December 12, 2012 - In order to avoid taking vehicles off the road next year, the North Oakland Transportation Authority (NOTA) is considering doing something it's never done before – charging for rides.
"We don't want to cut our service; we want to maintain our service," said NOTA Director Lynn Gustafson.
Right now, NOTA's riders – which consist of senior citizens, disabled individuals and low-income residents from Oxford, Addison and Orion townships along with their respective villages – receive transportation free of charge.
Gustafson has proposed ending the free trips and charging $2 each way to NOTA's seniors, disabled riders and low-income folks going to and from work only.
She also proposed charging $4 each way to low-income riders going anywhere else but their place of employment and any other resident of the three townships and three villages who desires a ride.
"I'm sure the community will be concerned about it because it is a change, but I think if they compare the cost to purchasing, insuring, maintaining and buying gasoline for a vehicle, they'll see the fare is still reasonable," Gustafson said.
Under Gustafson's proposal, folks who are part of Training & Treatment Innovations, Inc. (TTI) would still ride for free to and from the organization's Oxford facility known as Clubhouse Inspiration.
That's because TTI makes a $200,000 annual contribution to NOTA to cover its riders. TTI provides mental health services to those with psychiatric and/or developmental disabilities.
Opening NOTA up to anyone who needs or wants a ride would definitely be a new thing. "As long as they're a resident and they're willing to pay the fare," Gustafson said.
The idea of possibly charging fares will be discussed and examined by a committee which is expected to report back to NOTA's board of directors at its Thursday, Dec. 20 meeting. That meeting will begin at 4:30 p.m. and take place at NOTA's office (945 Glaspie St.).
"I think they're receptive to the idea," Gustafson said. "They just have to (do some) fine-tuning and figure out what makes sense for us as a whole – what's the fairest way and the best way to proceed with a fare system for our riders. I think we want a fare system that's fair."
The main reason NOTA is considering charging for rides is because next year it will receive $80,000 less in New Freedom Urban grant funds from the federal government. This money is used to cover disabled riders.
If this money is not somehow replaced, NOTA will have to take two buses off the road. Gustafson indicated it costs about $40,000 annually to keep one bus on the road.
Right now, NOTA has 14 vehicles running routes Monday through Friday. Eliminating two of those would have a negative impact on system users as the number of rides continues to grow.
"We actually have the highest (number) we've ever had for ridership," Gustafson said. "We would hate to cut routes when more people need service."
As of the end of October, NOTA's given 37,819 rides this year, which is up 9 percent from last year.
Mileage is up, too. As of the end of October, NOTA vehicles had travelled 461,532 miles this year, which is up 12 percent from 2011.
"There's more and more people that need the service," Gustafson said. "If you have less and less space (to accommodate them), it's obviously going to impact the people who ride."
NOTA operates on a "first come, first served" basis, but its riders are prioritized.
Riders using the service for medical appointments, grocery shopping and to get to and from jobs take precedence over others who use it for purposes such as recreational activities or visiting a hair salon.
The priority rides are filled first and whatever openings are left over go to riders making nonessential trips.
"If we have to cut back, there will be less openings for those types of trips," said Gustafson, referring to the nonessential rides. "You hate to do that."
She fears taking buses off the road could eventually impact the priority trips as well.
"It just makes it more difficult for everyone to get where they need to go, especially because we're taking on new people every month," Gustafson said.
Even if NOTA starts charging fares and opens itself up to all residents, priority riders would still take precedence, she confirmed.
If Gustafson's $2/$4 fare proposal is implemented, she estimated it would generate $97,008 next year.
That would cover the $80,000 loss in New Freedom funds, keeping those two buses on the road, and give NOTA an additional $17,000 to help offset rising costs such as repairs to "aging" vehicles and spikes in gasoline prices.
"We could maintain our service level as it is right now," Gustafson said.
The biggest thing establishing a fare system would do is give NOTA a "stable form of revenue" and "lessen the amount (it has) to rely on grants."
Fifty percent of NOTA's 2012 budget was derived from federal and state grants. The agency's 2013 budget will see that decrease to 42 percent. "Those are annual competitive grants that we don't know if we're going to get (from) year to year," Gustafson said.
Gustafson noted that it's quite common for transportation agencies to charge for rides. "We're really the only transportation system that doesn't charge," she said. "Every other transportation system that I can see – and I'm kind of going through the state of Michigan – all of them have a fee-related to the service."
Gustafson noted her $2/$4 fare proposal is in line with what other transportation agencies similar to NOTA are charging their riders. "That's a pretty average fare," she said.
If NOTA were to institute a fare system, Gustafson indicated she would like it to either require exact change or utilize tokens.
That way the drivers don't have to worry about making change.
She said it could also involve some type of punch card. "There's many different ways to implement this," Gustafson said.=
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.