The Youngstown-based bus service now has about 6,300 daily riders.
By NANCY TULLIS
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN — Faced with a potential $1.5 million deficit, layoffs and service cuts loom for the Western Reserve Transit Authority, and the WRTA board will vote next month on the system's first fare increase since 1999.
Jim Ferraro, WRTA executive director, said the board also may ask voters to approve a sales tax. He said most transit systems in Ohio are funded with a sales tax.
Without more public money, staff and service cuts are imminent, including the possible loss of the increasingly popular night bus service, he said.
The board has scheduled a public hearing at 9 a.m. Friday to gather public input on the proposed fare increases.
The meeting will be in the board room at WRTA's administrative offices, 604 Mahoning Ave. The board also will accept comments in writing from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays through May 5.
Under the proposal, student fares will continue to be 75 cents, and the cost of student coupon books will remain the same at $35 for 50 tickets. Zone fares will still be free.
Adult coupon books will increase by $12.50, from $50 to $62.50 for each book of 50 tickets. Other changes in pass fares include a $6 increase in adult passes from $32 to $38, and a $3 increase in passes for elderly and disabled riders from $16 to $19 per month.
Adult fares will increase 25 cents from $1 to $1.25. Fares for the elderly and disabled will increase 10 cents, from 50 cents to 60 cents.
Transfers, currently free, will be 25 cents for adults and 10 cents for elderly and disabled riders. Trolley fares, currently 25 cents for adults and 10 cents for elderly and disabled riders, will be 30 cents and 15 cents, respectively.
Special-services fares, currently $1, will be $2. There will be a new special-services option of a monthly pass for $38.
What's behind this
Ferraro said loss of federal funding and increases in insurance, diesel fuel and natural gas could result in a deficit as much as $1.5 million.
"Sometimes there is a decrease in ridership after a fare increase," Ferraro said. "We don't want to do anything that would drastically affect ridership, but there was no way we could anticipate these fuel prices."
"We never dreamed we'd be looking at $2.12 a gallon when we did the budget," said Tom Nugen, director of transportation. "And $2.12 a gallon doesn't include taxes or insurance."
Nugen said in 2004, WRTA paid an average of $1.07 per gallon for bus fuel. In January 2002, the per-gallon price was 69 cents.
Ferraro said the last load of fuel was $2.12 a gallon. WRTA takes fuel shipments every six days, now at a cost of $20,000 per load, with a $250 surcharge on each delivery.
He said if ridership stays the same, the revenue from the fare increases — about $300,000 at best — still won't be enough to cover operating expenses.
Ferraro said loss of federal funding, the effects of hurricanes Rita and Katrina on shipping, and soaring fuel prices have created a perfect storm of financial disaster just as ridership eclipsed the board's goal of 6,000 daily riders in March.
"It's sad this happens just as we finally reach 6,000 riders," he said. "We average about 6,300 riders on weekdays. Some people might not believe that, but the fare boxes don't lie."
"We're not happy with what we have to do," Ferraro added. "More and more people depend on WRTA to get to and from work."
Ferraro said many buses are at capacity with people standing in the aisles.
Here's an example
"We just had the driver of the Market Street bus call and tell us he couldn't pick up anyone. He was totally full leaving the station," Ferraro said. "He said he had people standing clear up to the fare box. That bus seats 34, so he had to have at least 50 people on that bus.
"We sent another bus out behind him to pick up people until people started getting off and there was room on his bus."
Ferraro said WRTA faces a loss of $800,000 to $900,000 just in funding cuts alone.
He said funding from one federal grant aimed at helping people have transportation to and from work, for example, was just $266,000 this year, and WRTA had to split that with transit authorities in two other communities. Previously the same grant provided WRTA with $750,000; now there's no guarantee of any funding from that grant, he said.
Two levies approved by voters in November 2005 generate about $2 million annually, but the levies were renewals, so they don't generate any new money, Ferraro added.