Rebecca Poore has a hard time getting around. The Prince Frederick resident, who is disabled and depends on a monthly welfare check of $185, said she cannot afford to buy a car or pay taxi fares.
Poore, 38, said she has only one option for mobility: the Calvert County public transit system, which lets senior citizens and welfare recipients ride its buses for free.
"It's not that I don't want to pay," she said. "I just can't afford to."
The Board of County Commissioners is considering across-the-board fare increases that would impose fees on seniors and welfare recipients for the first time. The staff members keeping track of transit operation finances say the increases are necessary to maintain the system, which has run $100,000 deficits in recent years.
Under the proposed rate plan, senior citizens and welfare recipients would pay 75 cents for general bus fare and 35 cents for a shuttle bus. Poore, who rides the shuttle bus up to four times a day, said she cannot afford the increases.
"I'll probably have to walk," she said. "The 35 cents would cause a great hardship."
Poore was one of a half-dozen opponents of the increases who spoke at a public hearing last week and asked the commissioners to modify the plan. Several senior citizens and members of the county's Commission on Aging said the proposal would hurt the elderly.
"Is it really absolutely necessary to have the changes?" said Dimitri Zafiropulos, 78, of Prince Frederick. "There are a lot of seniors out there that cannot afford to pay this increase."
Under the current system, senior citizens and welfare recipients are asked to pay a donation. Robert Rollins, the county's transportation supervisor, said that approach left too much discretion to drivers, who were supposed to determine whether a rider could afford to pay a fare. The proposed plan would set a uniform policy for all riders to follow.
"Nobody will get on the bus and want to ride for free," Rollins said. "We just want a system where everybody has to put something in the fare box."
The proposal would also raise fares for the general public from $1.25 to $1.50 and shuttle fares from 50 cents to 75 cents.
Several commissioners said they would not vote for the fare increases before implementing a program to provide free passes to county residents who cannot afford bus fees.
"We need to put a system in place that accommodates those people through free tokens or free vouchers," said Commissioner Susan Shaw (R-Huntingtown). "If your income is $550 in Calvert County, you can't afford [to pay] a penny."
But Maureen T. Hoffman, director of the Department of Community Resources, said the transportation budget is stretched thin.
"We've just not identified the funding for those free trip coupons," Hoffman said.
Zafiropulos said the county cannot abandon its most vulnerable residents. The commissioners, he said, should subsidize public transportation to ensure that the poor can afford it.
"We have a moral obligation to the senior citizens who cannot afford to pay this increase," he said. "The county can afford to absorb this loss."
Commissioner Gerald W. Clark (R-Lusby) seemed to agree.
"For us to give seniors a free ride . . . is costing us $40,000 or $50,000 out of the county budget," he said. "I guess my answer is: So what?"
Hoffman said she appreciated the testimony of the seniors and low-income riders but said budget constraints could not be ignored.
"They are very heartfelt," she said. "But for us, it comes down to a business. It's very expensive."