Bakersfield’s public bus system is looking at changing the way it covers its expenses — possibly by floating a new transportation tax — after concerns arose that the fares it charges passengers are falling short of state funding requirements.
No final decisions have been made as Golden Empire Transit District surveys customers about what they think should be done to ensure the bus system comes into line with requirements it get at least a fifth of its operating revenue from passenger fares. Public outreach continues today in downtown Bakersfield and the transit center by Valley Plaza.
Options listed in a recent letter to the community by GET CEO Karen H. King include raising the cost of single rides and monthly passes, charging passengers according to the distance they travel on certain services, cutting costs through measures like moving to smaller vehicles and instituting new unlimited-ride fares for students of Bakersfield College and Cal State Bakersfield.
Also on the list of alternatives still under consideration were two proposals that would levy a new tax not unlike proposals that have been rejected twice by local voters as recently as about 15 years ago.
One proposal would institute a countywide “public transportation” sales tax that would have to be approved by two-thirds of voters in Kern. The other would levy a new property tax within GET’s service area, a move King said by email is not widely used but which has been successful elsewhere.
She noted GET has raised its fares at least three times in the last 14 years in attempts to meet the 20 percent minimum fare revenue requirement placed on the district by state government.
Public outreach so far has indicated passengers overwhelmingly support keeping fares low, King said. Passengers gathered Wednesday at the Downtown Transit Center bore that out.
“They should bring (fares) down,” said GET customer Fanna “T” Teague, who was visiting from Mojave.
Bakersfield resident Marbella Lopez said passengers who take the bus locally tend to be people who cannot afford to buy their own vehicles. If fares go too high, she said, their only alternative is to walk to work.
“I think (GET) should keep (fares) the same, because people who take the bus rely on it,” Lopez said.
Executive Director Ahron Hakimi of the Kern Council of Governments, which deals often in regional transportation matters, said by email his agency fully supports GET’s evaluation of its operations and expenses. He noted as well Kern COG has backed, and still supports, the idea of altering the state’s 20 percent fare box recovery requirement.
“Golden Empire Transit provides essential services to thousands of Kern’s citizens every day,” Hakimi wrote.
GET has struggled in recent years to meet the 20 percent rule after roughly achieving it a few years ago, King said. That was before the pandemic and other factors like inflation changed a lot of things at the district.
Prior to the coronavirus crisis, GET provided about 6 million riders per year. But ridership plummeted in 2020 and has recovered only gradually since then, she noted, while labor, insurance and other costs have climbed.
Advertisements posted on the sides of buses have helped raise the amount of money counted toward local revenue contributions. At the same time, the district has tried to cut its operating costs, King’s open letter said.
She emphasized the district is not considering an across-the-board fare increase, and that raising the amount GET charges for rides probably would not be an effective solution itself.
Even so, the district is weighing changes in its pricing that could include charging more money for the door-to-door service it is about to take over from North of the River Recreation and Park District. That service provides subsidized service to disabled and elderly passengers.
Other adjustments under consideration include new technology-based systems that charge fares using debit or credit cards, mobile phones or prepaid accounts.
Anyone interested in providing input for the fare study GET hopes to conclude next month may provide comments at a outreach opportunities scheduled from 9 to 11 a.m. Thursday at the Downtown Transit Center along Chester Avenue at 22nd Street.
Another outreach session is set for 1 to 3 p.m. Thursday at the Southwest Transit Center along Ming Avenue next to Valley Plaza. Feedback can also be given online at Getbus.org.