March 2012

Small agencies struggle with funding, legislation

by Nicole Schlosser, Senior Editor

Restrictive legislation. Being forced to compete with larger systems for funds. Sacrificing new technology just to stay afloat. Playing guessing games with fuel prices. Coping with growing paratransit demands. Transit systems serving small populations are by no means off the hook when it comes to challenges.

Low revenues, few grants
Yakima, Wash.'s Yakima Transit, which serves about 110,000 residents, is located in a rural part of the state and relies heavily on grants to replace vehicles, but has seen those opportunities dry up.

"Grant funds haven't been out there as much," Kevin Futrell, project planner, Yakima Transit, says. "Part of me thinks a lot of the funding goes to the bigger cities, because [with] a lot more people there, congestion is a lot more noticeable, obviously."

Dave Kilmer, executive director, Red Rose Transit says his agency is also having a more difficult time obtaining grants.

"Before, it was a matter of having members of Congress that understood the game and would go after earmarks," he explains. "Now, it's challenging writing grant proposals to go after discretionary funding and competing with every other system that has just as many needs, particularly the larger systems."

Futrell adds the combination of the convenience of the service and a low tax base make it hard to continue to provide service at a level that will help it reach its potential as the city grows. Necessary infrastructure — buildings, bus pullouts, bus shelters, etc. — have to be overlooked because there are other more pressing issues, such as replacing an aging bus fleet. State and federal agencies awarding funds also consider the population being served and often pass over smaller agencies in support of large systems that serve a much greater number of people.

Kilmer agrees that it is difficult for small systems to obtain the amount of capital funding needed  to tackle large projects, such as facility expansions or renovations of older facilities.

Additionally, Yakima Transit has experienced resistance from taxpayers to justify the service, because it is mostly used by low-income residents.
"Smaller service areas tend to be more conservative, and as a result, focus on reducing public services to reduce taxes," Futrell says.

Street congestion in the area isn't noticeable, he explains, so public transportation isn't considered as an alternative to driving. As a result of having fewer passengers, there are fewer buses on routes and fewer trip options available, making the service seem unnecessary or inconvenient.

Voters aren't likely to vote for sales tax increases for public transportation when they have that feeling, Futrell adds. With a large area to cover and a low tax base, it is harder to have the funds to replace vehicles, and to some extent, continue service at levels that would make the service convenient.

There's also the difficulty of planning service levels year to year, especially when agencies are operating on continuing resolutions and extensions, rather than having a full reauthorization program in place, Kilmer says. States are consistently getting socked with lower revenues because of the economy, and the trend seems to be to shift the responsibility down to the local level, which has just as many revenue issues, but fewer options for raising them.

"Unfortunately, I do see things getting increasingly more difficult for funding public transit as Congress and state legislatures continue to focus on politics and not policy," Kilmer says. "I always want to feel optimistic that one day we will actually have an energy policy that really understands the benefits of public transit for reducing dependence on foreign oil and makes transit a priority rather than using the automobile."

Kilmer adds that Red Rose plans to deal with the instability by continuing to advise customers and local funding agencies of the level of service it can sustain and let them decide how much service the community is willing to support.

"We will continue to focus on reducing operating costs as best we can, but in the end, fare increases and service cuts will rule the day," he says.


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