Pain at the pump.

We’ve all been experiencing skyrocketing fuel prices over the last few weeks.

But now, instead that 16-gallon Camry, imagine that you have to fill a a 250-gallon transit bus, or an 1,800-gallon tank in a Metra locomotive.

Just top it off, right?

In normal times, rising gasoline prices for motorists usually means rising ridership for bus and rail systems, as drivers find it cheaper to take Metra, Pace, or the CTA than to keep sliding credit cards into the pump.

But these are not normal times by any means.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to a worldwide increase in fuel prices, not just for individual drivers, but for transit agencies that fill up with diesel.

Combine that with the huge drop in transit ridership the past two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and figuring out today and tomorrow is a challenge.

“Right now,” says Metra spokesperson Michael Gillis, “it’s not easy to separate any gas-price-related ridership increases from the general ridership growth caused by the steady rebound from COVID lows.”

Metra ridership has climbed back slowly after a near-collapse due to commuters working from home.

In pre-pandemic December 2019, the UP North Line, with three stops in Evanston, carried 654,000 riders. In December 2020, mid-pandemic, only 71,000 took the North Line trains. December 2021 saw ridership of 176,000, a big gain, but still far below normal.

Now, enter the rising cost of fuel.

Metra buys about two-third of its diesel fuel on an annual fixed-rate contract, and the rest on the spot market, the price that day.

Last year, the fixed rate was $1.93 per gallon. This year it’s $2.25.

But with the ever-increasing spot costs, the most recent average for fixed and spot combined is $2.75 per gallon.

Acting Chief Financial Officer Alan Ochab told Metra’s board last week that for every 25 cent per gallon hike, Metra’s yearly fuel bill jumps $2.5 million. The longer the war in Ukraine drags on, the more likely it is that fuel costs will keep going up and up.

The Pace suburban bus system, which also serves Evanston, faces a similar dilemma.

The Route 250 Dempster Street bus, from Evanston to O’Hare Airport, carries the third most passengers in the Pace system.

Just before the pandemic hit, in February 2020 (Pace data is a bit more current than Metra’s numbers), the Route 250 bus carried 2,500 riders per weekday. February 2021 saw a more than 50% pandemic-related drop, to 1,040. Now it’s back up to 1,400. Progress, but a long way to go.

Spokesperson Maggie Daly Skogsbakken tells Evanston Now that Pace had budgeted fuel at $2.31 per gallon for the current year, but the cost is now $3.01. (Pace does not buy fuel on yearly-fixed contracts, but does solicit competitive bids from suppliers based on current market prices).

She says the latest jump is not expected to impact service or capital expenditures, as Pace has “some cushion built in to accommodate unanticipated pricing increases.”

She also notes that remaining federal relief dollars can be used to “plug any funding gaps if fuel costs remain over budget.”

Skogsbakken also says, “High gas prices have historically led to increased ridership on public transit, so we do think that more people will consider switching from their personal automobiles” if the current pricing reality continues.

She also notes that Pace has a Vanpool and Rideshare program for those who do not want to use a fixed route bus. Pace also runs paratransit operations.

CTA buses and the Purple Line “L” route serve Evanston. Buses are diesel, but the “L” is electric-powered, so rising diesel costs are not an issue there, even with a ridership drop.

Long-term, mass transit is having to re-invent itself, as the work-from-home movement will likely be permanent for some. And there’s no telling how long diesel costs will continue to rise.

The answer may be what individual car owners are considering: going electric.

The Pace board recently voted to buy 20 electric vehicles.

“Our goal,” Skogsbakken says, “is to see some of them on the street by March of next year.”

And just in case you need a reminder of how costly it is to drive your own vehicle, AAA says the average price for a gallon of regular gas for your car is now $4.61 per gallon in the Chicago metropolitan area.

Last year it was $3.14.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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