With little fanfare, the Utah Transit Authority's Board of Trustees approved a $140 million budget on Wednesday that gives UTA the option to implement a 25-cent surcharge on transit rides next year.

The surcharge was proposed as a way to combat $6 million in unanticipated fuel costs next year. With diesel prices falling, however, UTA officials are optimistic the surcharge won't be needed. Tentative plans are to implement it in June.

"Right now we're keeping our fingers crossed," said UTA general manager John Inglish. "But the budget does presume it."

This week, UTA paid $1.71 per gallon of fuel for its buses. The agency's 2006 budget presumes it will pay an average of $2.50 per gallon. Ken Montague, UTA general manager for support services, said prices would need to linger around $2 or $2.10 for the surcharge not to be considered for implementation.

"It depends on the duration," he said.

Other key aspects of UTA's budget include a $10.6 million increase in expenses over 2006. About $6 million is attributed to fuel costs, the rest to administrative and operational expenses. UTA employees are anticipated to receive a 3 percent cost of living raise next year.

UTA's 2006 budget also includes $175 million in municipal bonds to help pay for construction of commuter rail in Weber, Davis and Salt Lake counties. The board approved the issuance of those bonds on Tuesday. UTA officials anticipate the bonds will be repaid over time through a federal funding process.

During the board meeting, one representative from a low-income advocacy group, the Anti-Hunger Action Committee, asked that UTA consider the ramifications of implementing the surcharge and a fare increase planned for implementation in January.

The representative also suggested that UTA follow goals and ideas presented during a forum Tuesday about public transportation and low-income Utahns. The forum was hosted by the Anti-Hunger Action Committee. About 26 people attended and approximately 23 spoke.

Most who spoke gave suggestions for increasing ridership and enhancing service by adding benches near bus stops. Jerry Cosley asked that UTA consider the plight of Utahns on a fixed income who can't afford fare increases. Since 1994, the cost of a full-price ride on a UTA bus has risen 85 cents.

"To put the highest cost on the backs of those who can least afford it is unconscionable," Cosley said. "I think you have to walk a mile in someone's shoes. Have some compassion; have some common decency."

UTA currently contracts with low-income and homeless service providers to give discounted or free tickets to needy riders. Orrin Colby, president of the UTA Board of Trustees, told those at Tuesday's meeting that their concerns would be considered and that UTA would work to assist them.

"We can do what we can do," he said, "and we do try really hard."


E-mail: nwarburton@desnews.com