Public transportation officials are feeling the pinch at the pump just like the rest of us.
The Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority had record ridership last month, but board members learned Wednesday that fuel cost about $52,000 more than they planned for the month.
CARTA budgeted to spend about $118,000 for gas in October but actually paid nearly $170,000.
Transportation officials say the deficit resulted from rising gas prices.
Board Chairman Patterson Smith pointed out that the bus system is not a for-profit entity but provides a crucial service for the community. Unlike typical business operations, he said increased ridership doesn't necessarily translate into lower costs for the bus system.
Smith added, "What does ridership translate into? It translates, obviously, into better public service."
In other words, more buses are put on the road so wait times aren't too long.
Essentially, more people are hopping aboard already gassed-up buses instead of filling up their own tanks. CARTA is left picking up the tab.
The numbers speak for themselves.
Last month's ridership count — more than 321,000 trips — broke records from six years ago, before the bus system ran into financial issues and eventually had to drastically cut service.
But transportation officials are hopeful.
Board members applauded reaching the ridership milestone at their monthly meeting.
Smith noted that fare-box collections accounted for only about 25 percent of revenues recorded in October. The bus system depends heavily on federal, state and county contributions to offset operating costs.
Executive Director Howard Chapman said CARTA is waiting for at least $3 million in grant money, which typically comes in late in the budget year. "I think all those things together more than make that up," he said of the shortfall for fuel.
CARTA contracts under the state Department of Transportation for fuel, paying a discounted rate of about $2.60 a gallon for diesel. Still, that translates into thousands of dollars each month for gassing up the entire fleet, including the popular, commuter-friendly Express buses that were added this year.
The area transportation authority has about $114,000 set aside in case of an emergency, but some board members say they wish there was more cushion. For years, the bus system was unable to build up its contingency because of financial constraints.
Charleston County Councilman Dickie Schweers said savings could be had if lagging routes were nixed.
But the board realized this summer that those decisions aren't cut-and-dry, because residents who most depend on CARTA could suffer. The board decided to tweak some service times and combine some routes, and increased fares for flex-demand buses by 75 cents.
Smith said the board might need to consider adjusting fare-box rates.
Board member Tumiko Rucker, who also is Kiawah Island's town administrator, said they shouldn't overact based upon fuel figures from only one month. The costs should level out, she said.
The board decided to wait and see what happens. Its staff plans to develop alternatives for building up contingency funds.
Charleston County Councilman Paul Thurmond noted that gas prices are steadily increasing.
"There's no indication of change," he said. "I'm hoping we can tighten the belt accordingly."