Rising fuel costs hitting bus system

A day after CATS announced a fare increase to offset rising fuel costs, the head of the agency acknowledged another hike may not be that far off.

During an interview with the Observer on Thursday, Keith Parker said that if fuel prices continue climbing to $5 a gallon, it could mean a host of changes for the agency, including a reduction in services and another fare increase.

“Right now, we are hopeful that we will not have to implement another increase next year,” said Parker, chief executive of the Charlotte Area Transit System. “But if gas prices get that high, we would have to regroup and everything would be back on the table.”

On Wednesday, the Metropolitan Transit Commission increased local one-ride fares from $1.30 to $1.50. The change, which goes into effect Oct. 6, means the cost of monthly local passes rises from $52 to $60, and monthly express passes increase from $70 to $80.

Typically the agency increases rates every two years. Wednesday's increase came a year early. Parker said the rushed timetable was needed to cover the cost of rapidly increasing fuel prices for buses.

Without the fare increase approved Wednesday, CATS officials predicted more than a $4 million shortfall in the fuel budget next year.

Every time gas goes up by 10 cents, Parker said, it costs CATS another $350,000 per year.

“As we continue to climb past $4 a gallon, we may have to continue to adjust and make changes,” said Lee Myers, Matthews mayor and MTC member. “But we have to be careful with those increases, so they don't hurt the people in need. And I personally would be for lowering the rates if gas prices start going down.”

But Jill Swain, MTC member and Cornelius' mayor, said she is not ready to concede the inevitability of more increases.

“Let's not be alarmist,” she said. “We are not at that point yet.”

Data released this week shows motorists are cutting back by historic proportions. The Federal Highway Administration said national miles driven declined in April, the sixth straight months of declines.

March's numbers marked the largest drop since the government started keeping track 66 years ago.

North Carolina had the largest drop in March of any state in the South Atlantic region, a 6.3 percent decline compared with the same month last year.

The trend continued in April, with miles driven falling 2.4 percent over last year. South Carolina also saw decreases of 4.6 percent and 3.6 percent for March and April, according to the highway administration.

Several recent surveys have tried to mark the point at which drivers would give up the wheel and turn to mass transit. The surveys agree Americans started hitting their tipping points in greater numbers from $3 a gallon on up.

A survey sponsored this month by Access America, a travel insurance company, said more than a third changed their driving habits at that price. At $4, the group swells to three-quarters. At $5, it's 85 percent.

Locally transit ridership is up. Parker said the new riders are most apparent on express routes, which cater to suburban users.

“We are seeing 50 percent increases on some of those,” he said.

Increasing ridership does not necessarily translate into a windfall of revenue. Few, if any, transit systems cover their costs from fares. Before the most recent fuel increases, CATS' bus fares covered about 18 percent of the bus operating expenses.

The transit system operates 88 bus routes throughout Mecklenburg and six surrounding counties. Parker said they have already ordered another three dozen buses and could order more in July.

“It's becoming pretty clear that we have to restructure the way we look at our transportation system,” said Jennifer Roberts, chairman of the Mecklenburg County commissioners and MTC member. “More and more people will be relying on it and I'm confident (CATS) will figure out ways for us to keep the system affordable.”