Two months ago a Utah Transit Authority manager said it would take six months to know how rising oil prices would affect UTA's bottom line. And, he said, boosting bus fares wouldn't be the answer to offsetting higher expenses.
But this week, the UTA board tentatively approved a 20-30 percent fare increase to cover diesel fuel expenses, which have doubled since the price of oil went up in August."Diesel fuel has risen to near $1.10 a gallon," UTA General Manager John Pingree said, "and our fuel-cost increase alone, next year, will be $2 million."
The sudden call for fare revenue is in sharp contrast to the calm response UTA gave when gasoline prices began to rise at the end of summer. In early September the Deseret News inquired how the transit authority would handle a surge in ridership if expensive gasoline forced motorists to economize and take the bus.
UTA assistant general manager John Inglish boasted of a reserve fleet of buses and experienced management poised to handle more business. He did say, however, that rising fuel costs and hiring more drivers to handle anticipated increased demand would cost UTA, but it would take six months to determine how much.
But UTA's portion of local sales taxes and its annual federal grant would make up the added costs, he said, not higher bus fares. Fares only contribute 18 percent to UTA's operating budget, Inglish said, and the UTA board would oppose a fare increase.
Apparently conditions have changed. Instead of waiting six months to evaluate whether a hike in fares is justified, UTA found enough evidence after three months.
"The Persian Gulf has given us a 3 percent rise in ridership," Inglish said, which doesn't offset the doubling in fuel costs.
Concerning UTA'a increased fuel bill for next year, the projection assumes the price of diesel will remain at current levels. The proposed higher fares would exactly offset the anticipated fuel expense, so other revenue sources won't have to be tapped.
And if fuel prices fall? Inglish said a decrease in fares isn't unheard of, but the more likely scenario is the windfall going toward improved service.
"This will be our highest ridership year. We don't want to cut that off (with a fare increase), but people need to realize there is a balance between fare revenues and service," Inglish said.
He explained that a series of public meetings has shown that service, not low fares, is what people want from UTA.
He noted that UTA's fares are among the lowest in the country; the national average is about 67 cents. "We haven't had a fare increase since 1981."
The proposed fare hike is subject to a series of public hearings in UTA's five-county service area and final approval by the authority's board. Inglish said most proposals are altered somewhat by input from the public. But unless there is an overwhelming outcry against raising fares, the increase will likely take place.
The only county that won't experience higher fares is Tooele, where voters recently initiated UTA service. Patrons had been paying $1.50 per ride for special service in a UTA van and couldn't qualify for a monthly pass. Under the proposed fee schedule the premium express service to Salt Lake would be $1.50 and a monthly pass amounts to a fare decrease.
Buses will be rerouted through downtown Salt Lake to make room for the annual Christmas parade Saturday, the Utah Transit Authority said.
UTA buses and trolleys circulating between North Temple, 500 South, West Temple and State Street will be affected. For the specific detour route call BUS-INFO (287-4636).