The East Valley Chambers of Commerce Alliance has come out against a proposed fare increase for bus and light-rail service.
In a letter to the Valley Metro board of directors, released Wednesday, the alliance said it would be counterproductive to charge commuters up to a dollar more, as that could limit workers' access to their jobs and decrease the number of riders.
And if ridership declines, the letter continued, that jeopardizes federal funding of future mass-transit expansion because that money will be tied to the proven use of a successful system.
"The region could be forfeiting hundreds of million dollars in federal support to save local dollars," alliance chairwoman Marilyn Joyce said.
That warning came a day before Valley Metro's board learned at its Thursday meeting that ridership in the 2007-08 fiscal year reached an all-time high of 60.2 million.
The alliance is Arizona's largest chamber of commerce organization, with more than 7,500 members represented in Ahwatukee Foothills, Apache Junction, Chandler, Gilbert, Mesa, Queen Creek, Scottsdale and Tempe.
Valley Metro is proposing to charge as much as $2.25 for a one-ride fare, up from the current cost of $1.25. Also affected would be the all-day, three-day, seven-day and 31-day passes.
The agency is considering smaller increases, as well.
Valley Metro's board is slated to discuss the fare hikes at its Feb. 19 meeting; a new fare structure could go into effect as early as July.
Transit officials have said the weak economy is combining with higher costs to create a budget shortfall. Also, Valley Metro wants the share of the costs paid by riders at 25 percent - but that number is forecast to drop to 22.1 percent by 2012.
Valley Metro spokeswoman Susan Tierney said a representative from the chamber alliance previously voiced these sentiments at two public meetings held in recent weeks.
"It helps to hear the different issues and positions that the public and local businesses have," Tierney said.
The chamber alliance also warned against raising fares so soon after Metro light rail's opening late last month. Doing so, the letter said, risks the negative public perception of "mortgaging the bus system to pay for rail."
As a solution, the alliance suggested Valley Metro change its advertising policies.
Currently, ads are not permitted on Metro's trains or at the stations. However, an exception was made for the upcoming National Basketball Association All-Star Game, which will be played Feb. 15 at downtown Phoenix's US Airways Center. Trains will be wrapped with ads, and the Phoenix Suns will advertise at two stations near the arena.
"A simple adjustment in the transit advertising policies could produce significant revenue from tasteful advertising on transit assets," the chamber alliance's letter said. "Area businesses would also benefit from the additional exposure."
People can comment on Valley Metro's proposed fare hike through Saturday by e-mail (fares@ValleyMetro.org), phone (602-253-5000) or by writing Valley Metro RPTA, Attn.: Fare Program Manager, 302 N. First Ave. Suite 700, Phoenix, AZ 85003.
Meanwhile, Thursday's meeting of the Valley Metro board was highlighted by a presentation of growing ridership numbers in the fiscal year that ended last June.
Ridership on the agency's local, express, Bus Rapid Transit, neighborhood circulator and rural connector routes was up from the year before by 3.5 percent.
High gas prices, peaking at more than $4 per gallon, and added service were credited for sending more commuters toward Valley Metro.
However, the presentation also showed the cost of fuel hurt Valley Metro in its efforts to reach goals related to operating costs.