By MIKE WILLIAMS
Pulaski Area Transit ended its 2022 fiscal September 30 with a $60,715 budget deficit, according to the transit’s manager.
Monica Music, PAT Manager, told Pulaski Town Council most of that deficit was due to increases in fuel costs, insurance, radio communications and maintenance on vehicles including the cost of tires.
She said this marks the third time in the transit’s history it has ended its year in a deficit.
Musick said she is seeking assistance from the state’s Department of Rail and Public Transportation to deal with the deficit amount. She explained when other transit agencies have funds left over at the end of the year, they must turn those back over to DRPT. The agency then assists other transits who end the year in a deficit.
Musick told council that Pulaski Area Transit provided 27,366 one-way trips during 2022 and logged a total of 221,948 miles. She noted that of the total number of trips, 79 percent – or 21,529 – were provided to town residents.
She told council that transit ridership continues to be down across the Commonwealth.
“DRPT continues to help us come up with creative way to promote transit ridership,” Music said.
She added that the current economy with its price increases is a contributing factor to the drop in ridership, and that COVID is still a factor in decreased ridership – especially among those with health issues.
Councilman Greg East queried Musick over the cost of the transit operation and the number of riders served.
“Here’s my concern,” East said. “You have 21,529 town riders and your total budget is $667,000. You do the math on that, the cost per rider is ridiculous.”
East said he didn’t mean that comment as a reflection on anybody.
“But I do think it shows that a complete re-think on PAT is probably a good idea,” East said, noting taxpayers are largely funding the transit.
“I think long-term that’s hard to justify,” he added.
East said he was glad to hear Musick and DRPT are exploring different avenues of service to make the transit operation more cost efficient.
Earlier in her presentation, Musick noted that DRPT is considering opening grant cycles for micro-transit programs in Virginia.
According to DRPT, Micro-transit is a service delivery model for rural on-demand transit service. The micro-transit technology allows customers to book trips on demand or in advance via an app or call-in number. It also allows efficient real-time routing, trip sharing, mobile payment and flexible scheduling within a defined service zone.
East said he sees PAT buses driving around and most were empty.
“That’s no fault of the drivers, obviously, but it’s certainly a problem with the structure of the business,” East said.
“The goal for me when I look at this and going forward with funding is going to be that our citizens and our taxpayers are getting the best for their money and for their contribution and that we’re serving as many people in the town and county as possible.”
East noted also that while the transit recorded over 21,000 one-way trips, that figure could actually represent only 6,000 to 8,000 people.
“If you look at that as a percentage of the community, that money is going to a very small percentage of residents,” he said.
Musick described several plans for promoting PAT within the community in an effort to increase ridership, such as newspaper ads, flyers, promotional material within utility billings, etc.
“I don’t mean any disrespect to your plan, but just because you have a business, it doesn’t mean people necessarily need that service. You can reach out and make sure everybody knows that its available, but is there really a need,” East asked.
He said that even if ridership numbers quadrupled, the cost per ride numbers would “still look horrible.”
Musick said she anticipates the PAT budget for its next fiscal year (2024) at $741,092, with the budget increase due to higher fuel, insurance, radio communication, tire and maintenance costs.
The budget must be submitted by Feb. 1 of next year and Musick asked council to consider the town’s local match amount of $70,000 – the same as this year.
She is also hoping to receive up to three new replacement vehicles through DRPT for her 11-vehicle fleet. Local match for up to three vehicles would add $4,200 more to the town’s contribution.
During the public comment portion of Tuesday’s meeting, several PAT riders addressed council on how important the transit is to their day-to-day life, and asked council to continue to support the transit.