COLUMBIA — On Thursday evening, the 101 South Loop bus was almost empty. Only nine passengers got on and off during the one-hour trip around the Providence-Green Meadows-Forum Boulevard area.
Elbert Williams, an MU student, relies on the bus every day to reach his two part-time jobs.
"I have to depend on the bus to get home or have to get a ride from friends," he said. A taxi is too expensive, and it's too far for him to walk.
"There might be a few passengers," Williams said. "Still some people do need transportation. The city should find a way to increase the budget."
For at least five years, the city's bus system has been running a deficit — spending more money than it takes in. Unless something is done, the system would drain what's left in its saving account in 2012.
To prevent falling into the red, City Manager Mike Matthes said Friday the Public Transportation Fund must come up with $600,000 by raising fares or spending less to get through fiscal year 2012.
In his July 29 budget proposal, he recommended bus service reductions and fare increases, as well as taking $200,000 from the parking fund to run a free trolley service downtown and to the parking garages.
Regular fares would go up from $1 to $1.50, student passes would jump from $60 to $100 and discounted fares for the disabled and elderly would climb from 50 cents to 75 cents. Thursday through Saturday evening service also would be eliminated.
Matthes said the suggested cuts to services are based on impact to passengers, and the evening hours were dropped in the proposal because there were only 12,000 riders a year.
Buses don't run Monday through Wednesday nights, and Matthes said that may be a factor in the low volume. They can't "commit to this way of transportation," he said.
In a meeting last week, Matthes told Ian Thomas, executive director of the PedNet Coalition, that he didn't want to cut the city's transit system.
"Unfortunately, we're running out of money," Matthes said.
The proposed changes will only postpone the "inevitable," he said. "The inevitable is that we have to find equilibrium in this fund."
The city must find another $900,000 for public transportation by fiscal year 2013. More cuts, including the elimination of Saturday service, are possible if the city is unable to find additional revenue sources.
The dilemma is not new. Last year, former City Manager Bill Watkins brought up the matter during budget work sessions. He said that running the transit system would dip into the general fund unless changes were made.
"For the last three years, we have been spending a lot more than we have each year," Matthes said of Columbia's public transit system.
The financial picture began to look bleak during fiscal year 2007. That year, the fund started with more than $2.5 million in working capital and wrapped up with $1.9 million.
The decline continued in subsequent years, and less than $1 million is projected to remain in the account this fiscal year. In 2012, only $66,699 is expected to be available.
Despite the financial picture, ridership is growing. Columbia Transit won its third straight award from the Federal Transit Administration for improved ridership. The bus system saw a 5.5 percent increase from 2009 to 2010 — the largest in Missouri.
Transportation Supervisor Drew Brooks said this year's increase is expected to be about 13 percent.
Current ridership is more than 2 million passengers per year — four times as much as it was five years ago. That generated more than $1.6 million in revenue this fiscal year, more than twice the revenue for 2005.
Brooks said the proposed budget changes would slow the growth of ridership.
"I think there is going to be some reduction in ridership," he said.
Funding for public transit comes from fares, federal and state government subsidies and the transportation sales tax.
A surge in diesel fuel prices prompted the city to increase bus fares in 2008, but that only partially covered the higher fuel costs, according to a previous Missourian article. Columbia Transit also has a fleet that includes buses that have outlived their use cycle, resulting in added maintenance costs, the Missourian reported in 2008.
The transit system depends on funds from the transportation sales tax to help support operating expenses. The amount of the subsidy has not kept pace with ridership; the bus system is receiving less than it did in 1998.
Before 2007, the tax added about $1.6 million to the transit budget, but the subsidy dropped that year to $1.4 million despite increasing fuel and maintenance costs.
It remained at $1.4 million for fiscal year 2008, rose to $1.7 million in 2009 and fell back to $1.6 million in 2010. Only $1.4 million is budgeted for 2011 and 2012.
The transportation sales tax also subsidizes street- and sidewalk-related projects, as well as airport projects, and the subsidies for both have been increasing since 2002.
During Friday's meeting, Thomas said he understood that the city must make cuts, but he wanted to see a long-term vision "bringing transit as a major component of Columbia's transportation policy" in the future.
Matthes said a City Council work session will be held on Aug. 22 to discuss the public transportation issue, and public hearings will be scheduled, as well.
"We'll lay out every idea we have ... and we'll ask for new ideas," he said.
"We have to change, and it's a perfect time to figure that out."