Cut-price child fares could be in the firing line following a cash crisis over concessionary travel.
If cheap fares are scrapped, some hard-pressed families will face extra costs running into hundreds of pounds a year to send their children to school by bus.
The problem has arisen in Tyne & Wear, where children can travel on the public transport network for 60p a trip or £1.10 for a day ticket under a scheme supported by councils and the transport authority.
But the funding crisis affecting free bus travel for pensioners and the disabled means transport chiefs may have to look for cuts elsewhere, including subsidised children’s fares.
The child fare scheme is safe until 2015 but if it’s scrapped families would probably have to pay between £100 and £300 extra a year for each child using the bus for school.
Public transport provider Nexus and the Tyne & Wear Integrated Transport Authority must by law operate the free bus pass scheme for 240,000 pensioners and disabled people.
Money is provided by the Government to the five Tyne & Wear councils which is then passed on to the transport authority via a levy.
The scheme costs £40m but there is a £17m funding gap expected to rise to £20m and if this is not plugged members of the ITA will have make cuts.
The subsidised child fare scheme, which is discretionary and believed to cost around £3m, is one target along with subsidised bus routes, including school, work, weekend and evening services
About 40,000 youngsters between five and 16 have Pop cards which cost £5, entitling them to cut price travel on the transport network including buses and Metro.
If the scheme is scrapped they would have to pay around 80p to £1.30 for a single bus ticket.
Coun David Wood, chairman of the ITA, said they have met MPs and he has personally raised the matter with the Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin, but they will have to consider cuts if the funding gap is not sorted out by 2015.
“Members are horrified that this could happen,” he said. “The impact on families who are already struggling financially would be horrendous. We have to support concessionary travel for pensioners and disabled people by law and what money is left is used for other services.
“If we don’t get enough money we have to look at other areas which are not statutory including child fares and secured services.”
At the heart of the problem is a funding formula which dishes out money based on the number of elderly people in the area but does not take into account overall bus use.
Coun Greg Stone, a Liberal Democrat member of the ITA, said: “The concessionary travel funding formula has been problematic for a number of years under both the previous and current governments.
“The concessionary fare scheme for older people is a national government policy but it falls on local authorities to fund and the formula grant provided doesn't cover the full cost. As this is a national policy, I feel there is a strong case for the cost being met directly by national government via the Department for Transport. Regrettably, both the previous and current governments haven't seen fit to do this.’’
A delegation led by Newcastle City Council leader Nick Forbes met Mr McLoughlin in May and told him that unless the Government funding formula changes services will be lost.
Coun Forbes said: “We have always been strongly committed to supporting children’s travel on public transport and it would be a hugely backwards step if that concession was lost as a result of Government cuts.’’
Nexus already spends two-thirds of the total money it receives from local councils on concessionary travel.