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Smaller Changes to Yield Welcome Results in New Big Blue Bus System, Santa Monica Officials Say

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier

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Harding, Larmore
Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica

By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

September 2, 2015 -- The coming of the Expo Light Rail to Santa Monica next year will bring a multitude of changes to the Big Blue Bus system, including more routes and higher fares to help offset higher costs. But riding the Big Blue Bus of the future could be different in other ways too.

For openers: It might not take so long to get riders onto the bus, meaning more efficient departure and arrival times, according to a report by Edward F. King, director of transit services for Santa Monica.

The August 20 report provides a detailed look at the new Big Blue Bus system.  But along with the big differences already discussed and dissected at length by officials are some less noticeable differences they also hope will yield significant results.

Waiting around while customers ferret out the cash to pay for a bus trip is one experience authorities hope to change for BBB riders.

As of the end of the 2015 fiscal year in July, nearly half of all BBB customers paid the driver with cash -- and the time that transaction took added up.

“Cash customers require an average of 23 seconds of dwell time to complete payment, while a prepaid boarding customer using a magnetic stripe card or smartcard requires less than 4 seconds to complete payment,” according to the report.

“This significant difference in boarding speed of cash customers produces a drag on system efficiency, as all passengers must wait for each transaction to complete before the bus can move forward,” the report stated.

“Increasing the percent of customers using prepaid fares through discounting of passes increases the attractiveness of transit, while simultaneously lowering the cost of operating the routes.”

As it now stands, “2 percent of customers use 30-day passes, 2 percent use 13-ride passes, 3 percent use day passes and 1 percent use tokens,” the report said.

The low percentages of prepaid fares, it said, are “directly attributable to the minimal level of discount currently being offered on most products.”

Therefore, discounts for some prepaid passes are being proposed. If that plan works the number of cash-paying customers could be reduced to less than 35 percent of all riders, the report said.

A regular 30-day pass would drop to $50, down from the current $60, the report said. A youth 30-day pass would decrease to $38, down by $2.

Under the BBB’s plan, basic bus fares would still increase from $1 to $1.25, an amount that “is still among the lowest, with most municipal bus operators charging from 1.35-$1.50,” the report said.

The $1.25 is also a bargain compared to Metro’s cash fare of $1.75, it added.

If approved, the new rates would start January 1, 2016. Basic fares for seniors and the disabled would remain unchanged at 50 cents, according to the plan.

Officials are concerned that the hike in basic fares might actually drive down ridership, and are hoping the discounts for prepaid passes will help offset any financial losses to the system, the report said.

“With any fare increase, there is the likelihood of a resultant reduction in ridership, perhaps as much as 10 percent,” King’s report added.

The report notes that Metro’s ridership dropped eight percent when fares were raised in September of 2014.

The BBB might also see a drop in ridership, King noted. But the hope is that the deeply discounted prepared passes will cushion the loss.

The end result to overall ridership should be “minimal” and no more than a  four percent drop, the report concluded.

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