About two dozen transit advocates attended a Metropolitan Council committee meeting Monday to oppose a possible hike in Metro Transit bus and light-rail fares.

"You would be taking away people's freedom to move around," said Harry Maddox from the nonprofit group St. Paul Smart Trips/Transit for Livable Communities.

The Met Council's Transportation Committee is considering a number of scenarios involving a possible increase, and no proposal is formally in play. A series of public hearings would be held later this spring before any increase is implemented. A fare increase, if enacted, likely would occur by the end of the year.

The last fare increase was in 2008.

But the regional planning body is facing a budget crunch, due in part to a $34 million projected decline in motor-vehicle sales tax revenue through fiscal 2019. This is a tax consumers pay when they buy a new or used vehicle.

At the same time, the Met Council is projecting a $24 million deficit over the next two years related to its Metro Mobility bus service — a federally mandated service for senior citizens and people with disabilities. Demand for the service is expected to surge, party attributable to aging baby boomers in need of transport.

Faced with those budget realities, the Transportation Committee has been mulling a fare increase for several months. Alternatives include administrative cutbacks and reductions in transit service, said Nick Eull, Metro Transit's senior manager of revenue operations.

Met Council staff has proposed three different ways to hike fares.

• A fare increase of 25 cents on local and express service. (Fares now range from $1.75 for nonpeak service to $3 for some express bus routes.) This option would result in a 4.7 percent decrease in ridership but raise an additional $6.2 million a year.

• Increase local service fares by 25 cents and express service by 50 cents. This would result in a 5.7 percent decrease in ridership and an additional $6.9 million in revenue.

• Increase local and peak local fares by 25 cents and create a single express fare of $3.50 for all time periods. This would raise $7.1 million, but ridership would decrease 6 percent.

None of these scenarios appealed to the transit advocates and users attending Monday's meeting.

Community organizer Mel Reeves characterized the proposals as "civic backwardness" and said "people of color and poor folks who ride every day would be hurt more than most."

A fare increase could be offset by a Transit Assistance Pass program for low-income transit users. The program, which offers subsidized fares, is now in a test phase, but preliminary feedback is positive, Eull said.

Met Council officials stressed that a fare increase alone will not resolve its budget woes.

The Council supports Gov. Mark Dayton's proposal to enact a half-cent transit sales tax to help pay for public transportation in the metro area. This would raise about $300 million a year for transit.

With a Republican-controlled Legislature, the prospect of the tax passing at the Capitol is unclear.

Amity Foster, who works for the St. Paul progressive group ISAIAH, said members of the Transportation Committee and transit advocates need to push the Legislature to support public transit. Legislators are "sticks in the mud" when it comes to transit, she said.

Two bills pending at the legislature call for transit systems in Minnesota to have a farebox recovery ratio of 60 percent. Farebox recovery is the amount of a transit system's operating costs that are covered by fares. By improving this measure, the Met Council would realize additional revenue for transit operations.

A 60 percent rate would be a big jump. Express bus service in the metro has a farebox recovery ratio of 37 percent, while Metro Transit's Green and Blue light-rail lines have a recovery ratio of 35 percent, followed by local bus at 22 percent.

Rep. Mark Uglem, R-Champlin, who introduced the farebox recovery bill in the House, said Monday he supports a Metro Transit fare hike, especially since there hasn't been an increase since 2008.

"You go to the grocery store, the furniture store, even when you get a cappuccino, the prices have gone up since 2008," Uglem said.

Janet Moore • 612-673-7752