Sheila McLaughlin reports:
A public bus system in Warren County that helps the elderly get to medical appointments and low-income residents get to work stands to lose about half of its operating budget in 2014.
County officials call it a glitch in the federal transportation bill that took affect in July of last year. They are looking at cuts in service and scrambling for a bailout that will help them recoup some of the anticipated $600,000 loss in federal funding from the bus system’s $1.1 million budget.
The issue is that, when Warren County hit the 200,000 population mark in the 2010 census, it became categorized as an urban county instead of a rural one. (With about 213,000 people today, Warren County’s population just barely pushes it over the urban benchmark.) As a result, it had to seek transit-grant funding through the federal government instead of the state.
That didn’t make much difference until the federal transportation bill changed funding methods by generally restricting transit money to capital expenses, such as equipment purchases or maintenance. Small urban transit systems with 75 or fewer buses could use their money for operations if they had a fixed-route system.
There’s the rub: Warren County doesn’t have bus routes. Riders call for appointments and get picked up at the door.
Ohio has 35 rural bus systems and 27 urban bus systems making 112 million trips.
“It’s one more example of why I’m so frustrated with government,” said Warren County Commissioner Dave Young. “This is a stupid technicality. If anybody ever drives around Warren County, you would know we are not an urban area. We don’t want to use it for capital (costs) because we don’t need that.”
A regional transportation expert said it’s just another example of how federal government regulations hurt people.
“We have a system which is broken, and Washington refuses to make any compromises in regulations that would allow people who depend on transit for jobs having better access to that,” said Mark Policinski, executive director of Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments.
A lobbyist for a national transportation association called it an unintended legislative “wrinkle” that he heard about first when contacted by The Enquirer.
“I’ve not heard from anyone else about it yet. If they are having this problem there, they are probably having it in other places too,” said Art Guzzetti, vice president of research and policy for the American Public Transportation Association.
County exploring options: ‘Something has to give’
Warren County’s transit system makes about 47,949 trips a year. Passengers on half of those trips are elderly or disabled who pay only $1 for a one-way ride, said Susanne Mason, who applies for grants for the Warren County transit system. Everyone else pays $2 each way.
The county contracts with Universal Transportation Services to provide its bus service with 19 county-owned vans. The contract cost $853,000 in 2012.
Last year, county commissioners contributed $340,000 toward the bus system with the remainder of funding supported by $100,000 in fares and a combination of $600,000 in federal and state grants. Next year will be the first year the federal funding formula takes effect. Warren County had estimated its share as $868,000. But the county is eligible for just $273,000 – or 32 percent of the cost of its contract with Universal Transportation Services – to help pay for operating expenses, Mason said.
Young said the system won’t shut down, but it won’t be the same. “The No. 1 message to the public is the Warren County transit system is going to change to some degree. With that much loss of revenue, something has to give,” he said.
County officials are exploring options which include significant fare increases and possibly overhauling the system to include bus routes instead of providing strictly door-to-door service. A route system could help them pick up more federal funding.
To salvage some of the loss, county officials are trying to negotiate a deal with the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) – which runs the Metro system and provides an express route from Kings Island in Mason to downtown Cincinnati – to take in its federal grant money. SORTA would recycle the money to offset the cost of running the express route and return some to Warren County to use for operation of the bus system, Mason said.
Young said county officials tried to get some political relief from Washington. They solicited help from House Speaker John Boehner to change some wording in the law to allow urban systems with 75 or fewer buses but without fixed routes to use federal money for operations, he said.
An amendment to that effect had bipartisan support, according to Young, but he said it was too late to get legislation passed. The only opportunity was to tag it onto the budget bill, and that wasn’t allowed.
The next opportunity to amend the transportation bill would be sometime next year, Young said. A spokeswoman for Boehner did not respond to email requests for comment.
Guzzetti, whose organization helped put together the new federal transportation law, said he would consider lobbying for changes and asked The Enquirer to pass his contact information on to Warren County officials. Mason said Friday that she planned to call him.
“There might be some particulars involving Warren County’s situation that make their problem more difficult. We serve to help represent our members collectively in Washington and deal with their issues,” Guzzetti said.
In theory, the transportation bill attempted to help less populous communities that crossed over into an urban designation, he said. “We found a little nuance here,” he said of Warren County’s issues.