Tucson took the first steps in closing its $33 million budget gap for next year by tentatively approving what could amount to $4.8 million in transit savings and fare increases.
The City Council voted unanimously to approve $2.4 million in savings from route changes and, on a separate 5-2 vote, raise $2.4 million through fare increases.
Neither plan takes effect immediately. First they will face a vetting process to see if they meet federal guidelines and be the subject of a public hearing, said Tucson Department of Transportation Deputy Director Carlos de Leon.
If approved, the base fare would increase by 25 cents, to $1.75, and low-income fares would be raised 15 cents, to 65 cents. A final vote is expected before the end of June.
City Manager Richard Miranda took a firm stance on holding down transit costs.
Next year’s budget had been estimated to climb to $46.8 million. But Miranda capped it at $40.7 million — a $2 million reduction from this year.
To get there, the staff recommended a combination of service cuts and fare increases.
The approved route changes mostly came from dumping what transportation planners said were redundant routes, and restructuring others to make bus service more efficient without inconveniencing riders.
The council nixed an alternative plan that would have trimmed an additional $4 million from the transit budget. Council members felt those proposed cuts were too deep and would have disrupted too many routes and riders.
The plan would also put in place a model to increase fares every two years and provide some structure to the city’s annual skirmish over transit spending.
Councilwoman Karin Uhlich held true to her word and opposed the fare increase.
“I think it’s important to put staff and management on notice that I think fare increases should be the last resort for balancing our budget, not the first as it seems to have been the last five years,” Uhlich said.
Uhlich felt the numbers provided by the staff were too conservative and said the gap would likely be much smaller once all the actual figures are calculated.
Councilman Paul Cunningham said he didn’t want to raise fares either, but at this point in the budget process the council needs to keep all options open, and he supported the measure.
Bus riders were unhappy about the tentative increases.
“I don’t want to see it happen,” said Michelle Kinn, 33, who is a low-income rider and a member of the Tucson Bus Riders Union. “A lot of these people are on a fixed income, and it’s hard to come up with the extra 5 cents or 10 cents.”
Activist Brian Flagg, who organized a rally outside City Hall to protest the changes, predicted the council will have a hard time implementing any fare increases.
“They are going to have to fight long and hard over the voices and the hearts of all the bus riders,” Flagg said.
Flagg did praise the council for standing up to the “transit bureaucrats” who sought further cuts to bus routes. Flagg welcomed the route changes the council did approve. He said they made sense and didn’t harm riders.