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(photo by Brandon Wise)

CITY HALL A plan to raise Big Blue Bus fares has been delayed after officials at Santa Monica College raised concerns that the proposed price hike could mean the end of its free bus ride program for students and staff.

The City Council had been scheduled to consider raising bus fares this week, but the item was pulled from the agenda after Don Girard, SMC’s senior director of government relations, asked for more time to discuss the proposal with City Hall.

“It does put at risk what is the most effective transportation program in Santa Monica,” Girard said of the proposed increases. “Nobody wants to do that so there was willingness to discuss this.”

Big Blue Bus officials have suggested either doubling the base fare from 75 cents to $1.50 per ride or increasing it to $1.25. The fare increases would generate between $3.4 million and $4.2 million in added revenue for the bus system, which is facing a $7.2 million deficit, according to a City Hall report.

The increases would affect the arrangements that both SMC and UCLA have with the bus system, resulting in about $700,000 in extra expenses for the two schools combined, officials said.

UCLA pays the bus system about $700,000 per year so qualifying students can ride the bus for the discounted rate of 25 cents per ride.

SMC students and staff get free bus access under its “Any Line Any Time” program, which sparked a 60 percent increase in ridership after it was launched in 2008, Girard said. SMC pays the Big Blue Bus $1.2 million per year for unlimited access, about half of which comes from student fees.

Under the fare increase proposal, Girard said SMC would likely have to pay about $1.6 million per year to keep bus ridership free — an amount that “is not something that was foreseen or is possible in the current environment.”

Linda Gamberg, a spokeswoman for the Big Blue Bus, noted that SMC could opt to cover the cost of the fare increase by requiring its students and staff members to pay a discounted fare for each ride, as UCLA does.

Girard, though, said keeping the bus free is a priority at SMC.

“It has been a real change in getting people out of their cars because the ridership numbers have increased dramatically and the congestion around the college has decreased dramatically” since SMC started offering free bus rides, he said.

In postponing the council’s decision on the fare increase, City Manager Rod Gould said he wanted to “give the council the most up-to-date view” of the state’s contribution to local transportation funding, which he said is in flux because of a dispute over whether the state can use transportation money for other purposes. He said he also wanted to have further discussions with SMC and UCLA.

“We need to revise our projections and provide three scenarios of local transit funding for the council as it considers fare increases,” Gould said.

The council is expected to make a decision about increasing bus fares April 27, BBB officials said. The bus company expects to begin charging the higher fares Aug. 29, Gamberg said.

In a development this week that could take some budget pressure off the bus company, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a statewide transportation funding bill that will give the Big Blue Bus $3.1 million by July, restoring about half of the BBB’s expected $6 million in state transit money that was diverted for other purposes this fiscal year, according to City Hall.

Gamberg said bus company officials are not planning to change their fare increase proposals because of the latest transit funding bill.

“It’s helpful but it’s not significant considering the overall operating deficit of our overall budget,” she said.

nickt@smdp.com

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