POSTED ON MAY 18, 2011:
Slow Moving Target
Transit officials say even a $1 million budget hike won't offset increasing fuel costs
Treading water isn't enough, says Bill Leighty, chairman of the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission and a member of the city's Transportation Advisory Board.
"We really have a lot of catching up to do," he said, assessing Tulsa's mass transit system, which, for each of the last two fiscal years, has received almost $2.5 million less in city funding than it drew before the recession led to across-the-board cutbacks in city services.
But as hard as those reductions have been on other departments, Leighty believes the mass transit system has suffered even more. And as city officials compile the fiscal year 2012 budget over the next several weeks, Leighty sees little reason to be optimistic.
Tulsa Transit general manager Bill Cartwright delivered a presentation to the City Council in April outlining his agency's grim budget situation. He said that because of anticipated reductions in state and federal funding, Tulsa Transit needed an additional $1 million in city funding for FY 2012 just to maintain the level of service it provides now.
The proposed budget submitted to the City Council in April by Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr. included that $1 million in restored funding, which would place the city's contribution to Tulsa Transit's proposed $19.4 million budget at $6.8 million. Federal funding would account for approximately $6 million of the total, while $2.5 million would be produced by fares and $2.4 million would come from the capital budget. The remainder would be provided by a variety of other sources.
But even if the council ultimately makes that $1 million hike part of the budget it approves, the prospects for increasing Tulsa Transit service are practically non-existent, Leighty believes.
"The rules have changed because the cost of diesel fuel has gone way up," he said. "Most of the budget increase is going to be eaten up by the increase in the cost of fuel. Originally, I was hopeful we could maintain the existing level of service and maybe even improve it a little bit to restore some of the routes that were cancelled. But with the way things are going now, there's no way we'll be able to restore that service."
Reason to Worry
That's a much bigger issue than most Tulsans realize, said Leighty, who earlier this year wrote a resolution that was approved by the TAB and forwarded to the mayor and council asking them to agree to Cartwright's increased funding request. The resolution also encouraged the mayor and council to seek additional funding to restore a higher level of Tulsa Transit service and help the city catch up to its peer cities that out-perform Tulsa in that regard, he said.
Leighty's resolution points out Tulsa Transit has endured a 31 percent reduction in City of Tulsa funding over the past two years, while fuel costs have risen 40 percent over the past year. His resolution goes on to claim that 60 percent of Tulsa Transit riders use the service to get to work or school, while 54 percent have an annual household income of less than $15,000.
"I don't want to criticize Bill Cartwright, but I don't think they're asking for enough (money)," Leighty said. "This is one of Tulsa's critical services. To people who rely on mass transit because they don't have a car or any other option, this is just as critical as police and fire protection."
Cartwright did not respond to a request for comment from Urban Tulsa Weekly, but Leighty likely would receive no argument from Bryan Huling, a longtime Tulsa resident who moved to Broken Arrow -- a mere two blocks outside the Tulsa city limits -- with his wife Peggy two and a half years ago. Huling, who suffers from a retina disease called choroideremia that has caused him to lose 99 percent of his visual field, is virtually sightless and does not drive. Since his wife works full time, Huling has tried to rely on Tulsa Transit to help him get around the city but finds the experience frustrating.
"To get to a doctor's appointment at 21st and Utica, I would have to budget two and a half hours to get there," he said, describing the infrequency of the bus service to which he has access. "And it would take me two and a half hours to get back. My wife can drive to a meeting in Oklahoma City and be back in less time than it takes me to go to a doctor's appointment across town."
Huling said he when he has to be somewhere during the workday, he usually relies on his wife, daughter, friends or other family members to drive him. When they're not available, he takes a taxi, if he can afford it. Taking the bus is a last resort, he said, though he still finds himself relegated to that option a couple of times a week.
"Sometimes, the bus doesn't come close enough to where I need to be," he said. Other times, he said, a bus simply doesn't show up when it's supposed to, and Huling has found himself waiting three or four hours for a bus just to get downtown.
Huling's experience with mass transit in Tulsa contrasts sharply with what he came to expect when he lived in the Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla., metropolitan area in the middle 1990s, he said. That mass transit system was fast, reliable and accessible, he said.
"There were three buses an hour there," he said. "I could get all over that municipal area."
Huling doesn't consider himself a critic of Tulsa Transit. He realizes that a lack of funding is to blame for the gaps in service, and he has good things to say about the helpfulness of the drivers and the cleanliness of the buses themselves.
"But they don't have enough of them to make it useful," he said.
Huling owns and operates a small music business called Troubadour's Emporium at the Persimmon Hollow development near 71st Street and Garnett Avenue, and he is able to walk there from his home. So he counts himself luckier than many other regular Tulsa Transit riders.
"I see a lot of folks who are much more disabled than me, and they have to rely on it," he said. "It is exhausting trying to get across town. A round trip can take them five or six hours, even if they're just at the doctor for 30 or 40 minutes."
Terry Simonson, Bartlett's chief of staff, noted the additional $1 million in Tulsa Transit funding the mayor has proposed amounts to a 22 percent increase by the city. But he acknowledged that will only offset the anticipated federal and state cuts, leaving many riders in the same position they have been in for the last two years.
Simonson said the issue is on the administration's radar, though budget constraints make it a difficult problem to resolve.
"If we're going to have this kind of ridership demand at the same time that fuel prices are going up and the federal subsidy is going down, the citizens of Tulsa will be increasing their support of mass transit," he said. "And you have to have mass transit in Tulsa for economic development and job purposes. People have to get to work and maintain jobs.
"You cut back or you take away a mass transit system, you're probably going to cause an increase in unemployment, which then would probably cause an increase in people seeking public assistance, and nothing good comes from it in any way at all. The best social program you can have is a job. And so we want people to have jobs and keep jobs. So whatever the mass transit system can do to help accommodate employment and the cost of getting to and from work, this would be a priority."
Simonson said the mayor's proposed FY 2012 budget projects a ridership of 2.5 million trips for Tulsa Transit's fixed bus routes and 187,000 trips for its lift program. That's an increase over the 2.4 million bus trips and 170,000 lift trips estimated for FY 2011. In 2010, Tulsa Transit provided 2.5 million bus trips and 201,000 lift trips.
Those figures don't come close to matching the ridership statistics that many of Tulsa's peer cities post, Leighty said, mostly because those communities have made much of a commitment to mass transit. He believes Tulsa is placing itself in a precarious position by failing to address the issue in a meaningful way.
"The fact (Tulsa Transit has) had so many cuts when we weren't performing at a very high level to begin with puts us that much farther behind," he said. "With that coming at a time when we're trying to attract young people who are not as attached to their automobiles as some of us who are older, that really hurts us. We're well down at the bottom of the list when it comes to funding public transportation."
Leighty credits such groups as Transit Matters and the Tulsa Metro Chamber's Typros organization for bringing more attention to the issue over the past several months. He also is eagerly anticipating the release of a new regional transportation plan being put together by the Indian Nations Council of Governments, a document that will outline the transportation strategies for all the cities in the metropolitan area over the next several decades.
But he wants to hear a lot more from Tulsa officials on the subject.
"I think the leadership needs to take a more vocal role in explaining to the public why this is so important," he said. "I know we have other needs, like opening pools and mowing rights of way, but that's not as important as transporting people and helping them get to and from work."
Leighty said he's not surprised that many elected officials seem more sympathetic lately to the plight of regular mass transit riders, given the fact that it's an election year. He just hopes their concerns don't evaporate after November.
"We don't have a million dollars to catch up, we have millions of dollars to catch up on," he said. "I applaud all those people from Transit Matters and other groups who are leading the charge on this."
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