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Transit fare increase could save the county $361,000

LAWRENCEVILLE - A recommendation that would raise bus rates for some express riders and consolidate several local routes would save the county more than $360,000, according to an analysis by Gwinnett's Transit Department.

Phil Boyd, the county's transit director, said the changes suggested by the Gwinnett Transit Advisory Board Thursday could save between $361,000 and $386,000.

Jon Richards, the board's chair, said he had hoped to save even more money with the proposal, which splits the county's express bus system into zones, with those traveling a longer distance paying more for their rides.

It also alters or consolidates several local and reverse commute routes.

The changes were suggested by the transit board to reduce the subsidy paid by county government for the bus system. Earlier recommendations included an even greater increase in express fares than what the board approved and a 25-cent rate hike for local bus riders.

"Certainly, we're going to end up revisiting it, whether it's a year from now or two years from now," Richards said. "If there's one thing I learned from this, it's that if we wait so long, the increase is more than riders can take."

Boyd said he expects some riders of the popular express routes that take commuters to Atlanta to defect from the system with the increase. One-way fares for all routes but Indian Trail and Discover Mills would be raised to $4 each way, from $3. The Indian Trail and Discover Mills routes would stay at $3 each way.

Monthly passes for those two routes would stay at $100, while the price would increase to $130 for all other express routes in the county. Discounts on 10-ride passes would be eliminated, if the county's Board of Commissioners approves the recommendations. Boyd said earlier that he expected the board to hear the suggestions in April, but no date had been set as of Monday.

Boyd said he had no way to know how many riders would stop taking the bus if fares went up. While more than 130 people protested the earlier plan, to raise rates for some riders as much as 90 percent, no one has commented on the proposal that passed the transit board.

"It's safe to say that we would have more of a ridership reduction with the original than with what was recommended," Boyd said. "A good number of comments would say that probably a fare increase was warranted, but what was proposed was pretty drastic. Not everyone, of course, is going to be happy, but maybe it will be more palatable."

The county spends $3.25 a ride for 666,000 express passengers and $1.60 per trip for 1.34 million local passengers. Changing the express fares will likely reduce the number of average daily boardings and save between $175,000 and $200,000 in the first year, according to department analysis.

The fare changes are expected to go into effect in August, if approved by commissioners.

Route alterations on local routes 40 and 50 and reverse commute routes 101A, 102A and 103A would go into effect in May, with the commissioners' green light, and would save $186,000 in a year.

While that change would reduce total operating costs by $310,000, some of that money also comes from fares and federal and state grants.

In recommending the changes last week, members of the transit advisory board floated several suggestions that could have delayed all changes or pushed them through as originally proposed.

Richards said he did not know why board members elected not to raise fares for local riders. That increase would have saved the county an additional $200,000 to $225,000, Boyd said, but would have kept Gwinnett's system from being aligned with the $1.75 fee charged by the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority.

The amount saved by the changes that were proposed, though, amounts to a 3.4 percent decrease over the $11.23 million operating budget for the express and local systems, on the high end of savings.

"There's never been any preference on our part on one over the other," Boyd said. "I think it's a good solution."

Richards said the transit board initiated the increases as a way of reducing the pressure of the transit system on the county budget. It has been six years since fares were last raised, he said.