Fuel costs squeeze transit services

WRTA is looking at cuts in services and hours because of a huge increase in fuel costs.
Sticker shock at the pump has sent the entire country reeling. The nearly $3 mark has forced drivers to carpool, forgo unnecessary trips, consolidate errands and simply stay home.
However, agencies that provide transportation for low-income and elderly clients say cutting back on scheduled runs is an option of last resort.
James Ferraro, executive director of Western Reserve Transit Authority, said the agency hasn't raised fares or cut services yet but doesn't know how long they can hold off. WRTA carries 1.5 million riders per year.
WRTA expanded service hours and geographic areas to ferry customers to and from employment and better serve the Mahoning Valley.
"We've been instrumental in helping clients of Jobs and Family Services meet Welfare to Work needs," Ferraro said. Now he said a 200-percent increase in fuel costs is forcing a good strong look at cuts in services and hours.
Consolidated routes
Community Action Transportation System, which enables Trumbull County JFS clients to meet their work requirements and transports residents to necessary appointments, is not anticipating a reduction in service but has consolidated routes to lessen the impact of higher fuel costs.
Patrick Devanny, CATS supervisor, said the adjusted schedule requires riders to board vans earlier than usual.
Gary Engstrom, executive director of the Office of Elderly Affairs in Trumbull County, noted the timing of the gas price increase is especially difficult. His agency already has to refuse half its transportation requests because of layoffs and a reduced fleet of vans resulting from loss of the sales tax revenue.
The Office of Elderly Affairs offers door-to-door service on a first-come, first-served basis for 250 of its 400 clients each day. "We're the last hope for some of these folks," he said.
Forum Health At Home
In Mahoning County, Forum Health At Home provides qualified residents over age 60 transportation for medical visits and other needs. "People are coming to us because they don't have transportation or the ability to pay," said Michael Seelman, corporate director.
In addition, 800 meals are delivered daily to individual homes and congregate sites throughout Mahoning County.
The agency's funding comes through a grant with no additional money available. "This budget year was based on gas prices we projected in January. There is no way anybody could have projected gas would double this year," he added.
Engstrom said that because of a finite budget and the inability to pass increases on to clients "it's unlikely our funds will last for the year." No decision has been made on future reductions, but he said medical trips will receive top priority.
WRTA reduced staff and entered an insurance pool to remain afloat. The company also seeks bids from fuel suppliers for a two-year period to minimize expenses. Now "those suppliers indicated they couldn't live up to the agreement and had to break those contracts," Ferraro said.
Alternatives to cutting service
Seelman said his agency is consolidating offices and looking for efficiencies wherever possible to avoid disruption to clients. "We won't cut services to clients even if it means operating at a loss for a short time," he said.
Sandee Mathews, director of Trumbull Mobile Meals, relies on volunteers to distribute daily hot meals to shut-ins. So far that agency hasn't been negatively affected. "Our volunteers know if they don't deliver meals our clients won't have a hot meal," Mathews said.
Mobile Meals is starting to see a surcharge on paper products, which Mathews hopes is only temporary. She said it's too early to predict what effect the surcharges may have.

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