A 25-cent increase in Twin Cities bus and rail fares is a potential solution to expected cuts in transit funding.

The Metropolitan Council is expected to talk about the possibility of increasing fares -- already among the highest in the nation -- in discussing its budget with legislators Wednesday.

"It's being actively considered along with other options," Metro Transit general manager Brian Lamb said Tuesday.

Gov. Mark Dayton raised the prospect of increasing fares for the first time since 2008 in his budget proposal, saying the hike may be needed to avoid serious cuts in service. Lending momentum to the idea are key Republican legislators who are calling for cuts in transit funding.

Given the rise in gasoline prices for motorists, "expecting ...to pay another 25 cents a ride doesn't seem an unreasonable idea to ponder," said Rep. Michael Beard, R-Shakopee, chairman of the House Transportation Policy and Finance Committee.

But a transit advocate said the impact is magnified by other fare hikes that have outpaced inflation in recent years.

"We don't need another fare increase," said Barb Thoman, executive director of Transit for Livable Communities.

A 25-cent increase would raise current base fares from $1.75 to $2, and from $2.25 to $2.50 during rush hours. Express fares would rise from $2.25 to $2.50 and from $3 to $3.25 in rush hours.

Transit fares in the Twin Cities already are among the highest 25 percent in the nation, Lamb said. Base fares were $1.25 in 2003 -- about $1.50 today when adjusted for inflation.

Transit operated by the Metropolitan Council serves Minneapolis, St. Paul and dozens of suburban communities in seven counties, and includes the Hiawatha light-rail line and the Northstar commuter train.

The system gets more money from dedicated motor vehicle sales taxes than from the state general fund, but the general fund is vulnerable to cuts because of the state's projected $6.2 billion budget deficit.

Dayton's budget calls for a nearly $11 million cut in state general fund money for transit over the next biennium -- a 9 percent reduction -- and maintaining that reduction in 2014 and 2015. He painted a dismal picture of the long-range impact.

"This permanent ...reduction will have an increasingly significant impact on the council's ability to maintain existing bus and rail service and start up Central Corridor LRT in the 2014-15 biennium," his budget proposal said.

Service cuts would be tricky

Based on projected revenue, "existing service levels cannot be maintained," the proposal said. "To minimize the impact of service reductions, the council may consider a 25-cent 'across the board' fare increase for bus and rail." Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, another member of the Transportation Committee, said: "It's either cutting routes or raising fares or both. My sense is they may have to do a little of both."

Lamb said Tuesday that a fare increase is more likely than service cutbacks because the agency already has trimmed lesser routes; eliminating more would cut into the meat of the system.

He said the options would likely be discussed at Wednesday's meeting of the Transportation Committee.

The Metropolitan Council would need to hold public hearings before it could increase fares or substantially reduce service. Lamb and Dayton envisioned any fare increase taking effect late this year or January 2012.

A 25-cent fare increase would generate an additional $6 million annually but likely reduce ridership by about 3 percent over a year, Lamb said.

"Every time you have a fee increase you have a disincentive to ride the bus," Thoman said.

Pat Doyle • 651-222-1210