Who should pay for higher bus fares? Taxpayers or transit riders?
That's a decision the Augusta Commission will soon have to make. But maybe you can help.
To deal with the city's projected multimillion-dollar deficit in next year's general budget, Transit Director Heyward Johnson has been told by city Administrator Fred Russell to cut his budget by $1 million.
Johnson says by consolidating routes and eliminating some peak hour buses, he could save about $700,000. He can also raise another $93,000 or so by eliminating the 35-cent bus transfer fee - and simply charge $1 every time a rider boards a bus. The discounted rate would stay at 50 cents, and those riders would pay that amount at each transfer.
Yet no matter how you look at it, this is still a fare increase. It's bitter medicine for transit system users to swallow, especially when coupled with the $700,000 savings plan that calls for bus stop wait-times of an hour instead of 30 minutes, even during the busiest periods of the day.
Basically, riders are being asked to pay higher prices for poorer service. But isn't that typical of government, even when it's not in the bus business? For people who frequently ride city buses, a fare increase is like a tax increase.
But unlike regular taxpayers - most of whom don't use the buses - riders benefit from the service. Besides, taxpayers already are subsidizing the transit system. They can ill afford to subsidize it more - which brings us back to why Johnson is being asked to cut his budget by a million dollars.
Transit users, however, have options if they don't like what's happening. They can whine and complain, which won't accomplish anything, or they can come up with better proposals than what they've heard so far. Maybe they can suggest cuts elsewhere in the city budget, or recommend transit changes that won't be so painful.
Government doesn't have all the answers. It's looking for ideas from an informed, engaged public. Augusta's transit problem creates a situation in which those most affected by government policy should get involved in government policy.
The city commission is not going to make any transit decisions until it hears from the public. A public hearing on transit issues is scheduled Nov. 28 between 4:30 and 6:30 p.m. at May Park Community Center on Fourth Street in downtown Augusta.
If transit users think their local government is taking them for a ride, that's the time to be heard and bring about a route change.