(photo by Image Courtesy Big Blue Bus)

BBB HDQTRS — The price of a trip on a Big Blue Bus could triple for elderly riders and double for most others by this summer under a plan being proposed by transportation officials.

Reduced spending on transportation from Sacramento, lower tax revenue and higher fuel costs have all contributed to a $6 million deficit for the Santa Monica’s bus company and prompted officials to look into rate increases, said BBB Customer Relations Manager Dan Dawson.

The City Council has final say over how much it costs to ride the bus and is expected to make a decision about the proposed fare increase in March. Any fare increase would likely take effect at the beginning of the next fiscal year, which starts July 1.

At a series of community meetings that begin tonight, BBB officials will be presenting two possible fare increase schemes.

The first option would double the standard local fare from 75 cents to $1.50, triple the local fare for seniors, the disabled and those on Medicare from 25 cents to 75 cents and increase the student fare from 50 cents to 75 cents.

A second option being considered would make the standard local fare $1.25 and increase the fare for seniors, the disabled and those on Medicare to 60 cents. Under both plans the student rate would go up to 75 cents per trip.

“[A] fare increase is really the only way we’re going to stay solvent in the next few years,” Dawson said, adding that without an increase the bus system would likely have to reduce services.

The Big Blue Bus last increased fares in 2007, Dawson said.

Mayor Pro Tem Pam O’Connor, who serves on the board of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, acknowledged it’s tough to raise fares when people are suffering because of the economy, but said the bus system’s deficit creates a “catch 22” situation for the council.

“The Big Blue Bus is still a bargain,” she said.

The public meetings also could include an overview of plans to modernize all 360 of the bus stops located inside Santa Monica’s city limits. The bus system has been trying to get City Council’s approval for a design for the new bus shelters since 2006, Dawson said, but so far has been unsuccessful. The latest design, by Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects, was scheduled to come before the council for preliminary approval last night.

The new concept for the shelters incorporates “floating” blue circles that provide shade without significantly reducing storefront visibility.

“It’s rethinking the convention of what bus shelters generally are like,” Lorcan O’Herlihy said.

Under the bus stop redevelopment program, the stops that get the most use would include digital signs with real-time arrival information, seating and lighting. Every stop in Santa Monica would get a kiosk with information about routes and nearby amenities.

The new bus stops will cost about $7 million, Dawson said, at least 65 percent of which will be covered by federal grants. The goal is to receive final City Council approval by April and begin construction by the end of the year, he said. The council is also being asked to give approval to an additional $325,000 for the design work, bringing the total to $985,000.

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