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July 24, 2008

Fuel prices affect Pitt, employees

High prices at the gas pump are affecting all of us, and the University is no exception. Fuel prices are taking their toll at Pitt in a number of ways.

Laura W. Zullo, senior manager of capital and special projects in Facilities Management, said the cost to fuel the division’s 39 vehicles (18 trucks, 18 vans, one minivan and two cars) has risen 63 percent since fiscal year 2005.

“Some portion of the 2008 increase can be attributed to a relatively hard winter, which required additional snow removal, etc., but I believe the largest portion of the increase can be attributed to gas prices,” Zullo said.

Kevin Sheehy, director of Parking, Transportation and Services, said PT&S diesel fuel expenses have increased about 28 percent since last year and gasoline costs are up approximately 26 percent. The department maintains 18 vehicles; seven run on gas, Sheehy said.

This month, Pitt entered into a new five-year contract with Lenzner/Coach USA for Pittsburgh campus shuttle service in which Pitt buys fuel tax-free for the shuttles, Sheehy said. As of July 1, the 23 shuttles have been converted to biodiesel, which he said is expected to save 3 cents per gallon in fuel costs.

“With shuttles running during the fall and spring terms carrying about 1.1 million riders — the same as the previous year — about 55,000 gallons of diesel fuel are consumed. Not only does Pitt receive a small credit for using biodiesel, the shuttle system is heading in the right direction with sustainability and green issues,” Sheehy said.

Budgets are being adjusted to account for the increase in fuel costs, but PT&S also is trying to economize. For example, Pitt has extended the weekend late-night South Oakland shuttle service to include a pick-up at the Southside Works for riders who miss the last Port Authority bus. “This will eliminate the use of an extra shuttle to handle this service,” Sheehy noted.

James Baldwin, who heads the Science in Motion program based at Pitt-Bradford, has seen the impact of higher oil prices on several fronts. Science in Motion takes a van filled with science lab equipment to area high schools, logging some 15,000 miles a year across northwest Pennsylvania.

According to Baldwin, the hike in gas prices from $1.39 seven years ago has resulted in a $2,000 increase in the cost of taking the program to schools, a substantial burden in a program budget of $160,000.

In addition, the cost of petroleum-based chemicals and plastic equipment used in the mobile lab are on the rise due to higher oil prices, as are the shipping costs to have the materials delivered to UPB.

Higher gas prices also are affecting the cost of removing Pitt’s trash. The University started being assessed fuel surcharges by its waste disposal contractor when fuel prices reached $3 a gallon, said Zullo. In the last three quarters of fiscal year 2008, that cost Facilities Management an additional $3,600. With prices at their current levels it appears unlikely the surcharges will be eliminated anytime soon.

Pitt-Bradford athletics director Lori Mazza reports transportation costs for UPB’s 15 sports teams are skyrocketing. UPB’s 12-passenger van can accommodate teams in individual sports such as cross-country, golf and tennis, but a charter bus is needed for bigger teams.

As Mazza prepared to seek charter bus bids earlier this month, she was steeling herself for higher prices. Transportation can consume half her annual budget, she said.

Last year’s UPB bus contract cost 15-20 percent more than the year before, Mazza said. “My guess is it’ll be another 15 to 20 percent more this year.”

She was bracing for a bid that could come in at $200,000. If UPB teams don’t make it to NCAA Division III tournaments, the cost would be lower. But if teams do well, more of the bus budget is eaten up, pitting heart and team spirit against pocketbook.

Spending more for fuel impacts more than just team travel. “It’s affecting my recruiting budget,” said Mazza.

UPB recruits mostly within a 200-mile radius, but as the campus extends its “hot zone” farther into eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the miles add up. “Kids want to see you in the stands. If you don’t pay attention to them, they go elsewhere,” Mazza said.

Recruiting athletes is about more than just the games they play. At UPB, student athletes can make up a quarter to a third of the incoming freshman class, so courting them has an impact both on and off the court.

The travel dollar for other Pitt employees also is shrinking. Marvin Roth of Career Services said more strategic travel planning is in the future for his staff. “Clearly our travel dollar will not go as far as in the past,” he said.

Pitt’s admissions recruiters are taking a closer look at the map as they balance their efforts with higher costs.

UPJ spokesperson Robert Knipple said the Johnstown campus admissions office will be planning its fall travel schedules more efficiently with an eye to geographic focus, but without compromising overall recruiting efforts.

Pitt-Bradford admissions staffer Cynthia Nowacki said her department also is “definitely traveling smarter” these days.

Formerly, when Nowacki was on the road in her role as a transfer and nontraditional student counselor, she typically would visit community colleges. Other admissions staffers would cover college fairs and high school visits.

Now, Nowacki said, if she’s in a region where a college fair is scheduled, she’ll make that visit too and vice versa, rather than having two people travel to the same region. “We’re trying to cover for each other if we can,” she said.

The UPJ police department is fighting rising fuel costs by increasing the use of bicycle patrols during the summer. The department also is rotating vehicle usage so that only one vehicle is in operation at a time and is limiting routine patrols to 25 miles per shift, Knipple said.

Pitt commuters are responding on an individual level by changing their mode of transportation in increasing numbers. Pitt Port Authority ridership spiked in June from an average weekly total of 93,280 in 2007 to 94,967 in 2008, according to transit company figures. The increase came in spite of last year’s 15 percent service cuts, Port Authority spokesperson David Whipkey noted. Pitt ridership typically peaks in August and September.

Sheehy of PT&S said the University has seen a 13 percent increase in vanpool ridership this year. It also has experienced a 4 percent reduction in cash customers at Pitt parking facilities, from 278,633 in FY07 to 266,850 in FY08, which he said may indicate that more people are using buses or alternate modes of transportation.

Ridesharing initiatives on the Pittsburgh campus are coordinated through the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission’s CommuteInfo program. Program director Lisa Kay Schweyer said vanpool occupancy is running above 90 percent. Depending on the vehicle and the length of the commute, vanpooling typically costs a rider $90-$110 per month. “The costs are a lot less than driving alone,” Schweyer said. There are 11 vanpools to Oakland; as of June 30, only four had available seats.

Commuters can check on openings or register for possible shared ride matches online at with no obligation, she said.

The program recently added bikepool matching in which volunteers commit to leading a group to ride together at least twice a week. Registered bikepoolers qualify for the emergency ride home service offered to car- and vanpoolers, Schweyer noted.

PT&S director Sheehy said carpool numbers in Pittsburgh are down from 415 last year to 398 this year. A reduction usually occurs in the summer months, but Sheehy said he expects to see the numbers increase with the start of the fall term.

CommuteInfo carpool space was somewhat more open than its vanpool seats — 17 carpools to Oakland had seats available as of the end of June. Some come from as far away as Irwin, Monessen, Cheswick, Conneaut Lake ands Belle Vernon.

Carpooling is on the upswing at the regional campuses as ridesharers find willing travel companions, typically by word of mouth.

Nowacki, of UPB’s admissions office, has begun to share her 33-mile commute from Warren with Amy Ward, a web manager in the campus’s communications and marketing office, in an effort to cut costs. They each drive two days a week and commute individually on Fridays.

Nowacki, who drives a GMC Envoy that gets about 17 miles per gallon, began adding up the commuting costs when gas hit $3.79. She figured the 66-mile round trip cost her more than $300 a month then. Now that gas is hovering around $4 a gallon, the savings she’s realizing by sharing the ride are even greater.

She figures she’s filling up the gas tank only about half as often and has gained the benefit of a companion to chat with during the 40-minute drive as well as a chance to enjoy the region’s lush summer scenery from the passenger seat — a relaxing alternative to the responsibility of watching for deer, bear or other wildlife that frequent the rural roads of northwestern Pennsylvania.

—Kimberly K. Barlow and Peter Hart

Pitt’s Port Authority contract is expected to remain unaffected by the increasingly higher gas prices.

In the five-year deal reached last October that allows Pitt ID holders to use their cards to ride Port Authority vehicles fare-free, the University agreed to annual increases of 15 percent through 2012. The contract allows either side to request renegotiation of fees periodically, but Port Authority spokesperson David Whipkey said that’s not under consideration.

“Port Authority is not seeking and has never sought to re-open the University services contract due to rising fuel prices,” Whipkey said.

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