COLUMBIA — After hearing residents' concerns about affordability and bus reliability, the City Council unanimously approved Columbia's budget for the 2009 fiscal year at its Monday night meeting. The budget included an increase in transportation fees, which would double the cost of using Columbia public transit; that change will go into effect Oct. 1.
Columbia Public Works representatives said diesel fuel costs and inflation are some of the factors that brought on the jump in fares, which is the first public transportation fee increase in 22 years.
Residents and bus patrons who attended the meeting had mixed feelings about the fare increase. Some said it would hurt low-income and disability riders.
"When people see the increase, it truly is an issue," Columbia resident Eugene Elkin said. "You are doubling what is already a problem for the low income. We truly have troubles in the state of Missouri."
Adult fares will increase from 50 cents to $1; half-fares for children, students, Medicaid recipients and senior citizens will go from 25 cents to 50 cents per ride. Para-transit rides will double in cost to $2.
Most FastPass prices doubled as well, but an amendment to the 2009 budget allocated a $12,500 subsidy for 30-day passes. With funds from the city, Columbia Transit will charge $35 for a full-fare 30-day pass, instead of the proposed $40. The half-fare pass will cost $15 instead of the doubled price of $20.
"We wound up, after a long period of time, coming to some very difficult choices," said Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala. "I was glad to see that if we could recover our costs, we could at least put some money back into the system so that the passes were discounted at some degree."
Skala also discussed adding $2,500 from left over funds in order to further lower the costs of 30-day passes for individuals that rely on the bus for transportation to work. The council decided to discuss the amendment at a later time.
Many residents said they would be more willing to pay the increased fare if the bus system was more convenient and reliable. Residents voiced concerns about bus safety, customer service, bus hours and arrival and departure times.
"I regret that most people I spoke with on the transit were unable to attend (the meeting) due to the bus scheduling," Kimberly Goetsch-Melton said. "My question is how many council members actually utilize the transit system? If you don't, I'd like to know why."
It is estimated that ridership will decrease by 10 percent because of the increased fares but will recover within the next two years. The fare increase is expected to generate revenues of about $170,000, and Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe said more advertisements on the bus could help bring in funds.
"My hope is, along with the pass reduction, that we can put more money into the system and improve the delivery so that all council people can say ‘We use the bus, too,'" Hoppe said. "We have a challenge ahead of us that we need to meet."