With gas prices on the rise and more people turning to alternative modes of transportation, San Luis Obispo’s transit systems are struggling to adapt.

The county’s public transportation system may not be able to accommodate everyone because there simply aren’t enough buses, or seats, to go around.

“Everything you find in an urban city, like Los Angeles or San Francisco, is happening here now, as far as (overcrowding),” said John Bates, the county’s Regional Transit Authority (RTA) interim regional transit manager.

“We’ve heard complaints from people at Cal Poly, and we’re trying to explain that we don’t have the equipment to put additional buses on routes and we don’t have the funds to provide additional buses.”

If state funds were available, the RTA would apply for them, but the state is cutting funding for key areas of public transportation, Bates said.

What’s more is that gas prices nationwide have increased by more than a dollar since this time two years ago, according to www.gasbuddy.com, a Web site that shows local, real-time gas prices in the US and Canada.

“For us, our fuel costs increased by 51 percent over last year, and we’re projecting a 95 percent increase for the 2008-09 fiscal year over this year,” Bates said.

California is shown to have the highest gas prices in the continental US at an average $4.42 per gallon at the pump, while Missouri has the lowest gas prices at an average $3.74 per gallon, according to gasbuddy.com.

If gas prices continue to rise, commuters might see an increase in bus fares and pass prices. Unfortunately, fuel costs are not offset by the rise in ridership due to a lack of equipment, officials said.

“If the gallon (of diesel) stays between $5 and $7, we’ll be fine, but I suspect it will go up to anywhere between $8 and $9 by this time next year,” Bates said. “We may have to have a fare increase, and we haven’t had one since Jan. 1, 2001, but even that is not going to really help offset the increase in gas prices.”

He added that the RTA might have to reduce some services on some routes, but that he’s working with others to find different solutions to the problem.

“School’s not even in session, so we’re really going to be impacted come September,” Bates added.

On June 2, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) announced that Americans took 2.6 billion trips on public transportation in the first three months of 2008, which is almost 85 million more trips than last year for the same time period, according to the July 16 RTA Board Agenda.

A 15 percent increase in RTA ridership countywide only exacerbates the fuel-economy problem, Bates said.

“I understand people’s frustrations. If I was in their shoes, I’d be frustrated, too,” Bates said.

The City of San Luis Obispo’s transit system is in good shape right now, but just as with the county’s transit system, ridership has increased with gas prices, according to the city’s transportation manager John Webster.

“It’s definitely having an impact on fuel costs, which are up 30 percent over last year,” Webster said. “At some point, I wouldn’t be surprised to have a fare or pass increase, or both. Right now we’re in a holding pattern. There is some news that the federal government is trying to allocate funding for public transit to meet rising fuel costs.”

The city’s public transportation ridership has increased by more than 7.5 percent over last year, Webster added.

SLO Regional Rideshare connects users via the Internet to Ride-On Transportation, a non-profit organization that provides affordable transportation to the people of San Luis Obispo County, officials said. Ride-On’s Director Mark Shaffer said the hike in gas prices is affecting the organization “big time” in several ways.

“Monthly costs for fuel have been on a regular increase over time, but we’ve seen an increase from $50,000 to $63,000 per month on fuel in just a few months,” Shaffer said. “This is money that could’ve gone to wage increases for our drivers, but luckily we’re not on diesel like the RTA (Regional Transit Authority).”

In the last six months, Ride-On has had to bump up monthly vanpool costs from about $1300 to about $1500 per month, Shaffer said. A vanpool seats about 14 or 15 people.

“But that (cost) translates into about $100 per month per seat, and most of our customers are coming from long distances like Paso Robles and Santa Maria,” Shaffer said.

Even the $100 per month is not as expensive as driving alone in a car from Santa Maria to San Luis Obispo on a daily basis, he said.

“We’ve seen a dramatic increase in demands for vanpools, and shuttle services are in high demand also,” he added.

The RTA is working on finding solutions to the ever-growing problem facing public transportation. Some suggestions are for employees to change their work hours to suit bus schedules, begin carpools, invest in vanpools, and, for Cal Poly employees, use the university’s vanpools.

Cal Poly currently has 10 employee vanpools in operation and the university plans to add another one soon, officials said. However, there are currently no commuter programs for students, said Susan Rains, Cal Poly’s Commuter and Access Coordinator.

“There are not any vanpools for students, because the student population changes so quickly that it’s very hard to implement a program like that,” Rains said, adding that as of right now, all of the employee vanpools are currently full except the Los Osos/Morro Bay van, which has a few openings left.

Most of the Cal Poly vanpools have a waiting list exceeding 40 people, but that is expected to increase in September, she said.

“I would think (the numbers would increase), because there will be a lot of faculty coming back, and there will be more staff members because Poly Canyon Village is opening, and I’m sure they’ll be interested in alternative ways to get to work,” Rains said.

There has been an increase in carpools, motorcycles and bicycles on campus, and campus parking has changed to accommodate this increase, Rains said.

Even with these projections, public transportation is still encouraged.

“I think that our system is remarkably good and very cost effective,” said Webster, who uses an RTA bus route to commute to and from work. “It’s one of the best deals out here.”

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