How far to go with fare hikes, route cuts |

How far to go with fare hikes, route cuts

Higher fares and fewer routes are likely for Nevada County bus riders as rising costs, state funding uncertainties and a budget shortfall continue to plague the already heavily subsidized Gold Country Stage bus system.

In upcoming public meetings at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday at the Rood Center in Nevada City and at the same time on Sept. 17 at the Grass Valley City Hall, the transit commission will examine how far to go with proposals for fare increases and route cuts.

“When you run a business and expenses exceed revenue, you really need to take a look at it,” said Susan Healy-Harman, the county’s bus service manager. “If you wait, you could be in worse shape later. It’s painful to do this, but it’s happening all over the state.”

Supervisors Nate Beason and John Spencer already have conceded the bus service must address its financial problems and the budget shortfall it faces with the new 2008-2009 fiscal year.

As members of the western county’s Transit Services Commission, Beason has entertained cuts and fare increases, while Spencer has advocated raising the service’s fares 50 to 100 percent.

Gold Country riders have enjoyed $1 fares since 1990 around the Grass Valley-Nevada City core area and on rides to Penn Valley, Colfax, Auburn and the San Juan Ridge.

Proposed route cuts include all runs to Colfax, fewer trips to North San Juan and the elimination of the Route 1 service between Grass Valley and Nevada City from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Fares account for about 11 percent of the transit agency’s yearly revenue.

Gold Country had 337,000 boardings in fiscal year 2007-2008, up from 311,000 for 2006-2007. The figure is slightly below projections, however. The transit agency had expected more motorists to ride the bus because of higher gasoline prices.

Gold Country’s route cuts will be the main subject of Wednesday’s meeting, with some discussions of fares, Healy-Harman said. The fare changes will take center stage at the September meeting.

The transit agency’s problems could get worse if state budget makers attack transportation funds earmarked for counties, Healy-Harman said.

State capital funds of $370,000 were projected for Gold Country’s $5.2 million budget this year, down from last year’s $374,000, Healy-Harman said.

The state may not send any of it, either, because of its budget crunch.

“It’s subject to the state Legislature taking it away,” Healy-Harman said. “They haven’t told us what they’re going to do – whether it’s the same amount, less or none.”

A projected 12 percent dip in sales tax revenue, brought on by the prolonged economic slump, also has hurt, she said. The money makes up the bulk of its operating budget.

The bus service collected $2.5 million in 2007-2008 from the one-quarter cent sales tax collected in Nevada County that is earmarked for public transit, Healy-Harman said.

This year’s projection is to collect $2.3 million.

“We have less revenues and rising costs,” Healy-Harman said. “It’s easy to say it’s just fuel, but everything has gone up: office supplies, parts for busses. It’s like a domino effect.”

With last year’s budget, Gold Country Stage was able to buy two replacement buses for about $240,000. The bus service administrative office also got a new floor and furniture for $38,000 during 2007-2008.

The money for the improvements came from grants and state Proposition 1B monies and can’t be used for operations, Healy-Herman said.

“We’re trying to sustain service and especially the core service,” Healy-Harman said of the probable route cuts and fare increases. “It’s not because we want to reduce service – no transportation person wants to do that.”

To contact Senior Staff Writer Dave Moller, e-mail or call 477-4237.

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