Only months after new city taxi fares were established, officials are considering raising municipal bus fares.
The current fare of 25 cents was established 11 years ago and bus companies say it allows little margin for maintenance, purchase of new buses and shareholder profits. Based on the inflation rate, they say fares should be 42 cents.
Some riders, however, say they will mount protests if fares go up, saying that poor people cannot afford to pay more. The University of Cuenca’s chapter of the Federation of Ecuador University Students is demanding that rates remain unchanged and say the government should subsidize the cost of any increases.
As it did with the taxi fare increase, the Cuenca city council has ordered a study of bus fares and expects to receive recommendations in December. Analysts from the Barcelona, Spain Metropolitan Transport Corporation and from the University of Cuenca have been given contracts to conduct the research.
Until recently, municipal bus rates were set by the federal government and included subsidies to bus companies to provide half-price fares to the elderly, the handicapped and other disadvantaged groups. The 25 cents fare has been in effect, nationwide, since 2002. In August, the government decided to turn responsibility for public buses over to the municipalities and said they would provide some, but not all, of the subsidy money. The government also said that municipalities could establish their own fare schedule based on local conditions.
In conversations with bus companies and riders, Cuenca transportation officials have heard complaints from both sides.
“The quality of the service is terrible,” says Juan Santos, a student at the University of Azuay. “Bus drivers are discourteous and the buses themselves are in bad repair. I don’t think we should pay more until the service improves.”
Bus owners, on the other hand, say they cannot afford to hire more drivers or update the bus fleet without more money. Wilmer Bravo, president of the Chamber of Transportation, which represents bus companies, says that low fares means that drivers are forced to work overtime and that many of the 475 municipal buses cannot be properly maintained.
“Fares need to consider the economic reality of today, not 10 or 12 years ago,” Bravo says. He recommends that those studying fares consider such factors as inflation, the number of miles traveled per bus, number of riders, driver hours and the fare collection system.
The university student federation says that 70% of bus riders cannot afford to pay more than the current 25 cents, and say they will mobilize nationally if fares in major cities increase. Since the late 1930, bus fare increases have resulted in a number large-scale protests, including prolonged road closures and national strikes.
Cuenca Mayor Marcelo Cabrera says that fares need to increase. “We need to replace the old, polluting buses with new ones. At the same time, we need improved service and hire more professional drivers,” he said.
Last month, Loja raised bus fares to 30 cents, the first city in the country to make the move.