RUNNING ON EMPTY: The TAPS budget crisis

Chris LoCascio & Wesley Ng/HIGHLANDER
Chris LoCascio & Wesley Ng/HIGHLANDER

Highlander Audit is a series of investigative reports on the finances of campus departments. In each investigation, the Highlander obtains budgets, interviews personnel and gets to the bottom of students’ most pressing concerns.

Transportation and Parking Services (TAPS), a department that oversees the needs of a campus full of commuters, has recently found itself in a financial crisis. For the past two years, the service has operated at a net loss totaling over $200,000. As a result, TAPS was forced to reduce its spending, cut programs and eliminate positions, but still the department finds itself in dire financial straits.

TAPS has been operating at a loss since the 2011-12 school year when it saw a net loss of $31,431. The downward trend has since continued, with the department expected to lose an estimated $178,305 this year. By the end of the 2013-14 school year, TAPS projects it will lose another $260,382.

The Highlander spoke with Interim Director of TAPS Greg Artman to further discuss the monetary struggles. During the interview, Artman stated the cause of the revenue drop is directly proportional to the rising gas prices. “It seems the demand drops whenever the gasoline prices go up,” he said. “People don’t seem to be driving as much.”

But statistics prove otherwise. According to the According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, gas prices have indeed risen. From 2011 to 2012, gas prices rose from $3.86 per gallon to $4.08.  During that time,  the revenue of TAPS actually increased from $6,305,394 to $6,922,192. It was only until this past year that the revenue actually started to decline, falling sharply by about $900,000.

Brandy Coats/HIGHLANDER
Brandy Coats/HIGHLANDER

The Highlander obtained a copy of the department’s budget and according to the numbers, the biggest reason the department has operated in the red was because its expenses were toppling its revenue.

To combat the losses, TAPS will continue to reduce its expenses by about $700,000 this year in hopes of turning things around. According to Artman, five positions within the department were eliminated in order to make those reductions possible. This led to a drop in total payroll expenses. However, employee benefits are projected to go up from $775,709 to $811,148 this year.

Currently, the revenue the department makes goes to fund parking lot maintenance, parking lot construction and other services such as the Vanpool and the RTA U-PASS programs. Operating at a loss has meant that certain services had to be cut.

The trolley system, for example, was one popular service that had to be axed due to costs. According to TAPS, the price tag for the trolleys on a yearly basis was between $1.1 million to $1.9 million, depending on how many trolleys were operated. As the department stated, if the trolley were brought back, it would have to increase the fees by 21 percent.

According to some students, the current rates they have to pay are high enough. UCR students currently have the option of paying as low as $33 per month for parking permits, which accumulates to $99 per quarter. That option allows students to park in Lots 26, 30 and 50.  Students feel that the parking options they have are very limited and that the money they pay does not reflect the services they get.

“When I think about it, just for one quarter, [it’s] $99 … I think it’s kind of expensive,” said Tanya Lieu, a global studies major who commutes to campus.

Courtesy of printb3
The UCR Vanpool is just one of many services TAPS has in its budget.

Others have suggested further options for making the commuting experience easier on students.

“There should be more student parking closer to campus,” argued Bryant Rivas, a biology major and commuter.

“I think for the $99, they should let us park in more than three lots,” said microbiology major Pegah Rashidi.

Artman cautioned that some of those suggestions may not come to fruition at the the current rate. “We do try to provide the best service we can for the amount of money that the students pay,” he said, adding, “At this point, we kind of have what we have.”

Artman said that he understands why students feel the prices are too high, but he also pointed out that the rates of UCR’s parking services are generally lower than most UC campuses.

“We are probably less than half of what UCLA or UC Irvine are charging,” he said.

At $33 per month, UCR’s cheapest parking permit fee is indeed lower than those of of UCI and UCLA. Irvine’s cheapest option, for instance, charges students $62 a month. The cheapest option that UCLA offers students is $213 per quarter, which ends up being about $71 a month.

“We want to make sure that whatever we’re doing, we’re not charging people an exorbitant amount, or at least relative to what other institutions are charging,” he said. “Right now, we’re sort of in the bottom of the scale and we would like to keep it that way.”

Despite the current financial dilemma that TAPS faces,  the department still has plans to pick itself up within the next few years. The plan will likely hurt students’ pockets, however. TAPS is planning to go into a deficit for a couple of years and then gradually increase the rates and permit fees so that it can cover all of its costs.

Additionally, TAPS still has sufficient reserve funds to keep the service operating for the next few years. At the end of the school year of 2011-12, it had almost $1.3 million dollars in reserved accumulated earnings. But even with those reserves, the department also admitted that a great majority of that money was lost just this past year. The reserves are projected to fall to $570,000 this year — a drop of more than 50 percent.

With the current plan to reduce expenses and generate revenue, TAPS is expected to begin making a profit again by the end of the 2014-15 school year. After that, the department is projected to thrive and make as much as $1 million in profit by the end of the 2017-18 school year. Artman hopes that those profits will make up for the money the department has lost, and also hopes that it will get them to a break-even point.

“We try to serve the campus the best that we can,” he concluded. “We realize that there is no way to make everybody in the campus community happy … but we do try to provide the best service we can.”

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