Press-Republican

May 3, 2014

Clinton County bus system sustains shortfall

By JOE LoTEMPLIO
Press-Republican

---- — PLATTSBURGH — The Clinton County Public Transportation system lost money in 2013, prompting county officials to evaluate their options.

“It’s the first time in about a decade that we had a shortfall,” Clinton County Deputy Administrator Rodney Brown said.

TRIAD OF FUNDING

The system, which provides bus service throughout the county, wound up with a deficit of about $33,000 for 2013.

The shortfall is attributed to less state money to support the system and fewer riders.

The CCPT budget is about $1.3 million per year, and it is funded by state, federal and local money.

The state provides 69 cents per mile that each bus travels, and the federal government gives 40.5 cents per passenger.

The local revenue comes from passenger fares, which are $1 for every run within the City of Plattsburgh, $2 for each rural run and $3.50 for para-transit trips for those with disabilities.

All fares are for one-way trips.

“If you live in the city and want to go somewhere else in the city, it’s a dollar one way and then a dollar back,” Brown said. “Not a bad deal.”

COLLEGE CONTRACTS

The state funding amounts to about 50 percent of the system’s revenue, the federal funds equal about 12 percent, and local revenue makes up the rest.

Local revenue includes contracts with SUNY Plattsburgh and Clinton Community College for dedicated runs and for advertising on the sides of the buses.

The system includes 16 buses that are operated by First Transit through a contract with the county.

The county maintains the transportation hub on Arizona Avenue on the former Plattsburgh Air Force Base.

FEWER RIDERS

Brown said ridership in 2013 was down about 30,000 trips from 210,000 passengers in 2012.

A reason for the drop, he said, was that the state, which orders para-transit trips for Medicaid riders, used other providers more than it normally does.

The state hired a private firm to handle Medicaid trips instead of local Social Services departments last year, and they are using other providers besides county bus systems.

“Instead of booking a Medicaid trip with us, they would call local taxis or other transportation providers,” Brown said.

“This is affecting public bus systems in counties across the state.”

SMALLER CHECK

Another blow came in the form of less state “clean-up” money at the end of the year.

Brown explained that the state has a pot of about $10 million that it divides among the two dozen rural county transportation systems across the state.

“But they don’t spend it all. Most of it, but not all of it, and whatever is left, they give each county a check at the end of the year, and that usually covers any deficit we have,” Brown said.

“But it was less this year, and it didn’t cover our shortfall.”

He said two new county bus systems were added in the state last year, which took up more of the state money, meaning less for Clinton County.

A drop in enrollment of CCC students, who often use bus service, also hurt ridership, Brown said.

CUTTING ROUTES

The county’s Transportation Committee looked at several options to cut costs, but none seem viable, Brown said.

“We looked at cutting all rural routes, we looked at cutting half the city routes, we looked at cutting some rural routes ... but none of them save money because when you cut routes, you lose riders and revenue, and your fixed costs do not change,” he said.

The committee also looked at increasing service to raise money, but that also did not work.

“We could add more bus runs, but we’d have some runs with no passengers, and you’re not going to make money that way,” he said.

HIGHER FARES

The committee will also look at a fare increase, which has not occurred since 2003.

Brown said that whenever fares are increased, ridership goes down.

“We had an increase in 1996, and it took us about five years to get back to the numbers we had before we raised the prices,” he said.

NEEDED SERVICE

Legislator Harry McManus (D-Area 1, Champlain), who chairs the Transportation Committee, said the challenge of keeping the bus service affordable is immense.

“A lot of people use it and need it, and this is a service that I feel we have to provide for our citizens,” he said.

With gas prices nearing $4 per gallon and beyond again and the ever-present concern about carbon emissions, public transportation is essential, McManus said, and the committee will do its best to come up with cost-saving measures.

Meetings, including public hearings, are likely to be held in the next few months to discuss the issue.

“There isn’t an avenue we won’t take a peek at because we don’t want to eliminate this service,” McManus said.

“It would be a tremendous hardship for a lot of people.”

‘BITE THE BULLET’

This year’s shortfall will be covered by the county’s fund balance, but McManus acknowledged that covering shortfalls from fund balance is probably not a good option.

“We are going to have to bite the bullet somehow,” he said.

“We may wind up combining some routes or eliminating some of the less efficient routes. We will have to revisit everything.”

Email Joe LoTemplio:jlotemplio@pressrepubican.com