Transit officials not on board with federal funding change
LANSING — County transportation authorities are criticizing a federal bill they say could hurt state mass transit funding by putting it on a year-to-year lifecycle.
They have called on U.S Rep. Dave Camp, R-Midland, to send the plan back to the drawing board.
The bill would withdraw fuel tax revenue for the mass transit fund from the Federal Highway Trust Fund and allow the money to be used for general transportation purposes on an annual rather than five-year cycle.
According to Camp’s office, it would provide the same funding sources for mass transit, and the change means that the account could earn more interest than now. However, as written, critics say the federal bill does not clarify whether the change would generate the necessary amount of money.
“This bill jeopardizes the entire state transit fund system,” said Thomas Menzel, executive director of the Bay Area Transportation Authority in Traverse City. “It would limit public transit services and drag down long-term projects aimed to develop the state economy.”
According to Menzel, 60 percent of the authority’s operating budget comes from state and federal funding. His agency annually provides about 100,000 bus trips for residents of Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties.
Senior citizens, children, people with disabilities and unemployed residents are the primary users in the two counties, and Menzel said any decrease in funding could hurt them.
“If the transit fund goes under the general fund, we don’t know how much money we will receive and how many buses we could run. We have to compete with other counties for state dollars,” he said. “It will be hard to measure our operations with an unknown budget and could potentially limit our transit services.”
Dawn Benson, assistant general manager at the Clinton Area Transit System in St. Johns, said she is concerned that re-organization of the transit fund would impede access to quality medical facilities for residents who are physically unable to drive.
“Our hospital does not have diagnostic centers for dialysis, heart and kidney problems, and most residents seek treatment in Ingham County or elsewhere,” Benson said. “If there will be any decrease in transit funding, it could result in a decrease of our transportation services for these people.”
In Manistee County, rising gas prices and unemployment have increased both ridership and operating costs at Manistee County Transportation Inc., said general manager Richard Strevey. Ridership increased by 50 percent between 2008 and 2011.
“When people are out of work or can’t afford gas prices, they turn to public transportation. The rise of ridership numbers has increased our costs, but instead of cutting jobs, we reduced our operational hours,” Strevey said.
Strevey questioned whether his company would receive the same amount of money under Camp’s proposal as it does now.
“We have seen cuts in the past on both the state and federal level,” Strevey said. “We are right on the edge now, and any further cuts will be disastrous for us.”
Vance Edwards, manager of the Cadillac/Wexford Transit Authority, said drastic cuts in the transit fund might force local transportation authorities to seek alternative revenue.
“The only alternative source would be to raise bus fares or increase local taxes to keep quality transportation services for the community,” he said.
Edwards noted that his agency experienced major funding cuts in the past. Between 2000 and 2011, the funding dropped almost $1 million, and financial uncertainty means it is difficult to make any long-term strategies.
“We don’t know what is going to happen in the next two years and cannot develop our strategies. The state government needs to fix its funding formula,” Edwards said.
Meanwhile, lack of transit services could also hurt Manistee and Grand Traverse tourism, officials said, because many summer tourists use public transportation.
“We have developed several bus links between counties that will allow tourists to be mobile,” said Menzel. “If we have transit funding cuts, we can’t implement it efficiently.”