The months-long decline in fuel prices has taken pressure off campus shuttle bus programs, providing a funding cushion and reducing the need to consider service cuts, according to several university transportation professionals.
Gary Smith, director of Transit and Parking at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, said the drop in fuel prices has allowed his department to stop raiding its reserve fund and return to its original budget for fuel. “Had the higher fuel prices continued, we would have had to make some difficult decisions to balance our budget,” he said.
The drop in fuel prices has given the campus bus program at Georgia Tech “much needed financial relief,” according to Lance Lunsway, director of Parking and Transportation at the Atlanta university.
“In the history of the contracted bus and trolley service, the surcharge for high price fuel had never been enacted until this past summer,” Lunsway said. It was estimated that the additional charge could rise as high as $70,000, spurring the transportation department to hold off on filling a vacant staff position and reducing costs in other areas. “The goal was to keep from cutting service,” he said.
As a precaution, Lunsway said the university will consider creating a contigency fund for next fiscal year. “To accomplish this, it will take the backing of student leaders, administration and the board of regents, who will need to authorize an additional $1 increase to next year’s student transportation fees,” he said.
Cheaper fuel has also relieved budget pressures at the University of South Florida in Tampa, said Transportation Manager Rick Fallin. But the campus bus program’s service levels are not tied to the fuel budget. “We do not specifically plan service around the cost of fuel,” Fallin said.
Michael Sokoff, director of Transportation and Parking Services at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond, said cheaper fuel has not impacted shuttle bus service, although it has reduced ridership. “We have seen fewer riders due to the ability of students to drive their vehicles more often,” he said.
Funding problems not related to fuel prices have handcuffed some university transit programs. Teresa Davis, director of transportation services at Penn State University in University Park, said she hasn’t considered expanding routes on campus, despite lower fuel costs. “We can’t, due to the current financial situation. We’re being asked to cut back in all areas due to cuts in state funding appropriations,” she said. “We’ve already informed our employees not to expect any salary increases this year.”
Meanwhile, universities that operate CNG shuttle buses have not seen drastic fluctuations in fuel prices. At Utah State University in Logan, 90 percent of the bus fleet runs on natural gas. “Because the price of CNG has remained faily even over the the past six months, we have not been affected much,” said Lisa Leishman, director of Parking and Transportation. “One positive change has been for the one diesel bus that we do operate. The cost to operate this vehicle has, of course, gone down. In this tight economy, every little bit helps.”