Tucson’s Sun Tran bus service is in a financial bind because its fares are too low and it provides more service for the disabled at too low a cost, a panel of outside experts who evaluated the system found.

Tucson’s transit costs have skyrocketed over the past several years. To get a handle on what could be done to rein in costs, last year the city sought out a panel of transit experts from other cities to review Tucson’s numbers and make recommendations.

The City Council heard those recommendations on Wednesday.

One of the key findings was that the city needs to fix its Sun Van service, which provides transportation to disabled riders.

The city spent $16 million last year on the service. It recovered only about 5 percent of that cost in fares.

Part of the reason was that Sun Van exceeds federal expectations, mostly by serving a wider area than needed and charging less, said Jim Dickey, executive director of the Arizona Transportation Association.

“It’s more robust than the basic requirements,” Dickey said.

The city also collects less from bus fares as well.

The panel suggested the city tighten up its requirements for the low-income-fare program to prevent what appears to be “significant abuse,” eliminate transfers in favor of a day pass, and establish a base fare for all services.

City Councilwoman Karin Uhlich said she’s reluctant to lend her support to a fare increase.

“It’s counter to our other goal of increasing ridership,” Uhlich said to applause from members of the Bus Riders Union in attendance.

Uhlich asked for a report on what other cities do to increase ridership, such as offering free rides, off-peak-hour rates and more.

Dickey said the panel didn’t address increased ridership because that issue would likely be covered in a separate analysis the city has pending.

The council was slated to talk about raising bus fares Wednesday, but Mayor Jonathan Rothschild pushed back the always controversial discussion to the Feb. 4 meeting.

Rothschild felt the council should hear the results of the transit panel before tackling any policy changes.

But that didn’t dissuade activist Brian Flagg and the Bus Riders Union from launching a membership drive Wednesday outside council chambers.

Flagg said his group set a goal of registering 1,000 new members by late April or early May.

While individual and group membership rates haven’t been established, Flagg is encouraging folks, whether frequent bus riders or not, to join the struggle to prevent the city from raising rates and making other changes to bus service that Flagg said would hurt the poor.

“We want transit justice,” Flagg said. “And we feel this city can find ways to balance its budget without” resorting to fare increases.

Contact reporter Darren DaRonco at 573-4243 or ddaronco@azstarnet.com. Follow on Twittter @DarrenDaRonco.