Gas prices drive transport adjustments

Anxiety remains high among many despite moves to save on fuel

As gas prices continue their steady upward climb, just about anyone who uses a car, truck, van or bus has been forced by sheer financial necessity to alter how, and when, to drive.

Despite these changes in behavior, however, anxiety over fuel costs remains high both in large institutions and singular individuals. While governments and businesses, as well as the people they serve, make changes to cut expenses, all cast a wary eye toward the future, unsure of when relief will come and wondering how long everyone can hold out.

Schools forced into tough choices

Edison Township School District Business Administrator Daniel Michaud is all too aware of this situation and is capable of speaking at great length about the ways in which rising fuel costs are impacting the operation of the schools, particularly when it comes to transporting students from here to there. The business administrator, in a phone interview, said that this is a particularly pernicious problem, given that transportation is somewhat of a necessity for a district to properly operate.

“I can’t not transport them,” said Michaud.

This quandary has caused Edison’s public schools to spend almost twice of what had been budgeted for the most recent school year, which the business administrator said will probably cause fuel to take up even more space in next year’s budget, so that allotment can more closely match what is actually being spent.

He broke the difficulties down into the vehicles the district itself operates and maintains, mostly vans for transporting special education students, and the ones that it contracts with outside companies, mostly the conventional school buses people are most familiar with.

With regard to the vans and maintenance vehicles the district itself owns, Michaud said that Edison will try to consolidate routes where possible during the upcoming school years. The district has 15 vans, each capable of holding between 16 and 20 people. He noted, though, that gas costs might be reduced at the expense of efficiency, because more students on the bus means longer bus rides, earlier pickup times and later drop-offs. Thus, rising fuel costs have brought the balancing act between expense and efficiency sharply into focus.

“Because special education [students] could be anywhere in the 32 square miles of Edison, by the time we pick up three or four in the south end and then go north, they could be on the bus 45 minutes to an hour. … We’ll have complaints from parents if kids are on the bus for an hour,” said Michaud.

Meanwhile, Michaud noted that difficulties might also arise with the companies the district contracts with to transport all the other students, for whom gas prices, too, are a significant factor. As their expenses rise, their willingness to bid with a 2.89 percent contract increase, the maximum allowed by the state, lessens. If companies decide this is not enough, they have the option to rebid at a higher rate, which translates into yet more expenses for the district.

One ray of light in all of this is that utility costs aren’t jumping as high as gas prices because the schools switched to natural gas boilers 10 years ago. Of course, Michaud noted that costs are still high, reaching into the hundreds of thousands. Just not as high as gasoline.

“Thank God,” said Michaud.

Township makes green investments

The Edison Township government also has been mindful of the need to save fuel costs. In January, the Township Council passed a resolution that authorized spending $305,235 to purchase 15 of the hybrid Toyota Priuses for government use, which the administration plans to unveil in the very near future.

According to Director of Public Works Jeff Roderman, this purchase complements a larger effort to upgrade the municipality’s fleet of cars with lighter, more fuel-efficient vehicles, noting that some of the older ones have been in use for a very long time anyway. Roderman also alluded to future plans to utilize more alternative energy in township buildings, such as solar panels and more efficient lighting.

On top of this, the township is also focusing on making routes more efficient in order to avoid vehicle redundancy in certain locations, making sure that cars and trucks don’t criss-cross routes. This effort has been a focus in areas under Roderman’s supervision, such as maintenance work and garbage collection.

“It may not amount to much, but we’re looking at it to see anything we can do to try and conserve and to group people as best as we can,” said Roderman. “We’re not putting more vehicles on the road than necessary.

“Nothing real high tech. We’re looking at the basics and trying to be aware we need to try and save where we can.”

Police Director Brian Collier pointed out that the typical things police departments use to save on gas, such as foot and bike patrols, wouldn’t work as well in Edison because of its large size. Fast response to incidents is a very high priority. The department has been looking into other areas to try to save gas, such as discouraging idling, but Collier noted that expenses elsewhere might need to be cut back if fuel expenses continue to rise.

“So if it costs us more, we’ll have to cut back elsewhere,” said Collier in an e-mail.

Businesses, workers adjust

Many businesses, especially those for whom driving is a large part of their model, have also been hard hit by the fuel crunch and, like those in the schools and municipal government, have been making changes to compensate.

Robert Riedinger, owner of Devine’s Pharmacy on Oak Tree Road, Edison, offers free delivery of prescription medications. While most of his customers are within a radius of about five miles, he said that extra attention is still paid to reducing unnecessary trips, such as waiting for deliveries to accumulate before going out and trying to hit different areas together, rather than running back and forth from the pharmacy to various homes. Riedinger chalked up the changes to just one of the expenses that comes with doing business, but something business owners need to incorporate to survive.

Hit particularly hard have been those who deliver pizzas, for whom the rising cost of gas essentially amounts to a drastic cut in pay. David Hunter, who delivers pizzas for Oakwood Pizza on Wood Avenue, said that food couriers often pay their own gas and noted from his own personal experience that the average cost of working for a night has doubled in recent times, from $10 to $20 per 12-hour shift. This has led him, too, to make some changes in the way he uses his car while on the job.

“Instead of leaving with just one delivery, … I’ll wait for the second one to come out so I’m not doing double trips. And when [two deliveries are] really close, I’ll run down and walk it over there,” said Hunter.

He said he’s noticed people tipping less, as well, noting that the current economic situation has been taking a toll on just about everyone.

People who used to tip $5 now tip $3 and those who tipped $3 now tip $1.

“The economy is taking a toll, that’s for sure. You just got to roll with the punches. … Hopefully, [gas] prices will go down,” said Hunter.

Similarly hard hit have been local cab and car services. Jimmy Vivelo, owner of Metuchen Taxi, which provides medical transportation and taxi services, reported that his company has been “tremendously” impacted by rising fuel costs.

“We figured fuel would go up, but we didn’t think it would go up that much,” said Vivelo.

He talked of being in a similar situation that Edison Business Administrator Michaud had discussed, namely that much of his business works through fixed-price contracts, locking costs for three-year intervals before a new agreement is made. In order to compensate, like many others, he has needed to take steps in driving practices in order to save on costs, including simple measures such as instructing drivers not to idle, keeping optimal tire pressure and making sure to regularly change filters.

Additionally, he has been looking to convert his vehicles to run on natural gas, but Vivelo said that he has run into many frustrations in these endeavors, noting that New Jersey lacks strong programs to help businesses do so, as well as accessible fueling stations. Still, he noted that the cab drivers, who have to pay for their own gas, have probably been hit the hardest.

Still, despite difficulties, Vivelo said he remains committed to keep moving, confident that the company can survive this.

“We just keep working. Just keep chugging along. … We survived a lot of gas crunches over the years,” said Vivelo.