A 'catch-22' for area
If RIDES had slowly raised fees over the years, it might have eased 200 and 300 percent jumps some riders have seen in the past week, according to the director of the Regional Transit Authority which oversees the program.
"We've always tried to maintain existing rates, but maybe we should have considered increasing them a little every year," said Rose Lee, director of the RIDES program. "We have worked really hard to keep the costs down and make it as best as possible for people within the community. We're not here to gouge anybody."
The Storm Lake City Council this month approved a taxi license for RIDES with rates double previous rider fees. Now one-way trips are $4.50, $3.50 for those 60+ and under 16. Fees used to be $2 and $1.50, respectively.
Genesis Development has seen increases of 350 percent, from $1 to $3.50. The administrator there has voiced concern that disabled clients will not be able to afford a $7 round trip to get to and from jobs.
Lee said state budget cuts and increased insurance costs are the main reasons for such dramatic increases in fees.
The program is funded through a variety of sources, including federal, state, county and city dollars.
Two years ago, the State of Iowa had $11.9 million for Regional Transit Authorities. That has dropped to $9 million for the current year. RIDES has seen three state budget cuts, Lee said.
"Every time they come in and take a percentage cut off, we get less and less money to do the services that we're doing," she said.
On top of that, RIDES has had a 24 percent increase in vehicle insurance. Health insurance is expected to make a big jump, too, she said.
"We've slimmed down staff to make things better, but we still doesn't have enough money to operate at full speed," Lee said. "That's why we're doing the increase."
RIDES first began in 1976 and was taken over by the Regional Transit Authority in 1979, when funding through the Iowa Department of Transportation became available.
"We've been in business 20 some years and our costs to the people haven't changed much - we've kind of been taking that in and not raising fares. It's been real reasonable for people, but the costs of programs have changed dramatically since we first started it," Lee said.
The City of Storm Lake annually gives $10,000 to the program, but Lee said she expects the RTA will have to request more in future years.
It costs approximately $35 an hour to operate a RIDES bus, which offers door-to-door service, Lee said. That type of service is important for many riders who are elderly or disabled, since drivers will actually help the individual from the door of the home to his or her destination, she noted.
Because of the type of service, a single RIDES bus may only transport three to four people per hour in the city, Lee said. Increased rider fees will cover a significant portion of the hourly operations cost, she added.
The RTA will also be examining its options when it comes to insurance. Lee admitted that the vehicle insurance increase this year "just about killed us."
"We were on the lucky side," she added. "Some agencies in the state saw their rates triple."
There has been some talk among the state's 16 rural transit authorities to form a consortium to get discounts on purchases and insurance policies, but those plans have not worked out, Lee said.
However, the six RTAs in western Iowa have worked together for collective purchasing and plan to continue to do so, she added.
RIDES covers a nine county area, including Buena Vista, with a fleet of 70 vehicles.
Last year, the buses covered 426,000 rides throughout those nine counties, and about 53,000 rides in Buena Vista County. Of that, 15,000 were in the City of Storm Lake, Lee said.
The board of directors for RIDES will have to see how the increased fees affect ridership this year.
"It's a Catch-22 situation," Lee said of raising rider fees. "Some people with fixed incomes just can't afford it."
However, RIDES needs funding to operate. "Either we receive compensation for doing the program or we don't even operate," Lee said.
Lee said the agency continues to work with local government, agencies such as Genesis Development and the Area Agency on Aging to keep costs down.
"We want to keep the program as economical as possible for people to be transported," she said.
RIDES will be offering a rider's guide soon, which will contain information to help people better understand the system and how to make the most out of its services. For more information, call 712-262-7920.