Fare enough – Rising fuel prices finally catch up with TARC, commuters

Fumbling to dig enough money from the bottom of her purse, a middle-aged woman steps to the front of her usual TARC bus and feeds a dollar and a quarter into the machine. It’s a routine she’s undoubtedly gone through countless times.

Then the driver breaks the news: “It’s $1.50 today.”

“Well I don’t have it,” she says, defiantly staring down the driver as fellow riders line up behind her. Apparently deciding this isn’t a battle worth waging, particularly if he plans to keep the bus on schedule, the driver waves the passenger on and she finds a seat.

It turns out this was a typical scene on TARC last Tuesday, when bus fares increased by 20 percent. And although transit officials had previously announced the hike — which was debated at public meetings in recent weeks before taking effect — many riders weren’t ready to pay an extra 25 cents to ride the bus.

This latest fare hike comes only a year after a 25-cent increase took effect last summer.

In addition, the price of a monthly bus pass jumped last week from $35 to $42 (a noticeable difference, yet less than the price of two gallons of gasoline).

Not surprisingly, rising fuel costs are to blame for passengers once again shelling out more to ride the bus. Although TARC is under a contract to buy gas at $2.41 per gallon, that bargain deal expired July 1, and now the transit authority is expected to spend more than $4 a gallon for fuel.

And while the fare increase is expected to bring in an additional $2.6 million in revenue this fiscal year, fuel costs are expected to increase by $4 million, says Nina Walfort, TARC spokeswoman.

In light of soaring fuel costs, several major routes will decrease in frequency beginning Aug. 24, while other services will be scaled back, especially late at night.

Although TARC ridership has increased by about 6 percent compared with this time last year, the added revenue from fares is not enough to sustain services and routes as they are now. 

There are no hard numbers pinpointing exactly why more people are riding the bus, but it’s safe to assume commuters are ditching their cars because of rising gas prices. And that’s exactly why more public funding should be made available to TARC, says David Morse, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Regional Transportation. The majority of TARC’s $67 million budget comes from public money. Currently, $40 million is available from a 0.2 percent local transit tax paid by all people who work in Louisville Metro. If Morse’s group gets its way, that number will double.

“One of the big hurdles we see for our community is we’re going to have a hard time getting workers to their jobs,” Morse says. But he argues that fixed number for transit funding will not accommodate the coming onslaught of people who can no longer afford to drive. In the short term, an extra $40 million would result in more buses on the roads. Eventually, the additional funding would go toward improving fuel efficiency or purchasing vehicles that run on alternative fuels or electricity.

“There are a lot of good ways to do it; unfortunately they’re all capital intensive,” Morse says. “But traditionally Louisville hasn’t been able to get these projects funded because they haven’t had the slack in the budget to generate funds and get the federal match for them.”

Public transit fares also increased last week in surrounding cities like Nashville, Cincinnati and St. Louis, while other cities nationwide are considering similar hikes. But unlike transit authorities elsewhere, TARC has not resorted to one-direction transfers, which would require passengers to purchase an additional ticket for return trips. At least for now, riders here can still run one or two errands and get back to the point of origin on a single fare. 

Several days before TARC’s latest rate increase, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill intended to help municipalities offset fuel costs and other expenses so they can keep fares low. If approved by the Senate, the $1.7 billion legislation could bring $4.6 million to TARC, slightly more than the amount by which TARC’s budget is projected to increase for the 2009 fiscal year due to fuel costs.