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Monday, February 18 , 2019, 8:42 am | Fair 48º

 
 
 
 

Rising Fuel Costs Lead to Likely Rate Hikes for MTD

The bus provider has witnessed its gas outlay surge to $2 million from $1.3 million in one year. Officials predict next year's costs will hit $3 million.

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Old Town Goleta resident Natividad Rodriguez regularly uses the portion of Line 8 on Calle Real that will be drastically reduced in August. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)

With gas prices on the relentless rise, more and more people are discovering that taking an MTD bus can be a thriftier way to get around. But that option could soon become a little less of a good deal.

Later this month, due largely to MTD’s own skyrocketing fuel costs, the agency’s board of directors will begin discussing a rate hike. Officials say the question isn’t so much whether to raise the rates as it is by how much. The increase could take effect as soon as January.

What’s more, come late August the cash-lean district will reduce some services to the Goleta area.

For MTD, the pain at the pump has been acute. From the fiscal year ending in July 2006 to that of 2007, MTD’s fuel costs leaped to $2 million from $1.3 million, and now consume almost 10 percent of the agency’s entire budget. Moreover, MTD officials are projecting next year’s fuel prices to hit $3 million.

“We’re kind of between a rock and a hard place,” said Dick Weinberg, a board member with MTD. “Most of the people we serve are the low-income people and they are the people that can least afford an increase of any kind. … But we’re at the point where we are just out of reserves. It’s either raise fares, find some other source of funding or reduce the service.’

The reductions and likely rate hike come at a time when ridership is at an all-time high. In the fiscal year ending in July, the district served 8 million riders. MTD officials say that’s on par with a community of about 1.2 million people — about the size of San Diego. By contrast, MTD serves an area with just 200,000 people: from Bacara Resort & Spa near Winchester Canyon in the westernmost reaches of Goleta to the Ventura County line east of Carpinteria.

At any rate, in serving 8 million riders this past year, the district boosted its count from the year before by about 350,000, and from the fiscal year ending a decade ago by about 1.2 million.

Meanwhile, the district’s budget problems don’t even take into account the half-cent sales tax — known as Measure D — that is scheduled to expire in 2010. An initiative to continue that tax — known as Measure A — will be on the November ballot. If that fails, the district is looking at losing about $4 million of its $22 million annual budget, officials said.

The board will begin discussing the rate hike at a special meeting on July 24.

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Fueling MTD’s buses is expected to cost the agency $3 million next year. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)

As it is, one-time riders pay $1.25 for every trip. Other package deals include 10 rides for $10, and 30-day all-you-can-ride tickets for $41. Officials were mum on the amount of the recommended rate increases, saying that information will become public at the meeting.

As for the service reduction, however, plans are in place. Beginning Aug. 25, the portion of Line 8 that runs along Calle Real between Turnpike Road and Fairview Avenue will be reduced to six shuttle rides a day from 23 regular bus trips a day, saving the district about $193,000, MTD spokesman David Damiano said. (Click here to see a map.)

District officials said in tough economic times they generally try to trim from the least popular routes, but some riders will nonetheless feel the pinch.

Sitting on a bus bench at Patterson and University avenues, Old Town Goleta resident Natividad Rodriguez on Wednesday said he uses Line 8 every day to get to and from his girlfriend’s house. The 17-year-old Dos Pueblos High student had also planned to take the bus to get to his new job at Rudy’s restaurant on Calle Real because he doesn’t have a car.

“Work will be harder to get to,” he said.

Oddly, the changes to that line will also include some added service on the eastern portions, starting at San Marcos High School on Hollister Avenue at Turnpike. Beginning Aug. 25, the express bus that shuttles passengers every weekday between the main hub on Chapala Street and La Cumbre Plaza via Highway 101 will start running on weekends.

The district’s budget woes aren’t solely the byproduct of the soaring cost of fuel. Also to blame is the stagnating revenue from the state and federal governments.

While fares cover just 40 percent of MTD’s entire costs, a large bulk of the rest comes from state sales taxes, federal taxes and local Measure D sales taxes. Those amounts have stayed the same over the years even as operating costs have risen.

Another factor is bio-diesel. A few years ago, in an effort to reduce its carbon footprint, the district started using a fuel that is 10 percent bio-diesel. One year ago, the district boosted the level to 20 percent.

Now, it pays 7 cents per gallon more than it would for regular diesel, said MTD General Manager Sherrie Fisher.

“It’s certainly the environmentally correct thing to be doing,” she said.

Also, in March 2007, the district vastly expanded its service, adding buses — and thus reducing wait times — for lines on the Upper State Street and the East and West sides, as well as lines leading to Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, among others.

The expansion was possible because the cities of Santa Barbara, Goleta and Carpinteria, along with Santa Barbara County and UCSB, agreed to pony up a total of $2.4 million annually until Measure D expires in 2010. While those contributions paid for personnel and other operating expenses, they didn’t fully cover the increased fuel costs, Fisher said.

If Measure A passes, those additional services will be covered by the new funds. If it fails, those services and others would go, Fisher said. Also, a long-anticipated plan to build a new downtown transit center would quite possibly be scrapped, she added.

“If Measure A fails, we’ll very likely have to reduce services,” she said. “It would be illogical to say ‘Let’s build a bigger transit center while we reduce services.’”

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at [email protected]

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