As the tumultuous Arab Spring continues unfolding in the Middle East, California drivers need only go so far as the gas pump to see its economic impact. With prices regularly exceeding 2008’s record average of $4.11 per gallon, drivers are feeling the pinch, and 67 percent of households report experiencing economic hardship as a result of high gas prices, according to a Gallup poll this week.
Monterey-Salinas Transit is also painfully absorbing increased fuel prices, and even a 5 percent increase in ridership isn’t covering the 60 percent increase in diesel prices compared to a year ago. Fuel will account for half of MST’s million-dollar budget shortfall this year, a calculation that portends service cuts.
“We’re identifying where multiple routes serve the same neighborhood,” says MST General Manager and CEO Carl Sedoryk. “Where a bus may [have been] running every 10 or 15 minutes, you may see one every 30 minutes instead.”
The impending cuts come after MST implemented a new fare structure April 2 that simplifies prices based on route distance. Most bus lines now cost $2.00, but 25-cent transfers have been eliminated.
Under the old system, long-distance riders were being unfairly subsidized, Sedoryk says. But the new structure has left some commuters in the lurch.
Silva Kendall took a two-bus commute from her North Salinas home to an administrative temp job in South Salinas. The round trip used to cost $5.50. With a new price tag of $8.00, she’s cut out the second bus and now walks nearly a mile to her office. “It’s very inconvenient,” Kendall says.
But transit advocates say it’s still a cheaper alternative to driving, pointing to high gas prices and the corresponding bump in MST ridership
“We hope it’s not a blip,” says Don Bachman, deputy executive director of the Transportation Agency for Monterey County. “Every time gas prices go up, they go farther up, but they don’t come down as far. We think energy prices are going to increase over the long term.”
For entities like MST and TAMC that depend on revenues from federal and state gasoline taxes, higher prices at the pump are part of a revenue problem. Because the 18-cent gas tax is charged by the gallon, when drivers pump less gas, transportation agency revenues drop.
“We’re trying to get more people to take mass transportation, ride bicycles, use cars less,” Bachman says. “But at the same time, a lot of what we do in transportation is based on gasoline revenues.”
Sedoryk doesn’t hold out much hope for an increased gas tax. “Politicians are not likely to do anything to touch the taxes on gasoline, because that’s an unpopular thing to do,” he says.
Congressman Sam Farr (D-Carmel) did not respond directly to questions on whether he would support an increased gas tax, but says in an e-mail: “If we end the billion-dollar tax breaks for oil companies, we can divert those funds to public transit and investments in clean energy.”
Sedoryk says transit riders are largely subject to the whims of legislators.
“Our ridership is working people who can’t organize a rally in Sacramento,” he says. “They don’t have a lot of political strength.”