Local governments feel the pain at the pump, turn to cash reserves and technology to save fuel

By Karla Bowsher,

Much like everyday drivers floored by soaring gas prices, Broward County governments with large vehicle fleets have been forced to dip into reserves to keep their cars, trucks and buses rolling.

Despite setting a $14.8-million fuel budget and increasing bus fares on Oct. 1, Broward County Transit (BCT) expects to tap into its $1.68-million reserve to cover rising costs.

Broward County, the sheriff’s office and Fort Lauderdale feel the drain on money but say they have stayed on budget despite current gas prices. At $4 or $5 a gallon, though, they could exhaust their money supply.

Broward County Public Schools, the sixth largest public school district in the nation, did not respond to numerous telephone and email requests for information about the impact of fuel hikes on its huge school bus fleet and other vehicles.

With the peak driving season starting in April, the Department of Energy expects gas to average $3.86 a gallon this summer. The former president of Shell Oil, John Hofmeister, predicted on CNN in December – before the turmoil in oil-rich areas of North African and the Middle East – that gas would hit $5 a gallon.

Local governments face an increasing demand to squeeze the most out of every dollar and drop.

“It looks very likely that we’ll go over budget, but we have the resources in place,” Garling said. “I just don’t see an immediate effect [on riders].”

BCT has already set a preliminary fuel budget of $16.1 million for the next fiscal year, which starts October 1 for local governments. Officials with the agency, along with Fort Lauderdale, say for now they expect to be able to cut costs and not services.

“The issue for us is we are here and available for the public to use despite the fuel going up for us,” Garling said. “So the challenge is with all these things that we have to consider, we want to keep the maximum number of buses on the road.”

County transit operates 303 buses, with 26 using hybrid engines that run on diesel and electricity, as well as 115 that have undergone other changes to be more fuel efficient. The fleet includes 21 articulated buses, which are 20 feet longer and have 20 extra seats. Garling said this makes them “very efficient,” because they hold more passengers but don’t require much more in operating costs.

BCT makes about 36.7 million passenger trips a year, Garling said. Experts say the demand on public transportation rises with fuel costs.

According to a recent report from the American Public Transportation Association, an additional 670 million riders across the nation could drop their private guzzlers if gas hits $4 a gallon. At $5 a gallon, additional rides could leap to 1.5 billion annually.

On March 1, Fort Lauderdale turned to technology in response to pain at the pump.

City Commissioners approved a plan to retrofit 730 of the city’s 1,522 vehicles with Ward CANceivers, fleet spokesman Matt Little said. These devices monitor driver performance and tire pressure, which affect gas mileage.

The largest city in the county, Fort Lauderdale has also tackled costs by cutting its fleet by 38 vehicles. “This approach toward fleet management, known as ‘right sizing,’ saves fuel, repair and maintenance expenses,” Little said by e-mail.

The city has several fuel-conserving measures in place too, such as preventative maintenance, the use of regular routes and carpooling by staff. When conflict in Libya escalated, the city also started to regularly top off its fuel supply as a hedge against rising gas prices, Little said.

Although per gallon prices now exceed what the city budgeted, Little said they are still living within the $3.9 million set aside for fuel this year.

Broward County doesn’t have mandatory gas-saving measures for its vehicles not tied to mass transit, although some departments and agencies have done so on their own in the past few months, said Fleet Services Division Director Phyllis Braswell. She added that fuel costs are still within the county’s current $3.1-million budget.

“We’re not making any mandatory cut right now because people still have a job to do,” she said.

If additional money becomes needed, Braswell said the county would pursue new gas-saving steps for its fleet of about 1,000 road vehicles and 1,250 special-purpose vehicles, like those cars and trucks used in the Parks and Recreation Division and the Traffic Engineering Division.

The Broward Sheriff’s Office wasn’t expecting gas prices to go as high as they have, but like Fort Lauderdale, it doesn’t expect to exceed its $8 million fuel budget, said spokesman Jim Leljedal. He added that BSO has set aside an additional $500,000 for fuel next year.

To conserve, BSO has ordered patrol deputies to turn off their engines instead of idling for extended periods, except when their emergency lights are on. The sheriff’s office has also purchased a few hybrid Priuses and Fusions, but Leljedal said that if more money were needed for fuel than was budgeted, it would have to come from “somewhere else.”

“We can’t let it affect us,” he said of gas prices. “We try to economize where we can, but we can’t tell our officers that they can’t go out on patrol today because we don’t have gas. That will never happen.”

Karla Bowsher can be reached at [email protected]

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