Santa Rosa boosted bus fares and cut back service levels Tuesday in what officials called an unfortunate but necessary response to a $1 million budget gap.

The City Council unanimously agreed to a plan that raises the cash price of a bus fare from $1.25 to $1.50 Feb. 1, reduces the frequency of service mostly on lesser–used suburban routes, and tightens policies to crack down on transfer abuse.

Anita Winkler, the city's deputy director of transit, told the City Council her department took no pleasure in the changes, but said it had no other choice given the drops in sales tax the department has experienced.

"We are really in a pretty bad, stuck position right now of not having a lot of options," Winkler said.

About 46 percent of the department's $14 million budget comes from sales taxes, she said.

When the recession hit, the department was able to plug the funding gaps using federal stimulus funds, but now that money is gone, she said.

Council members were sympathetic and praised the department for coming up with a reasonable solution to the problem.

"It really is an impossible and untenable, no-win situation in many ways," Councilman Scott Bartley said.

But a number of riders were upset with the cost increases and route cutbacks, several of which would see the frequency drop from every 30 minutes to once an hour.

Abel Jeffcoat, a Bennett Valley resident who uses a wheelchair and takes the bus to his job at a telecommunications firm downtown, said he now faced a one-hour wait if he misses his bus or if there isn't room for his wheelchair on a bus.

"How can you increase fees and cut service?" Jeffcoat said before the council meeting.

He likened it to a restaurant that increased the cost of a hamburger by $1 and only served half a hamburger.

Jeffcoat attended one of the public hearings held on the changes, and said he got the impression they were a done deal and public input was just a formality that didn't change the recommendations.

Amy Alvarez is a sophomore at Montgomery High School and takes the bus home most afternoons. She said she had no idea the fares were going up.

"I think that sucks, because that's how we get our education," Alvarez said.

A quarter more per day may not seem like much to some people, but it can add up quickly, she said.

"People are hella poor these days," she said.

Winkler acknowledged the cutbacks will hurt, but said the department worked hard to trim routes that were underperforming, meaning they carried the fewest number of riders.

"We know this is going to do damage. We know this is going to be painful in some cases," Winkler said. "One of our goals was to do as little damage as we can to our riders."

Some complained about the loss of Sunday service on the Route 1, which goes up Mendocino Avenue, past Sutter Medical Center of Santa Rosa, and loops through Fountaingrove. They worried about limiting people's access to the emergency room.

But transit officials said only emergency room admissions are allowed on Sunday, and those folks shouldn't be taking the bus anyway.

The routes that are being cut are also not all in one area of the city, said Rachel Ede, transit planner.

"The pain is somewhat distributed throughout the service area," she said.

The system has 17 fixed routes gave more 3 million rides last year, 93 percent of which were on-time, defined as departing within five minutes of the scheduled time.

The last time fares went up was 2008, when they went from $1.10 to $1.25.

Councilwoman Susan Gorin said she reluctantly voted for the changes, but she was concerned that they were created a "feedback loop" where the higher fares and lower service would decrease ridership, creating a vicious cycle.

"This isn't going to help ridership," Gorin said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. OnTwitter @citybeater