Rising Fuel Costs and Ridership Strain Local Transit Systems Nationwide

syracuse_bus_stop.jpg
Waiting for the bus in Syracuse, NY.

Transit agencies all over the country are nearing a state of emergency. At the same time that rising gas prices are leading more Americans to opt for buses and trains, transit operators are being forced to cut service and raise fares due to budget shortfalls.

In Minneapolis, the
local transit agency is pondering not one but two fare hikes. Seattle’s Metro is considering bumping up fares for the second time this year to stave off service cuts. Gainesville, Florida is confronting a double whammy of higher fares and reduced bus service. In western Massachusetts, one county transit authority faces what its manager calls a "make or break" moment, as many locals try riding the bus for the first time and evaluate their options.

As the Wall Street Journal reported last month (preview only), much of this is due to the impact of higher fuel costs on transit budgets. The upshot? The capacity of many transit systems, particularly in smaller cities, is shrinking just when more service is needed most. People looking to save money and travel more energy-efficiently are being penalized in the process.

"This is an emergency," says Larry Hanley, an International Vice President at Amalgamated Transit Union who negotiates transit worker contracts in towns and cities throughout the Northeast. "Particularly in smaller cities where the transit systems don’t have any cushion or margin for increased operating costs."

Nationwide, 48 percent of bus operators and 69 percent of rail
operators have already raised fares due to increased fuel and
electricity costs, according to a survey
released in May by the American Public Transit Association. In terms of
service cuts, the figures are 21 percent and 19 percent, respectively.

Working with Minnesota Congressman Jim Oberstar and environmental organizations, the ATU was instrumental in pushing the "Saving Energy Through Public Transportation Act of 2008" through the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this year (download the bill). The legislation provides emergency federal aid for transit systems and promotes the use of alternative fuels. No Senate version of the bill has emerged, but Hanley, a former Staten Island bus driver, remains optimistic. "This legislation moved quickly through the House because members of Congress recognize that this is a crisis." 

Hanley believes the benefits of federal support for mass transit are wide-ranging and more effective than alternatives currently being discussed. "Congress can cut a ‘fiscal stimulus’ check so Americans can go to Wal-Mart and buy products made in China or we can ‘Drill, Drill, Drill,’ for six months-worth of oil," Hanley said. But, if the federal government really wants "to stimulate local economies, help the
environment and strengthen national defense by reducing oil dependence, it’s hard to find a better
public investment than mass transit." If the Senate fails to act on the Oberstar bill, a second opportunity to provide funds may come in the fall, if Congress decides to pursue another economic stimulus package.

Meanwhile, stories of transit systems in distress can be found all over the nation, from Utah to Wisconsin to South Carolina. Either each agency will scrimp and make do as best they can, making life more difficult for countless riders and keeping yet more Americans from switching to bus and rail, or Congress and the President will take a real step toward addressing the gas price crunch by shoring up the nation’s transit systems. What’s it gonna be?

Photo: danifink/Flickr

  • Felix

    I’m baffled. It doesn’t seem to me that it would take many extra riders to make up for the extra cost of fuel.

    For instance: Let’s say a bus gets 8 miles to a gallon (I hope this isn’t too far off). Gas now costs an extra $2 per gallon. So, on each 8-mile run, the bus would need only two more customers paying $1 each to make up the difference.

    What’s wrong with my analysis?

  • The problem with your analysis is that riders are a burden to most bus systems. They lose money every time someone boards. That’s certainly true for the Muni system depicted in the photograph.

  • Larry Littlefield

    This is an emergency.”

    Not for you, not as long as the debts and pensions get paid. There is no real mandate for transit agencies to provide transit service.

    “The problem with your analysis is that riders are a burden to most bus systems. They lose money every time someone boards.”

    Only if they increase service. Most transit in small areas runs empty, and actually burns more fuel per passenger mile as a result. Filling those seats ought to really help, especially during off peak periods. The rise in off-peak ridership is the only positive financial story for NY’s MTA in the past 15 years.

    If they really are adding passengers, and those passengers are paying, that ought to be enough to cover the rising cost of fuel. And very few transit systems have the kind of debt that has been foisted upon NY’s MTA.

    The cost of pensions and retiree health care are another matter. The more people lose health insurance, the more the health care industry will try to shift costs to public employees, who are generally entitled to unlimited health services at an unlimited cost. And all those investment losses increase the cost of pensions.

  • Christian

    Busses get far worse fuel economy.

    A bendy bus will get about 1.7mpg, and the best new hybrid might get close to 4mpg. It’s easy to see why the diesel increases are hitting them hard.

  • d

    It may have something to do with the fact that the economy is down across the country, leading to lower tax revenues, and therefore fewer federal and state subsidies to local transit systems. In some cities, fares alone do not cover operating expenses and they depend on money from the government to cover the gap. Increased ridership might not make up for this downturn.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “It may have something to do with the fact that the economy is down across the country, leading to lower tax revenues”

    That certainly plays a role, and it will get worse. Which is why back when I thought there was some hope for public services sand benefits, I argued that mass transit was better off relying on fares to the extent possible and not entirely on subsidies, as the Kheel Plan would require.

  • anonymouse

    I love, by the way, how the illustration is of a San Francisco trolleybus, which is almost certainly completely unaffected by rising fuel costs. It’s powered by electricity, the ultimate “alternative fuel”, and that electricity is generated at the Hetch Hetchy dam, which, like Muni, is owned by the City and County of San Francisco. Oh yes, and it’s definitely true that adding riders to a bus that’s already there is a gain for the operator, and for rail, but not bus, systems, I suspect that it’s even a net gain to run an extra trip with an existing train, assuming the train is reasonably full.

  • 58.82 gallons per 100 miles at 1.7 mpg (Christians bus figure)
    25 gallons per 100 miles at 4mpg (Christian’s hybrid bus figure)
    3.33 gallons per 100 miles at 30mpg (A relatively good fuel economy car)

    So, if you have that–all other things aside–it takes 17.6 people turning in their 30mpg cars for the bus to equal the amount of fuel used or 7.5 on a hybrid bus. I could see why all routes averaged you might have some problems always fitting 17.5, especially outside of big cities. I also hope you’re wrong on that 1.7mpg figure which seems really low–not that 4 seems high but you can see how much of a difference it makes on gallons per 100 miles.

  • *Cringes* Wikipedia cites a UK Parliament figure that the average bus occupancy is 9 but the mpg per passenger is 98. I’d like to see figure on miles per gallon per person for all the transit systems in the world…

  • Anonymouse,

    Nice catch! We’re going to change the photo.

    We’ve either got this photo depicting local bus service in the average American city circa 2013:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/ejazasi/253032421/

    Or one from Syracuse.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Per the New York Times, discussing the MTA:

    “The authority’s old-fashioned diesel buses get about 2.5 miles per gallon, Mr. LaBouff said. The current fleet of 825 hybrid buses gets 3.2 miles per gallon (the buses thrive on stop-and-go traffic, since the braking action charges the batteries). The authority expects the lithium-ion hybrids to get about 3.5 miles per gallon.”

  • Larry Hanley

    “Of its $1.5 million deficit, $1.3 million came from fueling costs ”

    The above quote coming from the story in the Gainesville paper today..

    The undisputable fact is that the huge increases in fuel costs are forcing agencies all across the nation to make serious service cuts.

    I almost got into this argument of -at what point on the sliderule do costs exceed new fares but that’s just a way to ignore the magnitude of the strain of the extra riders.

    If we are to have a real time choice other than more wars for more oil it will be a massive increase in mass transit. Good for the economy,the environment and national defense.

  • The city it seems always cuts transit first whenever there’s a budget crisis; now they’re trying to decide whether to scale down or scrap East Side Access, 2nd Ave Subway, or Flushing Line extension to the Jav.

    The money must be found for all three of them.

    http://www.forgotten-ny.com

    (currently down but hope to be back soon)

  • The #7 extension is only of value for developers, and it’s silly to spend that much money on new development in a recession.

    However, I’ve provided a handy Spreadsheet o’ Boondoggles ripe for th’ cutting!

  • Larry Littlefield

    I’ll say it again (or perhaps for the first time here): anything that isn’t built by 2015 to 2020 never will be. The question from that point is how much will deteriorate and be abandoned.

    Demographics, and the cost of health care and pensions, make it so, at all levels of government. There is no other outcome. The people are there. They are broke. And they are aging.

    The time to put in place a better infrastructure was the past 35 years, with the whole baby boom in the labor force, two per families in intact families, and the highest labor force participation we’ll ever see. We didn’t. We partied instead.

    Now we have debts to pay, senior benefits to pay, and fewer people to pay them. This country is going broke. The transit systems are being made by demographics and international finance.

  • Larry Littlefield

    You don’t believe me? Sixteen years ago there was a debate about the need for univeral insurance for basic health care.

    Since then government spending on health care has soared. But so has the share of uninsured, especially among the young. More spending on those already in the system, culminating in the prescription drug benefit addition to Medicare, too the place of something for everyone.

    Our infrastructure is in the same boat.

  • I did some work on fuel economy several years ago that included urban buses, and the average in NYC stop-and-go was around 7 mpg. Based on that, Felix is about right and Christian is way off. Felix’s nice back-of-the-envelope calc basically stands, that adding 2 dollar-paying passengers per run should offset the fuel cost hike of the past few years. And of course incremental maintenance for each additional passenger is virtually zero.

    Pressing additional buses into service so people can actually ride one is a different matter. The funding need should focus on that, not on fuel-price relief.

  • “Now we have debts to pay” — A large part of those debts are for the oil wars and highway infrastructure. Add to that the environmental debt to clean up after global climate disruption. Ending the autosprawl system is the only way forward. No more carbon-auto subsidy.

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