25-Cent Hike in Bus Fares Urged : Transit: Culminating heated debate, MTA seeks to end discount passes and cut services, which could take effect Sept. 1. Officials fear that the poor will be hit the hardest.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In an effort to balance its budget, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority on Friday recommended raising bus fares for the first time in six years from $1.10 to $1.35, eliminating most discount passes and cutting service on some lines.

All of the MTA's 1.1 million daily bus riders would feel the impact of the proposed changes. For the first time, blind passengers would be asked to pay fares, and college students would be excluded from special rates. Senior citizens and disabled passengers would still be eligible for discount passes, although they would have to pay $2 more for them.

Opposition to the proposed fare increases, which must be approved by the MTA board of directors, was prompt and furious. City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg condemned the fare increase as "unconscionable" and predicted that many people, particularly minimum wage workers who stretch their budgets to pay for monthly passes, would no longer be able to ride the bus.

"I think you will find people who will not be able to go to work," she said. "The result of that will probably be more pain and probably more disorder in the society."

For workers such as Mario Vazquez, the proposed fare increase means further scrimping. Vazquez sometimes takes four buses a day to commute from his home on the Eastside to job sites throughout the area.

"Maybe now I'll have to walk more," said Vazquez, 36, a day laborer from Mexico. "We rely on the buses. There's no alternatives for those of us who don't earn a lot."

The proposed fare increase is expected to reduce the number of bus riders 7%, or 75,000 passengers, primarily among the poor. Sixty-two percent of bus riders earn less than $15,000 a year, according to an MTA survey.

The proposed changes, which could take effect as early as Sept. 1, come as the MTA is spending hundreds of millions to create a subway and rail system that offers quicker commutes for suburban workers but lacks the expansive reach of the region's buses. To encourage ridership, fares on the Metro Rail Red Line subway are only 25 cents--and will not be affected by the fare increase.

"Rail has higher political visibility," said Tom Sovinec, 39, a city engineer who takes the bus to City Hall from his home in North Hollywood. "We need rail lines, but we need better bus service too. . . . Buses have been ignored somewhat."

The budget allows for continued construction of the Pasadena Blue Line trolley and the Green Line trolley, which will run between Norwalk and El Segundo. It allocates $752.3 million for rail construction projects.

MTA officials defended their actions, saying it is necessary to help eliminate a $126-million deficit in the agency's $2.9-billion budget for the coming fiscal year. They emphasized that the budget calls for belt-tightening throughout the entire agency.

"You either raise the fare to retain the service or you cut service," said Frank White, the agency's chief executive officer. "The reality is you cannot buy anything in 1994 for the price you paid in 1988 (when the fare was last increased)."

The MTA board will review the proposed budget at its June 22 meeting. The board could adopt it then, or decide to make changes.

Under the proposal the following changes would take place:

* The standard fare for bus and rail lines will increase 25 cents from the current $1.10 fare. Transfers will remain 25 cents.

* Discount fare tokens will be available for $1.

* 50-cent zone surcharges will be started on express bus lines and the Blue Line trolley. The surcharge will also apply to the Green Line when it opens.

* Monthly passes, which cost $42 for unlimited use, will be eliminated, except for those for the elderly and schoolchildren.

MTA officials said eliminating monthly passes will lead to a more equitable fare system. About 100,000 passes are issued each month, which drives the average fare down to 55 cents. But low-income riders, often unable to afford $42 for the pass, pay the full $1.10 fare. In effect, the monthly passes have resulted in subsidizing more affluent riders, officials said.

"This proposal seeks to provide equity to all persons using our services, and at the same time recognizes the economic needs of those most dependent on transit," White said.

He also said there is a significant forgery problem involving monthly passes, and busy drivers are often unable to detect fakes. "The present way we use passes is as close to pouring money out the window as you can get," White said.

By raising the fares, the MTA is merely catching up with other major urban transit agencies, which have a fare base of $1.25, White said. The proposed fare increases would generate $51.4 million a year for the MTA, he said.

Planners had originally suggested raising fares by a third, to $1.50. But bus riders and critics say even raising the price by 25 cents would create an enormous hardship for low-income riders, many of whom rely on buses as their only means of transportation.

Alva Velasco worried how she would survive in an already costly city. Velasco takes Line 424 from Downtown to her $175-a-week job as a domestic worker in Encino.

"My salary isn't going up any," said Velasco, 30. "It's going to be difficult for me to make it."

In 1985, transportation officials raised bus fares from 50 cents to 85 cents. Three years later, fares were increased again to the current fare: $1.10. Those increases resulted in about a 20% drop in ridership, said MTA alternate board member Marv Holen.

This time, MTA officials say they expect a 7% decrease in ridership as a result of the fare increases as well as proposed cuts in service.

Officials have recommended a 5% cut in service, which would represent a $21 million savings for the agency. Of that, $5 million will be reallocated for use on inner-city bus lines, which have not yet been selected.

The cuts involve the cancellation of three peak-hour express lines and two local routes. The lines to be reduced or cut are those that cost the most per rider. The express buses considered for cancellation are Line 443 (traveling between Union Station, North Torrance, Redondo Beach and Palos Verdes), Line 445 (traveling between Union Station, West Torrance, Rolling Hills and Rancho Palos Verdes), and Line 457 (traveling between Los Angeles and the Long Beach Park-n-Ride Express).

The local service lines recommended for cancellation are Line 208 (Beachwood shuttle) and the Line 152 shuttle. Portions of Lines 94, 104, 225 and 320 are also under consideration for service reductions, as well as special lines such as the Dodger Stadium and racetrack service.

Several MTA board members predicted that the budget will be altered to provide a more politically palatable solution than cutting service and raising fares.

"I'm not in favor of the increased fares," said county Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, an MTA board member. "I recognize that we have to just bite the bullet and make some cuts but I do want to look for alternatives to the kinds of fare increases they are talking about."

"We need a fare increase but one that is fair and balanced," said MTA alternate board member Nick Patsaouras. "But there is not equity here. Yes, bus riders have to carry their fair share of the burden but the burden is not being spread."

Others said the proposed budget was the agency's best solution.

"Frank White's budget brings a dose of reality to the spendthrift policy of the past budgets," said county Supervisor Mike Antonovich, an MTA board member. "It really focuses on why the MTA needs to move ahead on innovations like monorail and privatization that will allow us to improve service, lower fares and reduce the bloated capital and operating expenses."

Some bus riders said a fare increase would not pose a hardship.

"I think $1.35 is OK, as long as they don't raise it further," said Abel Rodriguez, 24, who lives on the Westside, riding a bus back from his job as a gas station attendant in Sherman Oaks.

"What's a quarter?" asked Patrick Vick, a 61-year-old cook, as he waited for a bus in Koreatown. "The basic service here is superb. They do a great job."

But most bus riders interviewed Friday vigorously opposed the increase and worried that it would discourage potential passengers from using public transportation and make life harder for those already struggling.

Sybil Morrison rides the bus not from necessity but because she is worried about L.A.'s smog problem. She believes the raise is giving people like herself the wrong message. But Morrison is especially concerned about the low-income people she sees on the bus who are clearly unable to afford any other means of transportation.

"I don't understand why they would cancel the monthly passes for the working class," said Morrison, riding the bus on her way back to her home in Hancock Park after getting her hair done in Encino. "The working class are the ones that are going to be impacted by this the most. These people can barely afford to get to work."

Pablo Aguilar of Santa Monica rides the bus to Encino, where he works as a dishwasher in Maria's Italian Kitchen.

"I don't have a car, so I have no choice but to ride the bus," said Aguilar, 56, who planned on purchasing a monthly pass for June. "I only work about 30 hours a week, so this will affect me a lot."

Times staff writers Miguel Bustillo, Henry Chu, Patrick McDonnell and Ted Rohrlich contributed to this story.

On the Rise

Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials want to increase the bus fare from $1.10 to $1.35, which would be the first increase in six years.

1980: 85 cents

1982*: 50 cents

1985: 85 cents

1988: $1.10

1994: $1.35 (proposed)

* Proposition A, a half-cent sales tax that took effect in 1982, provided partial transit funding for three years.

Source: Metropolitan Transportation Authority

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