COLUMBIA — Columbia resident Jim Cook said he gave up driving a car about a year or two ago, when his eyesight began to diminish, and he decided driving wasn't worth it anymore. He's thankful that Columbia’s bus system is easily accessible and cheap. It didn't even bother him when the city doubled bus fares on Oct. 1.
“I guess I kind of felt guilty riding for a quarter,” said Cook, who as a senior was paying 25 cents per ride.
Despite the higher fares — which are now $1 for most people and 50 cents for seniors, college students and children 5 to 11 — bus ridership in Columbia has increased more than 10 percent this year, city transportation supervisor Drew Brooks said. Officials initially expected a 30 percent drop in ridership but later revised that to an anticipated 10 percent decrease. But, as the statistics show, there’s been no decrease at all.
In April, there were more than 223,000 bus riders compared with less than 207,000 in April 2008. For the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, there have already been almost 1.38 million riders as of April; there were a little more than 1.85 million all of last year.
“We’re pleasantly surprised that the ridership is so high,” Brooks said, adding that the numbers probably are a product of the high price of gasoline last year. Gas prices also were the reason for the fare increases.
The October fare increases were the first in 20 years, and Brooks said the fees remain low compared with some other areas of the country. The fare increase was based on the cost of fuel, the second most expensive item on the bus system's budgetnext to the cost of personnel, Brooks said.
Brooks cited the ailing economy as an explanation for more riders, but there are other reasons more people are using the city’s mass transit system.
Cook said the riding the bus is convenient. Route 104 takes him right from his apartment on Clinkscales Road to Columbia Regional Hospital, where he volunteers several days a week. As the bus headed west on Broadway last Friday, Cook listed locations he frequents and how they are directly on his route home. He pointed out Missouri Credit Union, where he banks, and the Columbia Public Library, where he’s a patron. It’s all on the way to and from the hospital.
“Can’t hardly beat that with a stick,” Cook said. Still, he said it's frustrating that the buses don’t operate on Sundays or holidays. If he ever needs a ride when the bus isn’t convenient, Cook said he has children and grandchildren who can drive him.
The increased ridership has brought an increase in revenue to the city. As of April 30, the city had collected $209,659 in bus fares this fiscal year, compared with $138,884 during the same period last year.
Brooks said the extra money doesn’t add up to much because Columbia is receiving less state and federal funding and less money from the city’s half-cent transportation sales tax. That tax also subsidizes the airport and street projects.
“It is money — it’s nothing to sneeze at — but it is a small portion of what we do,” Brooks said. The fares only account for 10 percent of the city’s annual transportation budget.
Brooks said any revenue from fares will be reinvested into the bus system, but the extra money isn't enough to provide new amenities for riders, such as extra routes or more buses. The city does have $1.7 million in federal stimulus money to replace five buses, though.
“We’re at the point that our spare ratio is at the lowest it’s ever been,” Brooks said of the lack of extra buses.