COLUMBIA - The surge in diesel fuel prices over the past year has prompted Columbia Public Works to propose to double the city's public transportation fares for the next fiscal year. If approved by City Council, the increase would be Columbia Transit and Paratransit's first in 22 years.
Fuel costs for Fiscal 2008 put the department more than $100,000 over budget, a cost Jill Stedem, public information specialist, said the department had to absorb. Though ridership has increased about 16 percent since this time last year and continues to rise, revenue from fares and monthly passes is not expected to balance the small fortune the city is paying for fuel.
"The proposed increase will defer some expense of existing services, but will not cover them completely," Stedem added.
The proposed FY09 budget, which City Manager Bill Watkins presented July 30, calls for a 40 percent increase in the transportation department's supplies and materials budget.
Larry Cain, who has been using both paratransit and fixed route buses for more than three years, considered the city's situation while waiting for a bus at the Wabash station on Thursday afternoon.
"Nearly as I can tell, they have two options: They can either cut services or charge more," Cain said. "Neither step will be popular, but we've been fortunate that they have been able to maintain fares so far."
Lauri Garman, an MU employee also waiting for the bus, rides to and from work. She said she didn't think she'd be too happy if the city approves the increase.
"I pay a dollar each day now, and charging more - that's getting up there for me," she said.
If approved, the budget would increase the half fare to 50 cents, the regular fare to $1, and the paratransit fare to $2 per ride.
"If I had to use the paratransit bus every day for medical appointments, groceries, whatever, that would be $4 to use the bus just once within a day, and times five days is $20, times four weeks is $80," said Max Lewis, family law attorney and 10-year Columbia Paratransit patron. "It's an unfair burden to place on an individual with low income."
Other riders said they wouldn't mind paying the proposed doubled fare if the buses would expand their routes and hours.
"I think they should extend the route if they double it," first-time bus rider and Jimmy Johns employee Scott "Pugsly" Ellis said Thursday afternoon. "I had to bike seven miles to get to the bus stop."
Diane Gooch has been using Columbia Transit and Paratransit off and on since 1987. She uses her scooter when the weather is warm but relies more on the bus during the fall and winter. If the increased fares proposal goes into effect, Gooch said she would be fine with it but would want the bus to run longer hours.
"I think time affects people more than cost. You can't get enough done in one day if you're depending on the bus," she said.
The proposal to double public transit and paratransit fares will be open to public hearing Sept. 15. If City Council approves the proposal as-is, it will go into effect when the fiscal year begins Oct. 1.