Skagit Transit’s governing board decided Aug. 21 to affix a $2 fare to paratransit rides, ending a tradition of free rides for those who aren’t able to use public transit.
The board, which had been considering the change for several months, voted 7-2 in favor of the increase, with Burlington Mayor Steve Sexton and Burlington Councilman Rick DeGloria dissenting.
Dale O’Brien, the transit agency’s executive director, said the change was suggested to combat rising paratransit ridership and increasing costs per ride.
In 2008, the average ride cost the agency about $42. Today, it’s about $72, and the agency runs between 300 and 350 rides per day.
“It’s at the point that we have to look at any new revenue we can find,” he said.
The fare increase is set to take effect Jan. 1, 2020, but O'Brien said the agency won't penalize people for failing to pay for six months after implementation.
The hope, O’Brien said, is that more people who don’t need to use the service will migrate to regular fixed-route buses to save money, reducing paratransit costs.
While he said he knows the majority of riders do need the service, he knows there are “a handful of people who use the service as their own personal taxi.”
The agency’s operating costs already exceed their budget by several million dollars, meaning it has to fight for competitive state and federal grants just to break even.
Sexton said adding a $2 fare to a ride that costs Skagit Transit $72 doesn’t seem like it would make a dent in its budget problems.
“If this is a budget issue, this is the last place we should look,” he said. “This is going to be impactful on the budgets of the people who are most vulnerable.”
A 5-cent increase to fixed-route bus fares would generate the same amount of money, and would retain this free service, he said.
Sexton said he’s talked to several people who rely on the service and are on a fixed income, meaning a $4 round-trip cost is a significant strain on their finances.
To O’Brien’s concerns with people abusing the system, Sexton said he wasn’t convinced it’s a problem.
“That’s anecdotal,” he said. “I don’t know if there’s any real data to support that.”
County Commissioner Lisa Janicki, who supported the fare, said the decision was necessary to prevent cuts to paratransit services.
“When you have a heavily-subsidized business segment that is growing really fast, you risk not having enough (money) to keep the service active,” she said.
Janicki said she understands the impact this will have on paratransit riders, but said it’s better than the alternative — making cuts.
“If the system tries to do too much, ultimately the most vulnerable will be hurt because the system will contract,” she said.
O’Brien said leadership is considering asking the public to vote on an increase to the portion of county sales tax that funds the agency, to address some of its funding struggles.