The Capital District Transportation Authority’s struggle with rising costs and dropping revenues will continue even if it receives millions of new dollars under the federal economic stimulus bill, the agency’s executive director said Wednesday.
The federal legislation could mean as much as $12 million to $14 million over the next two years, CDTA leader Ray Melleady said, though nothing beyond that.
He said stimulus money would provide only temporary help to CDTA and other mass transit agencies, which are struggling across the country with growing ridership that is straining their existing resources and declining operating revenues.
“We have a real revenue crisis,” Melleady said.
He said the stimulus money would be received on top of $12 million to $14 million in annual regular federal operating aid to CDTA. Under the current House-approved version of the bill, stimulus money would have to be used for buying more buses or other capital costs, not operating expenses, though Melleady said transit officials are arguing to allow it for operating costs.
Operating expenses are where CDTA is feeling the pinch, with a projected $5 million deficit for the coming budget year.
At least in part, the deficit is caused by people leaving their cars home and taking the bus.
More people using mass transit, and those driving using more fuel-efficient cars, means the federal 18.4-cent per gallon gasoline tax is bringing in less money than it used to, and that’s impacting the federal government’s mass-transit funding.
“It’s the ridership paradox,” Melleady said after the monthly CDTA board meeting at the Albany-Rensselaer Amtrak station. “Across the country, mass transit ridership is up but the revenue that supports it is down.”
CDTA receives federal transit aid but also money from the mortgage tax in Albany, Schenectady, Saratoga and Rensselaer counties. The mortgage tax revenue has dropped in the last year because of the housing slump.
CDTA has a $74.5 million budget this year with a fleet of about 250 buses providing service in the four counties.
The CDTA board in December voted to raise the basic rider fare from $1 to $1.50 on April 1 to address lost revenue, and there are tentative plans to consider an increase from $1.50 to $2 next April.
“What we did about fares is actually just a stop-gap measure,” said CDTA board member Art Young of Albany County.
Low-use bus routes are also being cut to save money.
Despite a decline in gasoline prices since last summer’s peaks, recent figures show CDTA ridership continues to grow — it was 1.2 million riders in December, up 13 percent from the same month a year earlier.
While people are taking mass transit to save money, because of environmental concerns about driving or for other reasons, that increase in riders has strained the authority’s resources. Complaints about overcrowding and late buses also grew during the month, officials acknowledged.
“The Route 5 corridor [between Schenectady and Albany] is so crowded we really need to run a bus every eight minutes at peak times,” Melleady said. The buses now run every 10 to 12 minutes, he said.
The increased ridership at CDTA and other mass transit agencies across the country will be used to make arguments to legislators in Albany and Washington that more of the aid that has historically gone to highway projects should go to support mass transit programs, Melleady said.
The federal transportation funding bill is also up for renewal this year, he noted.
“We believe mass transit is a very appropriate investment,” Melleady said.