninsula, has been the worst offender, raising fares for its monthly passes by 191 percent since 1991. Golden Gate Transit’s bus and ferry fares increased by 154 percent, Caltrain’s by 115 percent, Muni’s monthly passes by 100 percent and BART tickets by 94 percent.

During the same period, regional inflation grew by an average of just 2.7 percent annually.

Even as San Francisco adopted a “transit-first” policy and Bay Area cities embraced plans to develop housing around depots, fare increases conspired to make public transportation less and less attractive, said Robert Boden, a spokesman for the San Francisco Transit Riders Union.

“Increased fares mean more people in cars and more traffic congestion,” Boden said. “People are really starting to question whether it’s worth it to take public transit instead of their car.”

Employee wages and benefits, which comprise 75 percent of the budgets of the Bay Area’s seven biggest transit agencies, have ballooned during the past 20 years, according to data from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. Fringe benefits for transit operators are particularly expensive, with the inflation-adjusted costs increasing from $355 million to $601 million since 1997, according to the MTC.

And wages and benefits continue to increase at unsustainable levels, according to John Goodwin, a spokesman for the MTC, which is the Bay Area’s lead transit-planning agency.

“The current formula we have right now cannot continue to work,” Goodwin said.

In recent years, the state has routinely raided dedicated funding sources for transit agencies to balance its budgets. In the 2009 fiscal year alone, more than $300 million in state funding initially dedicated to transit agencies in the Bay Area was diverted to help balance California’s budget.

Gas prices have risen too, but they don’t comprise a large part of transit agencies’ budgets. For instance, although SamTrans now spends $5.6 million a year on fuel — more than $4 million in excess of what it spent in 1991 — fuel costs only comprise 7 percent of the agency’s $81 million budget for bus operations.

As a result of these growing costs and volatile state revenue sources, transit agencies have turned to fare increases to balance their finances. Golden Gate Transit has implemented some form of a fare increase every year since 1998. Caltrain has hiked fares in four of the past six years. Muni and SamTrans have raised prices the past two years, and BART two of the past three.

“The unpredictability of state financing, over the past couple of years in particular, has left passengers picking up a much greater share of the cost,” Goodwin said.

Susan Shaheen of UC Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center said relying on fare increases can create a spiraling problem for transit agencies. They need revenue from fare boxes to balance their budgets, but the high cost of riding public transportation systems keeps passengers away.

Meanwhile, gas prices would have to spike considerably to deter people from using their cars, she said. And as long as automobiles remain price-competitive with other forms of travel, commuters will not wholly embrace public transit, particularly if fares keep increasing.

Transit ridership does not paint a clear picture of the impact fare increases have on travel decisions. SamTrans ridership fell from 19.5 million passengers in 1995 to 14.2 million in 2005, but levels have since climbed to almost 15 million, according to MTC data.

Elizabeth Deakin, a professor of city and regional planning at UC Berkeley, said transit passengers would rather pay increased fares than undergo service cuts.

But San Francisco riders have suffered through both service cuts and fare increases, said Boden of the Transit Riders Union. Caltrain is contemplating draconian cuts, Golden Gate Transit recently scaled back bus and ferry schedules, and Muni slashed service by 10 percent — although some was later restored.

“At the end of the day, we’re paying more for less,” Boden said. “And we deserve more than that.”

Public transit riders, prepare to shudder

Passengers hit hard by fare increases during the past two decades will probably wince when they realize how much transit would cost if rates had grown at the same pace as inflation.

Since 1991, Muni’s monthly pass has doubled in cost — not including a planned fare hike in July or the fact that it now costs extra to use the pass on BART. Meanwhile, SamTran’s monthly fare has gone up nearly 300 percent.

In 1991, it cost $30 for a month of trips on Muni and $22 on SamTrans. If those rates had grown at the pace of inflation — which averaged 2.7 percent a year in the Bay Area — they would now cost $49.70 and $36.45, respectively.

Instead, it’s now $60 for Muni ($70 if you also want to travel on BART within The City) and $64 for SamTrans. Muni passengers could be saving an extra $123.70 a year, while SamTrans riders would realize$330.60 in annual savings.

For single trips, passengers are getting hit with exceptionally high price spikes as well. In 1991, Muni’s cash fares cost 85 cents, SamTrans were $0.60 and BART’s minimum fare was $0.80. Twenty years later, it cost $2 for a single trip on Muni and SamTrans, and BART’s minimum fare is $1.75. If those fares had grown at the same rate as inflation, a trip on SamTrans would cost $0.99, Muni would be $1.41 and the minimum ride on BART would be $1.33.

— Will Reisman

Bay Area NewsLocaltransportation

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