CATA tries to prepare for rising gas prices

Craig Allen wishes he had a crystal ball.

If he owned one, the director of maintenance for the Capital Area Transportation Authority, or CATA, might have been able to better prepare for the recent spike in gas prices.

Officials budget for fuel expenses, but there’s been no way to predict the current pain at the pump, although it might be driving more people to use mass transportation, Allen said.

CATA officials budgeted for $2.85 per gallon of gasoline, a mix of diesel and unleaded fuel, for the current fiscal year, he said, noting the organization’s buses consume about 1 million gallons each year. CATA currently is paying an average of $3.05 per gallon of gasoline, about 20 cents higher than predicted.

“We look as far out and look to as many indices to predict (prices),” Allen said. “To put it mildly, it’s precision guesswork.”

During fiscal year 2010-11, CATA budgeted for $2.60 a gallon, but paid an average of $2.92.

The organization does not pay a road tax when purchasing gasoline, unlike the average consumer at the pump, which is why they pay a lower per-gallon cost, Allen said.

Next year, all signs indicate officials should predict prices around $3.15 a gallon, he said. Cities across the country already are experiencing record-high gasoline prices, including Chicago, which was 1 cent away from breaking an all-time record last Thursday, according to

“As far as predicting unrest when fuel prices spike, we do our due diligence to be realistic,” Allen said.

However, the jump in gas prices might be playing a role in increased ridership numbers, although it is too early to tell whether that’s definitively the case, said Laurie Robison, CATA marketing director.

About 1.2 million CATA rides were taken in January 2012, compared to 1.14 million the year prior. Data for February was not yet available, and warmer temperatures might also have played a factor for the increased numbers as people are outside more, Robison said.

“We’re trending a little bit higher than we have in 2011,” Robison said. “We’re hearing a lot through Twitter … (that people) certainly are taking advantage of that fact (of rising gas prices) by taking public transportation.”

Ashley Howard, a dietetics freshman, said she has a car parked off campus and uses the bus system, but she doesn’t yet use it to save money on gas.

“I have a student semester pass, and I take the bus just to save time from getting from place to place,” she said.

CATA might be able to save on fuel costs by using hybrid buses on its routes, Allen said. For the 23 hybrid vehicles on the road now as of January out of the 213 total vehicles, according to CATA’s website, there is a savings of 20 to 25 percent, Allen said.

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