COLUMBIA — The FastCAT bus system is running behind on covering its costs.
The FastCAT transit initiative has only reached 10.7 percent of the sales goal needed to cover operating costs, according to a report to Columbia City Council from City Manager Mike Matthes. The report contained information on the current status of pass sales and contract revenue for FastCAT, as well as expenditure and revenue projections for the entire Columbia Transit system.
An “internal paradox” is how Matthes described the fact that to cover the annual costs projected in the report, the FastCAT program would have to be expanded, thereby increasing the cost. Right now, even if the two FastCAT buses ran at capacity, the pass sales still wouldn't meet the target.
To support the cost of the FastCAT bus route, 5,441 of the group-rate passes need to be sold per semester. Only 582 such passes have been sold to date.
Riders can pay $1.50 per ride or purchase individual passes for $100 per semester. While the expenditure and revenue projections are based on sales of all passes, the calculations on covering costs, however, are based on semester passes that are sold for $62.50 if purchased by a group of 20 or more people. Matthes said the priority is to sell group-rate passes.
“One transaction and you get 20 customers,” he said.
The FastCAT service, consists of two buses that run a 24-stop route along MU, Stephens College and the central downtown area. Currently, the program costs approximately $680,133 annually.
Matthes described the report as “complicated” because of varying rates and multiple sources of funding.
“We’re trying to report the market as a whole. We’ve tried to include as much information as we can," Matthes said. "Right now we have a crazy funding system.”
One idea for addressing the issue is adding a third bus. A third bus would expand the annual operating costs of FastCAT to $1,020,199.50. The addition would mean an increase in the number of group-rate passes needed to be sold to cover operating costs to 16,323 group passes per year.
There is no “real rule of thumb” for the maximum capacity data Matthes said.
“Some people might ride eight times a day, some don’t ride at all on certain days,” he said. “The report points out that we’re not covering our costs yet, but the point is we’re still under what we can charge. We can oversell to a certain degree.”
Matthes said the city is trying to figure out the price equilibrium because the transit market as a whole is subsidized.
“We’re the best transit offering in the market right now,” he said. “If we were to charge what the program really costs, it might scare the market away.”
The report claims the FastCAT program has only penetrated about 5 percent of the primary market, which totals around 12,357 people. Matthes said the market calculation accounts for “everyone within a half-mile” of the route. He said there is no double counting but “a little bit of…we don’t know where they (numbers of possible passengers) go.”
During the City Council meeting Mayor Bob McDavid said market penetration is a challenge given the “culture of commuter campus.”
“We in America like our cars,” he said.
Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe said that economic advantage for students and environmental advantages should be pushed in the marketing process.
Matthes said students pay 10 times as much in parking costs than they do for public transit. He sees potential for growth.
“It’s a very entrepreneurial approach,” he said. “We’re only four months in. We have a marketing plan and a service provision that is getting better.”
Matthes said there are more apartment units being built in the FastCAT route area, which will increase the number of students who might use the program.
“We’re trying to get people to try a completely different lifestyle, and that is very difficult.”
In other news, at the council meeting:
- Columbia resident Bruce Summers asked the council to suspend the use of fluoride in the water. Summers said fluoride is added to the water supply to medicate the population and improve dental health. The problem, however, is that the dosage of fluoride cannot be controlled through the water supply.
- Monta Welch from People's Visioning asked the city to raise Columbia's renewable energy standard. Welch said Columbia has been cited for innovative ideas, but she proposed a higher target for renewable energy.
- A report on the Aspen Heights tree preservation was presented. McDavid said the council will wait for a report on possible changes before an ordinance is decided on.
Missourian reporter Josie Butler contributed to this report.
Supervising editor is Karen Miller.