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Hitching a ride: Amid funding cuts from SLOCOG, Ride-On will have to rely on services like its wedding shuttle to make up for lost revenue 

click to enlarge SHUTTLE UP Aside from its social services transportation programs, Ride-On also provides shuttles to and from the airport, train station, and wedding and van pool services.

Photo Courtesy Of Mark Shaffer

SHUTTLE UP Aside from its social services transportation programs, Ride-On also provides shuttles to and from the airport, train station, and wedding and van pool services.

For more than two decades, Ride-On Transportation has provided its services to thousands of SLO County residents of all kinds, from veterans on the way to medical appointments to wedding guests en route to receptions.

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With a fleet of more than 90 vans, buses, and wheelchair-accessible vehicles, the nonprofit transportation service provides roughly 299,000 rides a year and runs a number of programs geared toward transporting low-income individuals, seniors, veterans, individuals with disabilities, and the general public wherever they need to go.

But, because of rising gas and labor costs and Ride-On's increasingly turbulent relationship with the San Luis Obispo Council of Governments (SLOCOG), those services are becoming more difficult to deliver.

SLOCOG has long covered a nominal percentage of Ride-On's annual budget for social services-related rides, but since changes to Ride-On's contract with SLOCOG were first proposed in 2016, that funding has become scarcer. For roughly five years now, SLOCOG and Ride-On have struggled to agree on who should be paying for what services and with how much money, forcing Ride-On to lean less on the county for a little extra help and more on its own revenue-boosting wedding, airport, and other special events shuttle services.

That all came to a head at a SLOCOG meeting on Feb. 5, where the board of directors voted unanimously to deny Ride-On's request for a one-time payment of $100,000, money Ride-On's Executive Director Mark Shaffer said would have helped the nonprofit recover from SLOCOG's "deep reductions" in funding to Ride-On over the last several years. Although the board's decision hurt, Shaffer said he wasn't surprised.

"We're going to fight to survive and we're going to be creative, and we'll do it," Shaffer told New Times. "Because it's clear [SLOCOG] isn't going to help us. And we get it."

Since just after Ride-On's beginnings, it's received funding from SLOCOG that covers right around 5 percent of its roughly $5 million annual budget, revenue Ride-On is eligible for through the Transportation Development Act, a law passed in 1971 to encourage improved public transportation services throughout the state.

But SLOCOG has been considering cutting some of its Transportation Development Act revenue to Ride-On since 2016, when SLOCOG first proposed changing its funding arrangement with Ride-On from a block grant program model to a service-level contract. The change, according to a SLOCOG staff report, was recommended after a Human Services Plan identified three areas—volunteer driver programs, seniors and people with disabilities, and low-income families—that needed more attention and financial help. SLOCOG wanted to have more control over what its Transportation Development Act funds were being used for, and the service-level contract made that possible.

Despite attempts to come to some other agreement, those were largely unsuccessful and the organizations established a service-level contract in July 2018. After that, Shaffer said funding to Ride-On dropped off.

While Ride-On received $550,000 in Transportation Development Act funds from SLOCOG in fiscal year 2017-18, that amount lowered to $200,000 in 2018-19, according to the SLOCOG staff report. The funding rose slightly in fiscal year 2019-20, but stayed lower than in years past at $215,000.

Meanwhile, Shaffer says the costs of fuel, drivers' wages, rent, and health benefits are all increasing. The nonprofit projects an annual increase of about $269,401 to cover those expenses, according to the staff report. Ride-On's ridership is growing, too, Shaffer said.

"We have more medical and more of everything," he said. "Everything's going up because there are more people in our county that need specialized transportation. And so, this last [SLOCOG decision] was like, OK, you guys are grossly underfunding social service transportation."

click to enlarge TRANSPORT FOR ALL With a fleet of more than 90 vans, buses, and wheelchair-accessible vehicles, Ride-On Transportation provides roughly 299,000 rides a year and runs a number programs for low-income individuals, seniors, veterans, individuals with disabilities, and the general public. - PHOTO COURTESY OF MARK SHAFFER
  • Photo Courtesy Of Mark Shaffer
  • TRANSPORT FOR ALL With a fleet of more than 90 vans, buses, and wheelchair-accessible vehicles, Ride-On Transportation provides roughly 299,000 rides a year and runs a number programs for low-income individuals, seniors, veterans, individuals with disabilities, and the general public.

It's not a huge portion of Ride-On's budget, but Shaffer said the decrease has had an impact. In a letter to SLOCOG's board on Jan. 13, Shaffer claims SLOCOG did not use $150,000 of its funding from 2018-19 and suggested that SLOCOG give $100,000 of that funding to Ride-On as a one-time gift.

"We have been holding meetings since last June with board members from the United Cerebral Palsy and SLOCOG boards to look at additional funding options for Ride-On to help cover the major increases in the cost of social service transpiration," Shaffer wrote. "We have not come up with any solutions to cover these costs."

Now that SLOCOG's board declined Ride-On's request, Shaffer said the nonprofit will be relying on its other money-making services—including airport and Amtrak shuttles, van pools, and wedding shuttles—to make up for the lost revenue. It'll also be working to develop new, creative programs as well.

"But," he said, "Ride-On will survive because we're grassroots. We've been doing this for 27 years, and there are a lot of transportation needs that are out there."

Although Shaffer didn't have data on the revenue that weddings specifically generate, he said Ride-On receives around $90,000 a year for its various shuttles, including weddings, and $220,000 for its vanpooling services. Anecdotally, he said the business from weddings is increasing.

Ride-On leases the vehicles and drivers out to anyone in need of a ride during a special event. Whether it's a sober ride during a bachelorette or bachelor party, or providing guests with rides to wedding ceremonies and receptions, a shuttle system prevents drunk driving and reduces parking congestion.

Costs vary depending on the mileage, number of guests, and event, but Ride-On provides estimates to anyone interested. Special events don't bring in piles of money, Shaffer said, "but it helps generate additional funding" that, with SLOCOG's recent decisions, is now crucial to the nonprofit.

But SLOCOG staff say they aren't entirely to blame for Ride-On's struggles.

Executive Director Peter Rodgers said the initial changes to Ride-On's contract stemmed from SLOCOG's desire to be more cost efficient. The Human Services Plan from 2016 found that the funding SLOCOG was providing Ride-On could be better used in other places.

But before the cuts to Ride-On's funding came, SLOCOG tried to come up with other solutions by developing a memorandum of understanding, but Rodgers said Ride-On leadership wouldn't agree to comply with the Brown Act or make its budgeting process public. When SLOCOG decided a brokerage model would be a more cost-effective way to run its senior shuttle program and put that program out to bid, a third-party committee considered Ride-On's application incomplete and disqualified the organization. When SLOCOG chose the Ventura Transit System to operate the senior shuttle program, Senior GO!, in 2018-19, Rodgers said Ride-On continued running its own senior shuttle program in competition with Senior GO! at a financial loss of $260,000.

As for the $100,000 one-time "loan" that Ride-On requested, Rodgers said that money is already allocated to other programs.

"We can't just do that," he told New Times. "We're not a bank."

Ride-On is a great organization that provides a number of necessary services, he said, but SLOCOG has a responsibility to be smart fiscally.

At the meeting on Feb. 5, SLOCOG board member and Arroyo Grande City Council member Jimmy Paulding said he couldn't support the $100,000 loan, which he called "problematic."

It's Ride-On's own actions, Paulding said, that "essentially, in my opinion, put them in the position that they find themselves in now." Δ

Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash is hopping on the next shuttle. She can be reached at kbubnash@newtimesslo.com.

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