Riders of Howard Transit buses will pay more starting today because fares are being increased for the first time since the transportation service was created seven years ago.

Howard County officials said the higher fares, which were approved in May, are designed to reduce the system's operating deficit and help offset higher gasoline and labor costs associated with operating the 25 green buses.

"No bus system pays for itself," said Carl Balser, the county's transportation chief. "There is federal, state and local money that goes into it, and the fares just help close the gap of operating."

The standard adult fare will increase from $1 to $1.50. The discount fare for seniors, people with disabilities and students will double, to 50 cents.

Balser said the increase will generate an additional $100,000 to $120,000 annually, depending on how many riders stop using the service because of the higher fares. The system has a $7 million budget this year.

The fare increase, approved by the county's seven-member Public Transportation Board, follows Howard's decision to save $800,000 this spring by increasing wait times. Formerly, a bus used to pass a stop every 45 minutes, but it now takes at least an hour for a bus to return to a stop, Balser said. Some buses on lightly traveled midday routes run every two hours.

The service cuts are part of an effort to close a shortfall in the county's public transportation budget, totaling $5.5 million over two years. In December, county officials discovered they had failed to allocate the local matching share for federal and state transportation grants in the fiscal 2003 and 2004 budgets.

In recent months, ridership has declined slightly because of the longer wait times, Balser said. The five-year trend shows significant ridership growth, from about 184,000 riders in 2000 to an expected 670,000 this year.

"We think that curve is leveling off, and hopefully it is going to start rising again," Balser said.