Metrolink's Board of Directors delayed a decision Friday on whether to increase fares by an average of 4.5 percent to offset rising operational costs, opting instead to comb through the agency's budget for a way to avoid the fare hikes.
At the recommendation of board member Richard Katz, the board unanimously opted to put the decision over for at least a month and "scrub the budget" for other options, possibly including service cuts or asking Metrolink's member agencies for more funds.
"Raising fares is the last thing we want to do," Katz said.
The proposed fare increases are part of a 10-year fare restructuring effort approved by the Metrolink board in 2004. The plan is designed to convert the agency's fee schedule from a zone-based system to one based on the driving distance between stations.
The previous system lacked consistency and led to inequities in how fares were charged for various regions, according to Metrolink spokesman Francisco Oaxaca.
The proposed fare increase was expected to generate an additional $2.6 million in revenue for Metrolink's budget, funds the agency's staff will now try to find a different way to account for.
That money would help cover increased operating costs as well as a change in the agency's fare transfer policy.
At the moment, Metrolink subsidizes the entire cost of transfers riders make to connecting transit systems in the counties it serves.
But the combination of skyrocketing rates charged by operators participating in the EZ Transit Pass program, implementation of the TAP smart card fare payment system and the installation of electronic gates at Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority light rail stations threaten to bring an end to some of the subsidies in Los Angeles County.
A change in the way reimbursement rates are figured between Metrolink and local transit agencies has resulted in a 60 percent increase in the cost to Metrolink to subsidize transfers in Los Angeles County.
Metrolink staffers proposed using a two-ticket system for transfers from Metrolink commuter rail to Metro light rail, which accounts for 56 percent of all transfers.
Under the system, Metrolink monthly pass holders would wind up paying 30 percent of their connecting transit costs by purchasing subsidized Metro monthly passes.
Infrequent riders who don't hold a monthly pass would be left to pick up the entire cost of the transfer.
"We're basically passing along the price increase that we've incurred from the transit operators to the customer," said Elizabeth Mahoney, government affairs manager for Metrolink.
For Metrolink passengers who travel with Metro, the cost of travel would rise an average of 8 percent, Metrolink staffers reported.
Katz, after conferring with the other Los Angeles County representatives on the multi-county agency's board, said, "There are no Los Angeles County votes for a fare increase."
Metrolink board member Ara Najarian -- who also sits on Metro's board of directors -- said the Los Angeles County agency would be willing to look into giving more money to Metrolink to forestall the fare increase.
Najarian's proposal provoked criticism from Metrolink board member Art Brown, Buena Park mayor and a member of the Orange County Transportation Authority's board of directors.
OCTA has no more money to give, he said, adding that "Metro's TAP program is the problem that caused this whole thing, and I would ask Metro to go back to the board and consider delaying this implementation of TAP."
Metro's TAP program uses electronic fare cards that are a key element of the plan to install gates on the county's rail system. Currently, Metro rail lines use the honor system and sporadic inspections by county sheriff's deputies to enforce fare payment.
Customers transferring from Metrolink rail to Metro rail simply need to show their ticket to fare inspectors, something that will no longer be possible with electronic gates.
Najarian asked staff to come back with a report on what effect a delay in the implementation of Metro's gating system would have.
"If we go back to Metro and say `well, guess what guys, we can't put those gates in because Metrolink wants to delay a fare increase,' they're going to give me the bum's rush," Najarian said.
"But ... in reality I don't think those gates are going to be up and running nearly as soon as perhaps Metro once told you they would be," he said.