Will history repeat itself? Racine Transit monitors the impact of gasoline prices
RACINE — As fuel prices hit a record high this week, a Racine Transit (RYDE Racine) official wonders if history could repeat itself.
On Wednesday, AAA reported that the national average price for regular unleaded gasoline set a record high of $4.253 per gallon. The Wisconsin statewide average was not far behind at $3.991 per gallon, while the average price in Racine was $3.973 per gallon. Neither statewide nor Racine prices were at record highs, but they were close.
Racine Transit director Trevor Jung wondered aloud whether the high price of private vehicle travel might put some people off public transport – or trying it for the first time.
“People are rational. They are going to make choices that make sense for their wallet,” he said. “We hope people will choose public transit as an economical way to get around.
It’s happened before, Jung noted.
In the 1970s, two separate and sudden disruptions in Middle Eastern oil exports to the United States and allied countries caused shortages of petroleum products and rapidly rising prices.
The first was a five-month embargo in 1973-74 led by Arab oil producers against the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Japan and the Netherlands. This action sent world crude oil prices up 300%. Retail gasoline prices in the United States have climbed 43% over a 12-month period.
In late 1973, long lines of motorists waiting to refuel at gas stations became the norm when the Nixon administration instructed gasoline retailers to voluntarily hold supplies by closing on Sundays. Congress passed a national speed limit of 55 miles per hour in 1974 as an energy-saving tactic. This lasted until the mid-90s.
A second oil shock for the United States came in 1979 when oil production in the Middle East plummeted following the Iranian Revolution. Crude oil prices have doubled over a 12 month period. Half a dozen states (not Wisconsin) enforced gasoline rationing for part of the year.
An advantage for buses
The region’s public transit systems – including the one operated by the City of Racine – benefited from the gas-pump sticker shock of the 1970s.
Jung noted that the Racine system carried about 829,000 passengers in 1975. In 1980, city buses carried just over 3 million passengers.
Statistics compiled by the Southeast Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC) show that after falling steadily through the 1950s and 1960s, fixed-route transit ridership saw an increase in the late 1900s. 1970s which continued over the next decade before flattening out.
A current advantage
As the cost of operating a car, SUV or truck skyrockets once again, switching to RYDE Racine may be attractive for some residents.
RYDE Racine operates nine fixed bus routes covering the town of Racine and adjacent communities. Five of the lines operate seven days a week.
Compared to a full tank of gas, a bus ride is cheap – a one-way ticket (for anyone aged 6 and over) costs $2. Seniors, people with disabilities, and Medicare beneficiaries can ride for $1. Multi-ride passes start at $4.
RYDE Racine carried 1,041,115 passengers in 2019. Ridership dipped to 681,778 the following year as the COVID-19 pandemic closed businesses, schools and changed daily travel habits. Jung said ridership has not recovered.
“COVID-19 has had a negative effect on us. Gasoline prices could have a positive effect. We’ll just have to see,” he said.
Good timing for electric
Meanwhile, RYDE Racine is preparing to roll out nine new battery-electric buses, a third of its current fleet.
RYDE Racine took delivery of the electric buses, manufactured by Proterra, in early February. They will replace the diesel-powered buses that are each 16 years old. Service technicians and transit system drivers are currently undergoing training on the new buses. Jung said a deployment event was scheduled for late April.
The buses and electric charging infrastructure were purchased with a $6.1 million grant from Volkswagen Transit’s Capital Assistance Program and a $3.1 million grant from the Federal Transit Authority of United States Department of Transportation. The purchase gives Racine the distinction of having the largest electric bus fleet in Wisconsin.
Each bus is designed to travel 175 miles on one charge. Plans call for the buses’ batteries to be recharged overnight.
Desirable savings for the City
Touted to reduce toxic exhaust emissions (Racine, Kenosha, and other Lake Michigan counties are in an area with poor air quality), electric buses are also expected to have costs. significantly lower operating times than diesel-powered buses. In February, when the new buses arrived, city officials estimated the electric models would save the transit system 56,000 gallons of fuel per year.
Based on Wednesday’s average retail diesel price of $4.65 in the Racine area, annual fuel savings could reach $260,400.
Jung says the actual savings won’t be known for several months, but he’s happy with the timing.
“It makes you grateful that we made the transition to electric when we did,” he said.
Learn more about Racine Transit (RYDE).
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