Elderly and disabled users of GRTC Transit System's CARE service are likely to pay more to get around the Richmond area next year after City Council voted Monday night to approve fare increases to help cover the costs of running the door-to-door van service.
But opposition from several dozen speakers, many of whom approached the microphone with wheelchairs, walkers or canes, prompted the council to leave the door open to changing the fare plan if another funding source can be found before the higher fares go into effect Jan. 5.
After a lengthy discussion, the council approved the changes on a 6-3 vote. Council members Reva M. Trammell, 8th District; Cynthia I. Newbille, 7th District; and Ellen F. Robertson, 6th District, voted against the proposal.
GRTC requested the changes this year to plug an estimated $780,000 budget gap. Officials have said that public funding has not kept pace with the demand for the service — some of which goes beyond what's required by law — and that cuts to regular bus service could be required without the changes to CARE.
Fares for basic CARE service, which is required by the Americans With Disabilities Act, will increase from $2.50 to $3 for a one-way trip. For extended CARE service, which stretches outside the city limits into parts of Henrico and Chesterfield counties and is not federally required, a new fare will be set at $6 one way.
City and GRTC officials have characterized the higher fares as necessary to ensure the financial sustainability of the transit system as a whole. But the opposing council members tried unsuccessfully to kill the fare increase and ask GRTC and the city administration to find another way to fund the CARE program.
"I'm asking GRTC and the administration to go back to the table," said Newbille.
"My heart is broken to see this many citizens have to come down here and plead and cry their hearts out," said Trammell, who asked if the city could use surplus funds to shore up GRTC's budget. "Because — who knows? — someday we might be in the same predicament they're in."
Council members who voted in favor of the CARE changes suggested that a failure to act in a timely fashion could lead to major budget issues for GRTC and the city.
"The current budgetary constraints that we've all been dealing with over the last few years have led to the need for some changes, not just in GRTC, but in government in general," said Jonathan T. Baliles, 1st District, who added that by not approving the fare increases, the council would be "kicking the can down the road."
"I don't see not doing something immediately as being helpful at all in this situation," added Parker C. Agelasto, 5th District.
During the public comment period, opponents, many of whom said they were Henrico residents, said the increases would place a new burden on an already vulnerable population, making it harder for CARE users to get to jobs and medical appointments.
Multiple speakers said they found it "despicable" that the city was able to find money to accommodate the Washington Redskins training camp, but couldn't come up money to ward off cuts that affect the disabled and the elderly.
Advocate Rachel Loria read a letter from a friend, Kamie Keck, who wrote that she relies on CARE every week to get to a minimum-wage job while paying her way through school.
"I hope you understand the severity of our situation, and think with your hearts, not just the dollars," Keck wrote, punctuating the letter with a photo of her bare refrigerator after paying bills and buying CARE tickets.
Larry Hagin, GRTC's director for government affairs and planning, said it costs GRTC about $30 for each extended, one-way trip, and that demand for the CARE service has increased by roughly 75 percent in the past 10 years.
Hagin pointed out that officials had already weighed a number of CARE options and that the plan had been pared back from the original proposal, adding that it might not be possible to come up with a more palatable plan.