Thursday, March 30, 2023
March 30, 2023

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Clark County services squeezed by high gas prices avoid passing costs to customers

C-Tran, American Medical Response, Clark Public Utilities tighten belts, adapt to bigger fuel bill

By , Columbian staff writer
3 Photos
A C-Tran bus passes a Sinclair gas station near Fisher's Landing Transit Center on Tuesday morning. From January to June, C-Tran has spent nearly $300,000 more than it budgeted on gas for the 106 fixed route buses it operates.
A C-Tran bus passes a Sinclair gas station near Fisher's Landing Transit Center on Tuesday morning. From January to June, C-Tran has spent nearly $300,000 more than it budgeted on gas for the 106 fixed route buses it operates. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Although high gas prices have been felt by essential services, such as C-Tran, American Medical Response and Clark Public Utilities, the cost increases have not been transferred to their users.

In the case of C-Tran, ride fares are actually lower than they were a year ago, and the agency has no plans to adjust them at this time. For AMR, the rising gas prices mean pushing back buying new vehicles and similar costs.

“Like everyone else right now, we don’t have any other choice but to buy the fuel we need,” said Dameon Pesanti, spokesman for Clark Public Utilities. “However, we are doing everything we can to conserve fuel when possible.”

Gas and diesel prices, although falling, are still nearly $1.50 per gallon higher in Vancouver than they were a year ago. Regular gas is currently at $5.12, up from $3.80 last year, and diesel is at $6.20, up from $3.67. Washington, at $5.10 a gallon, has the sixth highest gas prices in the nation. Oregon, at $5.15, ranks fourth.

Agencies react

From January to June, C-Tran has spent nearly $300,000 more than it budgeted on gas for the 106 fixed-route buses it operates. These price increases haven’t been passed along to commuters via price increase or service reduction, however.

C-Tran temporarily reduced prices for the entirety of 2022, with local fares being cut by nearly 50 percent, from $1.80 to $1 for adults and 90 cents to 50 cents for honored citizen/youth and express fares to Portland reduced from $3.85 to $2.50. Regional fares stayed the same.

In the same period, ridership has increased by 17.6 percent, from approximately 10,745 to approximately 12,635 people.

“We don’t have specific information that the increases are related to fuel prices. However, there are clear jumps on average daily ridership, which may also be attributable to people returning to in-person work and activities,” a spokesperson for C-Tran said in an email to The Columbian.

AMR operates a bulk of the ambulances in Clark County, and it hasn’t seen a major effect.

Although the high gas and diesel prices have affected its bottom line, they have not changed its level of service, said Rocco Ronacardi, AMR regional director for Southwest Washington.

“If we’re increasing our costs in fuel, maybe we’re not going out and buying brand new equipment this month,” Ronacardi said.

Ronacardi said that capital purchases, such as new vehicles and building costs, are most likely to be pushed off because of the gas price increases.

“We don’t offset our costs with medical supplies because those are absolutely things we need to have, employees need to be paid, benefits need to be paid, so it’s only on the things that we know we can push off without having an impact on local operations,” Ronacardi added.

AMR consumes around 50,000 gallons a month in Clark County. It has a contract with the city of Vancouver that requires a certain level of service regardless of fuel price fluctuations.

For the month of July, Clark Public Utilities’ fleet fuel budget is about $62,000 over, according to Pesanti.

“That puts us about double of our monthly budget of $41,000,” Pesanti wrote in an email to The Columbian, noting that the cost includes all petroleum products, such as engine oil.

As a critical service provider, Clark Public Utilities has a responsibility to serve its customers and make sure its utility is running to the best of its abilities.

Several years ago, Clark Public Utilities began purchasing hybrid and electric vehicles, and using idle mitigation equipment on its trucks to reduce fuel waste.

“The entire utility also sets our annual budgets very conservatively so we’re well prepared to adapt to unusual circumstances as they arise, such as this one,” Pesanti wrote.

Why prices are high

The biggest drivers of the high gas prices are the war in Ukraine, along with the COVID-19 pandemic, according to AAA Director of Government and Public Affairs Marie Dodds.

“Even one would have still wreaked havoc,” Dodds said. “It really has been a perfect storm and that’s why we’ve seen such elevated prices.”

Russia, the third biggest global producer of oil, accounts for 11 percent of the world’s supply.

Although the United States does not import much oil from Russia, many European nations do and with the sanctions they placed on Russia, there is a lower supply while demand is still high, causing the price to go up, Dodds said.

Crude oil is the main ingredient in gas and diesel, so pump prices are highly affected by global crude oil prices.

Summer is also a time of travel, and people are itching to get out after a COVID-stricken two years. Although many are traveling like COVID is a thing of the past, it continues to have a real impact on supply chains.

“Every day we see another story about supply chain issues and labor shortages,” Dodds said. “The oil industry has been impacted by that, as well.”

Although prices at the pump have been declining nationally each of the last six weeks, Dodds said that future prospects are unclear because of the volatility of the war in Ukraine and COVID-19.

“Normally, if you have something like a pipeline outage or a refinery goes down … you can make educated guesses about when things will be repaired, when personnel will be returned, and when things will get back to normal,” she said. “The situation involving Russia and Ukraine … continues to be a major driver of higher crude oil prices.”

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit