RTA makes case for fare increase

by Chuck Hoven

(Plain Press, June 2006) At the Regional Transit Authority’s Board of Trustees meeting on May 16, 2006 the RTA board voted to increase fares. Fares will be raised in two stages. The first fare increase will occur in July, with  both local and express fares will increase by 25¢ (bringing  local fares  to $1.50 and express fares to $1.75). The second fare increase will occur in January , 2008. Prices for daily, weekly and monthly passes will also go up as the fares increase.


At a May 2nd meeting at Zone Recreation Center, RTA General Manager Joe Calabrese cited reasons for the proposed fare increase. He said that RTA fuel costs have risen from $4 million per year in 2002 to a projected $13 million  this year.

Calabrese said that RTA currently uses 5.4 million gallons of diesel fuel each year. For each 1¢ increase in the cost of diesel fuel, RTA’s annual budget goes up $54,000.
At the same time, the state of Ohio’s support for public transportation has declined by 63%, going from providing $43.5 million per year for the 16 public transit companies in Ohio to providing only $16 million for all 16 companies.
Calabrese said currently 16% of RTA’s revenue comes from passenger fares and 70% comes from the countywide sales tax.
Currently Calabrese sees little hope of more federal or state aid. He said during President George Bush’s recent speech on reducing dependence on foreign oil, “the word ‘public transit’ never crossed his lips.”
While the state of Ohio has the seventh-largest population in the nation, and is tenth in terms of public transit use, it is 28th among the 50 states in funding public transit, stressed Calabrese. Although Ohio will collect over $1.7 billion in gas fuel tax this year, said  Calabrese, “because of the influence of General Motors, there is a state constitutional amendment that not a penny of that gas tax can go to fund public transportation.”
Calabrese said RTA recently reduced its staff by 366 positions, reduced its fleet by 106 buses and consolidated its facilities to create annual savings of $25 million. He said, “I feel we have made all the cuts we can make. Now we can either reduce service or increase fares.”
Calabrese said most people at the public hearings have said they would rather see a fare increase than reduced service. He said only 12% of bus riders pay cash, with  88% of riders using  tickets or passes. The average ticket or pass user rides 3.7 times per day at  a cost of only 67¢ per ride. He said that average cost per ride for ticket users would go up to 89¢ per ride with the fare increase – still a bargain when compared to the rising cost of gasoline, he noted.
Calabrese discounted the idea of converting buses to use used vegetable oil as proposed in the Plain Press last month as a way to save on fuel cost. Calabrese said to do so would violate the warranty on the Caterpillar engines. He also said 5.4 million gallons per year is a lot of used vegetable oil.
As for the option of using biodiesel fuel (a blend of diesel fuel and 20% pure vegetable oil), he said he would “look into it.” But said he believed it would also violate the warranty. He said he believed that RTA needed to use low sulfur diesel fuel, which cost 12-14¢ per gallon more than regular diesel, to meet the requirements of the Caterpillar engine.
Cleveland area economist Russ Smith, Ph.D. also discounted the use of used vegetable oil as RTA’s fuel, but said that biodiesel fuel is a viable option. Smith, while working for the Energy Resources Center of the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1995, authored a study titled: “City of Chicago and Chicago Transit Authority Biodiesel Demonstration Project: One year results”.  Smith said that he doubts that use of biodiesel fuel would violate the warranty on the Caterpillar engines. He said the National Biodiesel Board has taken great pains to assure that fuel being produced meets the specifications of engine manufactures.
A link to Caterpillar on the National Biodiesel Board’s website confirms Smith’s contention. The Caterpillar information says, “the use of biodiesel does not affect the Caterpillar warranty for materials and the warranty for workmanship.” The website says, ”Caterpillar neither approves or prohibits the use of biodiesel fuels.”
Smith says that use of a 20/80 biodiesel blend of fuel can be done without any engine modifications. Smith said he feels the RTA board should investigate the possibility specifically with the engine manufacturer, as well as check the  price of biodiesel fuel compared to fuel RTA is using.
RTA’s Board of Trustees owes it to their transit riders to at least a look at this alternative. The possible savings are worth looking into. The biodiesel buses will also help RTA meet its clean-air act requirements for converting its fleet to alternative fuels. RTA chose several years ago to meet that requirement with natural gas buses. With the rising cost of natural gas, meeting the alternative fuel requirement is another reason for RTA to explore the use of biodiesel. Perhaps switching to biodiesel would allow RTA to phase out the use of the expensive natural gas buses at a faster rate.
RTA’s Board, by giving this matter due diligence, can perhaps avoid future fare increases, help to build a market for Ohio soy farmers, and help to reduce the country’s dependence on fossil fuels. Perhaps an alliance with soy farmers will help RTA General Manager Calabrese the next time he and his fellow transit administrators try lobbying the state legislature for more funds for public transit.
Editor’s Note: RTA’s ten member Board of Trustees is appointed in the following manner: 4 members by the City of Cleveland, 3 members by the Cuyahoga County Commissioners, and 3 members by the Suburban Mayors and Managers Association.


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