C-Tran has budgeted for a $38.2 million bump in net revenue for 2022 compared with 2021. What has caused such a drastic increase in net revenue for an agency that budgeted $2.6 million in net revenue last year? The answer is multifaceted.
The agency has been awarded almost $32.6 million in operating grants from the state and federal governments. The majority of that was federal stimulus funds to offset costs of operations.
That, however, hasn’t been the only change in funding C-Tran has seen. The agency receives 0.7 percent of the local 8.5 percent sales tax.
“That actually represents our largest funding stream,” said Julie Syring, director of finance at C-Tran. In the past year, the agency has seen record growth in sales tax collection.
It’s given the agency the chance to give back to customers. Hence the recent announcement from the agency that most fares will be lowered over the next 12 months.
“We have maintained strong financials through this, and so it is our opportunity to give back,” Syring said.
Like all transit agencies around the country, C-Tran’s ridership has fallen over the course of the pandemic. The agency had nearly 6 million passenger boardings in 2019; in 2020, there were just less than 3.7 million.
“We did experience — and this is kind of a silver lining in a dark cloud — the lowest ridership decrease of any transit agency in Washington state,” said Christine Selk, director of communication and customer experience at C-Tran. “Comparatively, that’s good news. But every transit agency in North America experienced ridership declines during the pandemic.”
On some routes, however, ridership is almost back to pre-pandemic levels.
“We’re one of the lucky ones in that we really are starting to see a rebound, particularly among our local routes,” Selk said.
The express buses that run into Portland remain challenging to fill. Many commuters into the city now work from home or make fewer trips.
“It’s a different situation for sure. It’s a new reality for us. And we are just working hard to accommodate that and continue to keep people safe and remind people that it is safe to get back on the buses,” Selk said.
So far, the agency has cut very, very little service, Selk said.
“We definitely want to keep that momentum going and we want to be able to use this as one tool in our toolbox to help foster increased ridership,” Selk said.
The agency’s operating and capital budgets are increasing this year, as well. Because of the uncertainty of the pandemic, C-Tran had a lean operating budget last year. The agency budgeted $69.7 million in net operating expenses in 2020. In 2021, that decreased to $65.7 million. The 2022 operating budget is $72.9 million in 2022.
When comparing 2020’s budget with 2022’s budget, there’s more of a 4 to 5 percent increase, Syring said.
C-Tran has had to build in higher expenses due to rising fuel costs and for contract-based changes, like wage and benefit increases. There was also a 3 percent increase in the budget to cover service enhancements, climate research and other things. The agency will be studying alternative fuels.
“There’s a lot of different options and technologies out there in the market. The study will help inform us as to what works best with our service,” Syring said. “We are fortunate that the sales tax has been as strong as it has. That’s really allowing the agency to look at innovative ways to give back to the community and help build some service and help support the existing service that’s there.”
C-Tran’s capital budget increase is primarily driven by projects. There was some deferred maintenance last year, but the main reason for an increased capital budget in 2022 is the timing of when projects commence. The 2022 projects include improvements to the campus on Northeast 65th Avenue, as well as the construction of the Mill Plain Bus Rapid Transit project.
“C-Tran operates debt-free and always has. That is one of our guiding principles and our bedrock when it comes to anything financial,” Selk said.