Getting tough to fill up

Friday, June 10, 2005

W hen gas prices climbed to roughly $2 a gallon this spring, the management and board of directors at the Cape County Transit Authority faced a tough decision.

The people they were serving, generally, were the people who can least afford a fare increase. They were senior citizens living on a fixed income.

But something had to be done.

Since last July, the authority had spent thousands of dollars more on fuel than the last year. Seven hundred more dollars last July than the preceding month. Five hundred more dollars last September and November. Three hundred in February. Five hundred in March.

The money the authority had set aside for capital was going toward operating expenses. A new van, which sits in a Missouri Department of Transportation parking lot somewhere, is waiting for the authority to use. But the $7,000 for the authority's 20-percent match had to go toward increasing operating expenses, including fuel and increased insurance rates because they had to switch providers.

So in April, the authority began passing the increased gas expenses to its customers, particularly the ones who hadn't been paying the "suggested" fare.

Roughly 14 percent, or $47,000, of the authority's budget comes from the Area Agency on Aging. The agency's funds come with a stipulation, however. The authority may only accept "donations" for agency-sponsored rides. The suggested fare for a ride inside Jackson, for example, is $2 for a round trip for seniors and $4 for everybody else. The fare for a trip to Cape Girardeau is $4 round-trip.

Prior to April, all of the transit authority's senior and disabled riders were on a "recommended donation" basis. That changed.

Now, the county keeps track of the number of agency-sponsored trips in a month's time, which totals 377 Jackson trips and 348 county trips. After the quotas are met, the authority is requiring all seniors and disabled people to pay a fare.

"It doesn't bother me a bit," said Joan McKenzie, who rides the van every day to the senior citizen center. "It's worth it."

McKenzie's friend, Mary Marshall, agreed.

But according to Brune, not everyone feels that way.

Ridership, which for years has been climbing, dipped in April and May. Vans made 223 fewer trips in April and 609 fewer in May.

Brune says it's difficult to know just how many of those trips were related to the new fare policy. The ridership does fluctuate. The authority's passengers decreased last August, December and this January compared to the same months in fiscal year 2004, which ended June 30, 2004. Brune says the December and January dips were probably due to the weather.

He said the April and May figures are more surprising, because those are the months that people try to get out if they can.

"The trips just dipped off," Brune said. "We could tell the phone just wasn't ringing as much."

Brune said the authority is working on some ways to make trips more efficient by getting more people scheduled to use the vans at the same time. He said in April the authority set a policy that the "suggested" donation policy would still apply if riders gave a 24-hour notice.

Mileage is something that the authority struggles with.

For example, even though ridership was down by 223 trips in April, the authority's vans drove nearly 6,000 more miles than the year before. Brune said one reason the mileage fluctuates is because of long-range medical trips, which are reimbursed by Medicaid.

The authority has shown the ability to curb the mileage when rides are in the most demand.

In the last two years, the busiest month in terms of trips was December 2003, the fewest miles of any month that year.

Brune said technology that will be purchased in the next fiscal year will help streamline the dispatching and get more riders in the vehicles. He said software will be added to the dispatching center, which will give dispatchers an exact real-time location of each driver and how many passengers are in each vehicle.

In the longer term, the authority is still waiting for a comprehensive MoDOT study to determine the existing problems and potential solutions for more efficient transit among all of the county's transit providers, including the SEMO Alliance for Disability Independence service and Cape Girardeau's taxi coupon program.

That study should be finished by September.

bmiller@semissourian.com

243-6635

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