Columbia, Mo. Columbia Area Transit System spends $2.3 million to provide fewer than 500,000 rides a year.
Mayor Darwin Hindman knows the city's transit system, by the book, is a losing proposition.
"It is very, very expensive," he said. "Basically, when someone pays us 50 cents to ride our bus, it costs us about $4.80. So we subsidize $4.30.
"It's a terrible expense. We've probably gone about as far as this community will allow."
But in Columbia, where the University of Missouri anchors a community with seven hospitals and burgeoning duplex development triggered by an influx of retirees, demand is increasing.
And Hindman is ready to meet the demand, with more buses running more often and reaching more destinations.
The only problem, he said, is money. The Columbia Area Transit System (CATS) already spends $2.3 million to provide fewer than 500,000 rides a year.
Greg Montour, who runs the system, said things are improving. Ridership is increasing 10 percent a year, and newer, smaller buses are giving the public a better perception about the city's transit system.
No more 40-seat behemoths cruising town with three passengers aboard.
Like many other transit systems in university towns, Columbia's connects the University of Missouri's campus with other high-destination areas in town: hospitals, apartment complexes, public schools, shopping centers, malls and governmental centers such as the library and Social Security office.
But the buses can't get everywhere. Several of Columbia's largest apartment complexes, in fact, run their own private shuttle services to and from campus.
Industrial areas are out of the loop as well, because they are located outside the city limits, Montour said. People using buses for getting to and from work typically hold service jobs.
The hub of all activity for the system is Wabash Station, a former railroad depot built 87 years ago. Listed as a landmark on the National Register of Historic Places, the depot has served for 15 years as administrative offices, operations center and main terminal for the bus fleet.
While many systems use lift-equipped vehicles, CATS uses low-floor buses to meet requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Stepping from the curb to bus requires little effort, and ramps are available for those in wheelchairs.
First-line buses are generally clean and well maintained, but the reserve fleet -- used when new vehicles are down for repairs -- lacks luster. One older 40-seat bus cruised past the Wabash Station recently, unable to hide its rusted-out side panels near the ground.