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As gas goes up, so does SCV bus ridership

• About 23,000 more bus trips logged compared to last year

Posted: June 8, 2008 1:56 a.m.
Updated: August 9, 2008 5:02 a.m.
 
As the week rounded out with average gas prices reaching $4.40 per gallon, city bus ridership is now at an all-time high, according to a Santa Clarita Transit official.

"People need public transportation now more than ever," said Transit Manager Jeff O'Keefe. "Clearly the rising fuel prices have had an effect on ridership."

The city's 27 commuter buses saw a 15 percent increase - about 23,000 bus trips - since January when compared with the same five-month time frame last year.

Ridership on the city's 40 local buses was up by 76,000 riders - about 5 percent - from January through May when compared with the same period last year. The local buses carried nearly 1.5 million riders over the last six months.

Lancaster resident Shawn Bradford has opted to leave her SUV at home and take a commuter bus to her job in Valencia.

"The last time I filled up, it was $76," she said. When she commuted in her SUV, she would fill up twice a week, she said.

Her co-worker Q Blankenship, of Palmdale, has been using the Santa Clarita commuter bus instead of her minivan for the last two years.

"It would cost $63 to fill up. Within three days it would be time to fill it up again," she said. "I was working for gas."

The two women also said the number of riders on their bus has doubled in the past month.

Jeff O'Keefe said he has recently seen an increase in demand for expanded bus service.

"I used to get a couple calls a month. Now I get six to seven calls a week asking for increased services," he said.

Many are asking for new commuter bus routes into the Los Angeles area, including Los Angeles International Airport, Century City and Pasadena, O'Keefe said.

"We recognize this is a great opportunity for the public to use public transportation," he said.

But adding routes and expanding services can be expensive.

"Fare receipts generate 28 to 32 percent of the total operating expenses," he said. "We would have to figure out ways to fund the additional subsidies to cover the other 68 to 70 percent."

Although the city hasn't added anymore routes, the city's transportation development plan calls for about a 48 percent increase in services over the next several years, he said.

"Our challenge is always going to be incrementally increase services and still do it in a cost-efficient, public taxpayer way," he said.

With the high price of gas, filling up a 180-gallon gas tank isn't cheap.

"It ranges from $501 to $729 to fill a bus," he said. "And people in their cars think $60 is expensive."

He said the city currently has a $584,000 budget overrun due to fuel costs, much of which is because of the high cost of diesel that 65 of the buses run on.

According to a report from the American Public Transportation Association, diesel prices have almost tripled in just four years. Since 2004, the price has increased from $1.25 to $3.32 per gallon, an increase of 166 percent.

But because the city's transit system is operated and maintained through a contractor, the contractor has felt the brunt of the gas price hike.

"Fortunately the city is somewhat protected because we contract the services to a private vendor. Those fuel costs are in the hands of the contractor so they assume the risks on the fuel costs," O'Keefe said. "I'm sure it's hurting the contractor's profit margin."

He said that entering into five-year contracts minimizes the city's risks in fuel costs.

The city pays Veolia Transportation $15 million a year for operations, maintenance, management of entire transit system. The City Council on Tuesday will consider a proposal to switch to a new contractor. Santa Clarita is one of the few cities in the region that contract out their services.

As a whole, transit agencies region wide are $8 million over budget because of rising fuel costs.

"Rising fuel costs have hit the transit agencies big time in the last year," O'Keefe said.

Much of the city's transportation funding comes from federal and state transportation funds, not the city's general fund, O'Keefe said. But the city has seen less funding from the state due to budget cuts.

"I'm very excited this will be the year when the city tops four million riders," he said, adding that last year's 3.7 million was an all-time high. "It's a wonderful opportunity to have more demand by public transportation services. It's a challenge, but it's not a challenge we're afraid of."

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