Santa Monica transit agency representatives are recommending a restructuring in bus fare rates to close an operating budget gap that has swelled to nearly $2 million.

Under the new recommendations, the proposed increase in transit fares on the city’s Big Blue Bus line could either double from 75 cents to $1.50 for a one-way trip, or go up to $1.25.

Senior citizens would pay 25 cents and local elementary, middle school and high school students’ fares would increase from 50 to 75 cents under the new fare plan.

“We’re flush with capital funds for infrastructure projects, but we’re operating at a deficit with our operating budget,” explained Linda Gamberg, marketing and public information coordinator at the Big Blue Bus. “It’s a very unusual situation for us. We’ve never been in this position before.”

The federal transportation funds, which are earmarked for specific uses, cannot be used for operating costs. The money that the transit agency has used for infrastructure, including the recent interactive stop sign shelter initiative called “The Blue Spots,” is from American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds in 2009.

The Big Blue Bus raised its transit rates in 2007 for the first time in over 20 years and has a projected operating budget deficit between $1.7 million to $16.8 million over the next three years, agency officials said.

Municipalities have seen funds that would normally go to operating costs in their transportation departments evaporate over the last few years as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature have raided millions of dollars from gasoline tax coffers to reduce the budget deficit, a fact that is not lost on Big Blue Bus.

“Transit funds have been diverted to pay for the state budget, and along with a drop in sales tax, that has contributed to our operating deficit,” Gamberg said.

Chuck Levin, who has been a lifelong commuter on the Big Blue Bus, was saddened to hear that an agency that he describes as “no better bus agency in the country” is considering raising its fares.

“The Big Blue Bus is an outstanding bus agency,” Levin, a Santa Monica resident, began. “What makes it so vital is their dependability, the courteous drivers and the fares are reasonable.”

But he grew upset upon learning that local transit officials are considering raising its bus fare rates.

“When a municipal agency announces to the public that the only two choices are to raise its fares or to cut services, that is not meeting the challenges that residents of Santa Monica expect,” Levin asserted.

Gamberg says that her agency is attempting to avoid service reductions by raising the fares.

“We’ve also taken some voluntary internal costs saving measures so we do not pass the challenges of our budget onto our riders,” she said. “Another strategy would be to reduce service, which we don’t want to do.

“Raising our box fares is the fastest way to bridge the budget gap.”

Santa Monica College and UCLA students will not see any changes to their current programs, where SMC students ride for free.

“The GO Bruin Program will also remain in effect without any changes,” Gamberg said.

Later this year, Big Blue Bus will begin offering a 30-day pass, which can be purchased at any time of the month, along with its current day pass.

“We want people to get the full value of the fare,” Gamberg said regarding the 30-day pass.

The City Council will vote on the rate increase next month. Gamberg said her agency is asking that it be on the March 23rd agenda.