Madison's Transit and Parking Commission faces a dilemma only King Solomon could solve: Either raise Madison Metro's cash fares by 50 cents, to $2, or cut bus service even further. Without a fare increase or service cuts, Metro is projected to have a $682,000 deficit in 2009.
Last night, about 90 people turned out for a hearing on the proposed fare hike that went on for several hours. Most of those who spoke begged the commission to do nothing.
"I guess I suggest option zero, which is no fare increase," said Tim Wong. "With a deep recession looming, is this time to increase fares by 33%?"
Wong was once a member of the Transit and Parking Commission, until he angered Mayor Dave Cieslewicz by repeatedly voting against fare increases and was removed. Cieslewicz has also threatened to not reappoint current members who vote against his proposed increase.
In a memo (PDF) sent Monday to committee members, Cieslewicz warned of dire consequences for Metro if fares stay the same: "[W]e would have to drastically cut service in order to fill the resulting $682,000 budget gap." No holiday service, limited service on Sundays, and cutting service generally by 12,000 hours.
He's no king, but Ald. Brian Solomon, one of three alders on the committee, will have to be just as wise -- and diplomatic -- when he votes on the fare increase at the commission's Dec. 9 meeting.
"I have a lot of respect for the mayor," says Solomon carefully. But he refuses to worry about losing his spot on the commission. "I can't act because of fear of that."
He notes that while Metro is projecting a budget gap next year, it's just that -- a projection. "If those projections aren't accurate, then we don't have a deficit," he says. And even if there is one, he doesn't believe that a fare increase would necessarily solve the problem, "because we would lose so many riders."
At Monday's hearing, many who attended were "choice" riders -- those who take the bus because they want to, not because they have to. "Choice riders said this increase would be the price point that could make them think of just driving," says Solomon.
Another speaker complained that bus riders have already endured service cuts this year, as well as a vote to make bus wrap advertising permanent. Raising fares would be the third strike, acknowledges Solomon. "This is like the trifecta of punishment for riders."
While all that sounds like Solomon is thinking of voting against a fare hike, he still hedges: "I don't know. I'm still not sure what I personally want to do. I want to come forward with some kind of proposal, but I'm still thinking about what that would be."
If only King Solomon were around to give Ald. Solomon some advice.