Columbia County transit officials are considering fare hikes in light of declining local, state and federal allocations historically used to subsidize the county's bus system, CC Rider.

A hearing was held Aug. 10 on the proposed increases and a change in the fare system to zoned pricing. County commissioners will receive further comment at the Aug. 24 meeting at the Columbia County Courthouse, starting at 10 a.m.

The proposed increases for fixed routes range from 33 percent to 20 percent for general riders. The rate for seniors, students, children and those with disabilities jumps as high as 10 percent in some zones, but typically is near 2 to 3 percent.

Demand-response rates are also being pegged for a roughly 20-percent increase.

'That's huge. That's huge,' said Brian Mearsha, 36, of Scappoose in response to the proposed single-ride increase for trips from Scappoose to Portland, which would go from $4.80 to $6. Mearsha said he uses the bus to get to his job on Swan Island where he works as a welder. Local welding opportunities are few, he said, and he has a suspended license.

He said the daily roundtrip fare increase from $9.60 to $12, not including transferring onto TriMet transit in Portland, is nearly enough for him to consider driving despite the license suspension. 'It's almost worth the risk if the prices are going to go up,' he said.

The change to a zone system is the result of a 2009 consultant study that looked at how fare charges could more equitably represent rider use, said Columbia County Transit Director Janet Wright. The system is being broken into three zones, and there are different fees depending on travel to one, two or all zones. A transit committee is expected to review how the zoned system and fare increases have performed six months after their adoption, Wright said.

The last fare increase occurred August 2008, and Wright said the bus system is on track to reach record ridership.

Not everyone is opposed to the proposed system. One aspect that has traction with some riders is the zone passes. For instance, riders who stick to Zone 2, which covers Scappoose and St. Helens, would pay $75 for a monthly pass.

One Scappoose student who declined to provide her name said she travels four times a week into St. Helens to attend a high-school equivalency class and the zoned-pass system would be a cost savings in the long run.

The proposed rate increase comes even as gasoline prices have seemingly stabilized after a modest increase. The average cost for a gallon of gasoline in Scappoose is $3.724, the same as last week and up less than a penny per gallon over July, according to AAA Oregon.

Wright said the fare increase proposal has been a tough call.

'I really wish we didn't have to do this,' she said. The transit system is short $100,000 in operational revenue, she said. Several factors have contributed to the decline, including the expiration of federal stimulus funds used for maintenance last year, drop-offs in community contributions and reordering of the state's Business Energy Tax Credit, which let the county sell accrued tax credits for revenue.

Wright said she had been able to use local dollar contributions as matching funds to leverage additional grant dollars from state and federal sources. The decline in those contributions has led to fewer grant opportunities.

The proposed increase comes even as the county is nearing completion of its $3.1 million St. Helens transit center. The center was built courtesy of a federal appropriation, a state energy grant and $200,000 in matching county funds. Money used to build the center was limited to its construction.

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