Riders using the Imperial County Transportation Commission's MedTrans service for medical appointments in San Diego will see fare increases the next two years.
The commission on Oct. 24 voted 9-1 in favor of phasing in a 50-percent fare increase. The current patient fare of $15 per roundtrip will rise to $18.75 on Jan. 1, 2019, and to $22.50 on Jan. 1, 2020.
The fare for attendants will go from $7 round trip to $8.75 in 2019 and $10.50 in 2020. The cost for nonpatient riders will be $37.50 in 2019 and $45 in 2020.
The motion was made by Ryan Kelley, a commissioner and Imperial County supervisor, who sought an alternative to raising the fares 50 percent on Jan. 1, 2019. Commissioner Maria Nava-Froelich, a Calipatria City Council member, opposed the move.
The increase is needed to cover costs and was recommended by commission staff, said Mark Baza, agency executive director.
"Our goal is to sustain the service," said Baza. "The federal government would like a 15-percent farebox recovery yet we recommended 10 percent as an attainable target. MedTrans costs over $41,000 monthly and the farebox for August was $4,000, close to 10 percent, but on average we get seven percent."
The farebox recovery is the percentage of operating costs covered by fare revenues.
The commission receives federal and state funding to help pay the bus operator, First Transit, Inc., Baza said. Fares have not risen for MedTrans since 1994.
After fares rise Jan. 1, the commission will accept rider feedback and later assess any impact on ridership.
"If ridership increases moderately we'll attain the 10-percent farebox ratio," said Baza. "We hope to have minimal impact with the 25-percent fare increase."
The commission is making promotional efforts to educate the public about the need to raise fares by setting up informational tables at public events.
There are two MedTrans buses scheduled Monday through Friday going to San Diego-area health care facilities. The first leaves Imperial County at 7 a.m. and arrives back at 5 p.m. The second leaves at 10 a.m. and arrives back at 8 p.m.
MedTrans passenger William Armstrong, 70, of El Centro, addressed the board briefly but, noting struggles with speech and embarrassment about speaking publicly, did not detail his criticisms. However, he spoke in more detail in a telephone call to this newspaper on Oct. 25.
Armstrong explained he boards MedTrans at the downtown El Centro Transit Center.
"The last bus was 30 minutes late and I almost canceled both my appointments for eye care and dental work," said Armstrong. "It's impossible to contact them (ICTC) on a Friday afternoon; they never answer the phones and they require three days advanced reservation."
The current fare of $15 is "wonderful" he explained, since a Greyhound bus costs $56. While stating MedTrans drivers are courteous, Armstrong, a former police motorcycle training officer and truck driver, was critical of the driving skills of some.
"They oversteer, rapidly accelerate, slam on the brakes, get in the wrong lanes and wear out the busses," said Armstrong. "I can't believe their skill level. I'd like to see them work out their problems with continued training to keep their skills up."
In other business, the commission tentatively approved the formation of an Imperial Valley Council of Governments. It would act as an umbrella organization over the commission, Imperial Valley Resource Management Agency and the Service Authority for Freeway Emergency.
"ICTC functions well for transportation issues so IVCOG would be a vehicle to allow the seven cities and the county (address) other concerns such as homelessness, animal control and quality-of-life issues," said Cheryl Viegas- Walker, a commissioner and El Centro mayor.
"We can come together and make policy decisions on all the issues outside of transportation affecting the region,” she added. “The next step is to get an idea of what the structure will look like and get an update next meeting after all the city managers report back."