The city is hoping to soften the impact of a doubling of bus fare in town by offering free bus tokens to low income residents.

The city is hoping to soften the impact of increased bus fare by offering free bus tokens to low-income residents.

A City Council majority voted in May to change the city's subsidy of Rogue Valley Transit District bus service so that buses would come every 15 minutes instead of every half hour. To fund the more frequent bus service, fares in Ashland were raised from 50 cents to $1.

The council earmarked $10,000 for free bus tokens for low-income residents.

The change to more frequent service but higher fares went into effect last week.

Ashland High School staff members will distribute free bus tokens to low-income students, while Ashland Senior Center staff members will give out the tokens to low-income residents who are 62 or older. Low-income adults who are younger than 62 can also get free bus tokens at the senior center if they live in Ashland and have a current Oregon Trail Card, city officials said.

Oregon Trail Cards, which took the place of food stamps in the state, are government-issued debit cards that low income people use to buy goods at grocery stores. City Councilor Eric Navickas suggested in the spring that the cards could be used as an efficient way to identify low-income people.

Adults who are applying to get bus tokens at the senior center must prove that they live in town by showing a driver's license, identification card, city utility bill, Social Security statement or other document or official mailing.

Residents who use RVTD's Valley Lift van — which serves frail seniors, people with disabilities and others who can't use the regular bus — can get free tokens by showing a current Valley Lift card.

Residents who think they qualify for free bus or Valley Lift tokens can call the Senior Center at 488-5352 to set up a time to meet with staff.

Even with a doubling of bus fare to $1 in Ashland, residents here still pay less than the $2 people elsewhere in the Rogue Valley pay to use the bus.

That's because the City Council voted to pay $187,588 this fiscal year to subsidize RVTD bus service in town to increase frequency and also keep bus fare here lower than elsewhere.

The $1 bus fare in Ashland is for a one-way trip. But a person can request a "transfer" that is good for another bus trip within 90 minutes.

"So, essentially $1 is good for a round-trip if taken within 90 minutes," RVTD Senior Planner Paige Townsend said.

It's too early to tell whether the changes in bus service in Ashland will have an impact on the number of people who ride the bus, Townsend said.

The city has subsidized RVTD bus service in town for years to boost ridership in order to cut traffic congestion and pollution, provide an alternative to cars and reduce wear and tear on roads.

In 2006, bus use shot up to 150,000 trips per year when rides were free in Ashland and buses came every 15 minutes.

But after RVTD asked for a big increase in the amount the city paid to subsidize service, the City Council decided fares would have to be 50 cents per trip and buses would come only every half hour.

Bus rides plummeted to just above 40,000 trips, and declined to under 40,000 in the past year, according to RVTD.

Meanwhile, bus use in other parts of the Rogue Valley grew 16 percent and many cities in the nation saw bus ridership rise 10 percent to 20 percent, according to RVTD officials.

RVTD officials surmised that Ashlanders care more about bus frequency than low bus fare — leading the City Council to try its newest experiment on adjusting frequency and fares to increase ridership.

The city would have to spend $268,651 to have free bus service, and even then, buses would come only every half-hour, according numbers provided by RVTD.

That amount is $81,063 more than the City Council agreed to spend to subsidize bus service this fiscal year.

Johanna Garrido, who lives in Talent and works in Ashland, was recently taking a lunch break at the bus stop in front of the Ashland Public Library.

She said she sometimes takes the bus loop within Ashland and doesn't like that fares have increased from 50 cents to $1.

"The time between the buses was quite reasonable. Half an hour was fine," Garrido said.

Another woman at the bus stop said she wasn't bothered by the fare increase.

"The buses are coming twice as often. I don't mind paying more. It's not a big deal," she said.

Then an RVTD bus arrived and she hopped on board without having time to give her name.

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.