Santa Monica College students enter onto the Big Blue Bus in front of the main campus on Pico Boulevard on Thursday afternoon. (photo by Brandon Wise)

CITY HALL — City Hall has agreed not to charge Santa Monica College more for providing its students and staff with unlimited access to the Big Blue Bus system for at least a year, though the City Council is expected to increase fares for other riders next week.

Facing an estimated $6.1 million deficit, BBB officials have recommended increasing the base fare from 75 cents to either $1.50 or $1.25 as part of a plan expected to generate between $3.4 million and $4.2 million per year in additional revenue for the bus system.

While that recommendation stands, BBB Director Stephanie Negriff on Monday said SMC would not be affected by the potentially higher fares for at least another year.

“The partnership has been so important to us that we think we can take that extra time to get it right,” she said of the decision.

SMC pays City Hall about $1.2 million per year so that its students and staff can take advantage of the “Any Line Any Time” program, which lets those who are eligible board any bus simply by showing a college ID card.

Since the college pays for the program based on the estimated number of SMC riders, implementing a fee hike could have cost SMC several hundred thousand dollars more per year and may have jeopardized the college’s ability to provide unlimited access to the transportation system, according to Don Girard, SMC’s senior director of government relations.

Girard said it makes sense to give the college special consideration for access to bus lines because SMC is a bulk buyer. City Hall officials, meanwhile, have praised the SMC program for helping reduce traffic.

“The college is a major user of BBB service. By some estimates, we are about 10 percent of their ridership,” Girard said.

He praised the BBB’s decision to delay implementing its planned fee hike for SMC.

“The college is very engaged in moving people onto public transit and understands that it has to be a personal and institutional priority, and we know that the problem of increasing costs will continue to be with us,” Girard said. “We look forward to involving our community in exploring long-term solutions.”

The council had been set to decide on the fare increase in March, but the vote was postponed after SMC officials asked for more time to negotiate.

Negriff said the reason for delaying the implementation of the expected fee hike for SMC was to come up with an accurate count of how many SMC riders use the bus system.

Because the “Any Line Any Time” program doesn’t require riders to pay a fare for each trip, there are no detailed records of how many people use the program, which makes negotiating a contract for service difficult, she said.

The BBB expects to complete a manual ridership count in the next several months that will give operators a clearer picture of how many users from SMC take the bus. Negriff said there are also plans to work on a new system that would require SMC riders to swipe their ID cards before boarding the bus.

With more accurate information about ridership, she said the BBB will be in a better position to implement a fee increase for SMC in a year.

Despite the concession to the college, Negriff said the bus system is still facing reduced sales tax revenue and needs to raise fares to avoid a projected $16 million deficit by 2015.

“We’re still in a structural deficit situation and we’re still trying to climb out of it,” she said.

The proposed fare increases, though, could cut into bus ridership rates in Santa Monica, exacerbating traffic and making it difficult for some people to get to work, said former mayor and Move L.A. Executive Director Denny Zane.

He said new transportation funds, both from local funding measures and from the state, have become available since BBB officials made their fare increase recommendations.

“I think they’ve gotten some significant improvement in their revenue, so it’s not as bleak as they have indicated. That should alter the recommendation, one would think,” said Zane, who is a consultant for the college. “Big jumps in fares have big impacts, so the council, I think, needs to be very cautious in how it proceeds here.”

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