RACINE – As motor fuel prices climbed into record territory this week, a Racine Transit (RYDE Racine) official is wondering if history might repeat itself.
On Wednesday, AAA reported that the national average price of unleaded regular gasoline set a record $4.253 per gallon. The statewide average for Wisconsin was not far behind at $3.991 per gallon while the average price in Racine stood at $3.973 per gallon. Neither the statewide nor the Racine prices were at record highs, but they were close.
Racine Transit Director Trevor Jung wondered aloud if the high price of getting around via private vehicles may push some people back to public transportation – or try it for the first time.
“People are rational. They’re going to make choices that make sense for their pocketbook,” he said. “We’re hoping that people will choose transit as an economical way to get around.”
It’s happened before, Jung noted.
In the 1970s, two separate, sudden interruptions in Middle Eastern oil exports to the United States and allied countries triggered shortages of petroleum products and rapidly elevated prices.
The first was a five-month embargo in 1973-74 led by Arab oil producers against the US, the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan and the Netherlands. The action caused world crude oil prices to soar 300 percent. Retail gasoline prices in the US soared 43 percent over a 12-month period.
In late 1973, long lines of motorists waiting to fill up at gas stations became the norm as the Nixon Administration asked gasoline retailers to voluntarily conserve supplies by closing on Sundays. Congress enacted a 55-mile-per-hour national speed limit in 1974 as an energy-saving tactic. It lasted until the mid-’90s.
A second oil shock for the U.S arrived in 1979 when Middle East oil production dropped in the wake of the Iranian revolution. Crude oil prices doubled over a 12-month period. A half-dozen states (not Wisconsin) imposed gasoline rationing for part of the year.
A Benefit for Buses
The region’s public transportation systems – including the one operated by the City of Racine – benefited from the ’70s-era gas pump sticker shock.
Jung noted that the Racine system carried about 829,000 riders in 1975. By 1980, the city’s buses carried just over 3 million riders.
Statistics compiled by the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC) show that after steadily falling through the 1950s and ‘60s, ridership on fixed-route public transit experienced an uptick in the late 1970s that continued into the next decade before flattening.
A Present-Day Perk
As the cost of operating one’s car, SUV or truck once again climbs dramatically, switching to RYDE Racine may be attractive to some residents.
RYDE Racine operates nine fixed bus routes covering the City of Racine and adjacent communities. Five of the routes operate seven days a week.
Compared to a tank of gas, a bus ride is cheap – a single fare (anyone age 6 and older) is $2. Seniors, disabled and Medicare recipients can ride for $1. Passes, allowing multiple rides, start at $4.
RYDE Racine carried 1,041,115 riders in 2019. Ridership plummeted to 681,778 the following year as the COVID-19 pandemic closed businesses, schools, and altered day-to-day travel habits. Jung said ridership hasn’t recovered.
“COVID-19 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 – one-third of its current fleet.
RYDE Racine took delivery of the electric buses, manufactured by Proterra, in early February. They will replace diesel-powered buses that are each 16 years old. Transit system service technicians and drivers are currently going through training on the new buses. Jung said a rollout event is being planned for late April.
The buses and electric charging infrastructure were purchased with a $6.1 million Volkswagen Transit Capital Assistance Program grant and a $3.1 million U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Transit Authority grant. The purchase gives Racine the distinction of having Wisconsin’s largest electric bus fleet.
Each bus is designed to travel 175 miles on a charge. Plans call for the bus batteries to be recharged overnight.
Desirable Savings for the City
Touted for reducing toxic exhaust emissions (Racine, Kenosha and other Lake Michigan counties are in an air quality nonattainment region), the electric buses are also expected to have significantly lower operating costs than diesel-powered buses. In February, when the new buses arrived, city officials estimated the electric models to save the transit system 56,000 gallons of fuel annually.
Based on Wednesday’s average $4.65 retail price of diesel in the Racine area, the annual fuel savings could hit a whopping $260,400.
Jung says the actual cost savings won’t be known for several months, but he’s happy about the timing.
“It makes you grateful that we made the transition to electric when we did,” he said.