Jasmine Bischof and Manny Espinosa recently waited for a bus at 4th and Chestnut Streets. Both are regular bus riders who say TARC needs to enhance services, not reduce them.
“I feel like on the weekends sometimes I have to wait about an hour.”
“They don’t have the best service in the world.”
TARC Executive Director Barry Barker says more people are joining Bischof and Espinosa on the bus in response to higher gas prices.
“What we’re seeing, and again these are preliminary numbers, but that the ridership on the express bus routes is up 20%. And there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence I’m getting of folks sending me e-mails and calling me, telling me how crowded the bus is and so forth.”
Barker says it will cost TARC a lot more in the coming year to keep those buses running.
“We’re looking at a cost of our fuel budget going from $6 million to $10 (million).”
Barker’s office is filled with stacks of graphs and pie charts analyzing budgets and fuel costs. He’s been gathering data to negotiate a price with TARC’s bulk diesel fuel provider.
“There’s not any other aspect that feels more like Las Vegas about our budgeting process.”
Every year TARC pays a fixed price per gallon for diesel fuel. Last year, it was $2.41.
“Which we thought was high when we got into last July. And right now…I’d do just about anything to get that same price.”
Back in March TARC estimated it would pay $3.22 per gallon in the next contract. But now it looks like the price will be more than $4.00 per gallon when they renew in July. To offset the sharp increase, TARC’s board voted to raise fares and cut the frequency and number of stops on certain routes. Barker says deciding which routes to cut was difficult.
“Broadway, Preston, 4th Street. Some of those buses have too many people on them.”
Barker would like to save fuel costs by putting more gas-electric hybrid buses on the street. But he says they’re too expensive to buy on a tight budget.
“Because of high gas prices we should be in a position to be offering more services to folks. More frequency, quicker trips, and we don’t have the resources to do that and our fuel bill’s gone out of sight.”
“It’s not TARC’s fault.”
David Coyte is the vice president of CART, the Coalition for the Advancement of Regional Transportation. He puts more of the blame for TARC’s predicament on metro government. TARC gets a large portion of its funding through a piece of the occupational tax. Coyte says an increase in that levy is long overdue.
“Anybody that has a real understanding of the permanence of these oil prices and the impact these prices are going to have on our economy should be standing up, jumping up and down and yelling for it. If people can’t afford get around, the economy comes to a standstill.”
TARC also gets money from the federal government and the Kentucky and Indiana state governments. Indiana and the feds both annually increase their funding for public transit. Kentucky doesn’t have increases built into its budget. TARC’s Barry Barker says until its financial picture improves, the bus system will be at the mercy of an unpredictable diesel market.
“We’ve got a couple of people in our purchasing department that are becoming fuel futures experts. And I’m developing much more of an expertise on it than I ever thought I would.”