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North County Transit Cuts Prices To Get More Riders

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The North County Transit District raised its fares four years ago then saw its commuter rail system, the Coaster, lose 2,000 passengers a day. But today the price of gas is going up and transit fares in North County are going down.

— The North County Transit District raised its fares four years ago and then saw its commuter rail system, the Coaster, lose 2,000 passengers per day. But today the price of gas is going up and transit fares in North County are going down. Transit district spokesman Alex Wiggins says it’s an experiment he hopes will pay off.

“Our goal is to increase ridership at least five percent over the next 18 months,” he said.

North County Transit cut its fares last week. The cost of a monthly pass for the Coaster went down by 20 percent. Fares for North County’s “Breeze” buses dropped an average of 12 percent. Wiggins said North County has basically cut its fares back down to 2007 levels.

On the day of the price drop I visited the Solana Beach Coaster station to chat with some riders. There weren’t many of them. But it was an off-peak hour. Retired San Diego State University professor David Macky said it seemed like there was something different about the ticket price.

“I was surprised because last time we went up here it was something like $2.75 for senior folks and here it was $2.00,” he said, adding that his infrequent use of the Coaster meant the fare cuts wouldn’t likely change his use of the system.

“But if I were a regular rider and I needed to get there, it would be a big deal to have the price lowered,” said Macky.

San Diego transportation consultant Alan Hoffman said studies show that reducing fare prices typically has an impact on the use of mass transit, even in California. He once examined workplaces that offered employees free transit passes, and determined that making transit free doubled its ridership. He said other studies indicate a 10 percent decrease in fares normally leads to a three percent increase in ridership.

"So you would expect that by lowering the fares as much as (North County) is lowering them, you will see a fairly significant increase in ridership," said Hoffman.

People who live outside of North County will benefit from some of the price reductions. Coaster passes allow their users free use of all local transit systems, including MTS buses in San Diego and the San Diego trolley system. A Coaster pass that allows full use of the Coaster line has been reduced from $185 to $165.

One of the passengers I spoke with at the Solana Beach station was an ebullient middle-aged woman with a smoky voice who lives in Ocean Beach. Nancy Fields got off the Coaster with a male friend who used a wheelchair and who already owned a Coaster pass.

“This is wonderful!!” she said of the fare cut. “I thought it was pretty cheap to begin with if I don’t have to use my car. I have to drive and stuff. And now you say there’s a fare reduction? We’ll take it even more!”

It’s the kind of spirit the North County Transit District hopes will prevail. In addition to increasing ridership, Wiggins said North County is hoping the fare cut will lead to a five percent overall increase in revenues. At this point, the North County fare cut is a year-long experiment. But the cheaper fares will continue if they do their job and get more people out of their cars.

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