The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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January 16, 2013

Status change could derail MTA funds

OAK HILL — A new urbanized status could have a significant impact on the Mountain Transit Authority’s operations in Fayette County, rendering it ineligible for state funding.

While most of Fayette County still feels decidedly rural, a small sliver of the U.S. 19 corridor in the county was recently included in a newly designated “urbanized area,” which also includes Beckley. Urbanized areas, which are identified by the federal census, have more than 50,000 people.

The Mountain Transit Authority (MTA) is currently a rural transit system. Half of its operational funding comes from a federal 5311 grant, which is matched by the state.

Transportation systems in urbanized areas fall under a different federal grant program — the Urbanized Area Formula Program (5307) — which is not supplemented with state operating assistance.

“It takes that state funding off the table. If you have a transit authority getting that rural assistance, as an urban transit authority, they don’t. That means you have to cut services if you can’t come up with that difference somewhere else,” explained Perry Keller of the West Virginia Department of Transportation (WVDOT).

Susan O’Connell, director of Public Transit for WVDOT, said that how precisely the new urbanized designation will affect MTA depends on how the organization decides to respond.

“It’s a complicated situation and until they present some sort of direction or idea about how they want to move, it’s somewhat difficult to know what the impact would be,” she says.

The organization — which provides transportation services to residents of Fayette, Nicholas, Webster and Greenbrier counties — could form a rural transit system that includes only the rural counties and excludes Fayette. That entity could continue to receive state funding.

Then a new urban transit authority could potentially form in Fayette and Raleigh counties, but it would have to come up with half of its operating deficit rather than relying on the state.

MTA director Bill Mauzy said he is not sure at this time how the situation will affect Fayette County’s services.

“It would be a totally different ball game if we were involved with it,” he says.

“If we were to play that game, we would have to have a totally new staff, a separate operation on the side. (...) There’s a lot of extra funding that has to be involved for us to be a part of it, which might be beyond our reach.”

Mauzy notes that there is a lot of demand for public transportation in Fayette County.

O’Connell says that Beckley is the first location in West Virginia that has not had a public transit system prior to becoming an urbanized area. Beckley piloted a rural program but voters turned down a levy to fund it.

Raleigh County is currently served by a number of transportation programs run by Raleigh County Community Action Association (RCCAA), which is a private nonprofit rather than a public transit authority.

This distinction means that its funding will remain unchanged with the new urban designation, according to O’Connell.

As a private nonprofit and as a “specialized” transportation service provider, RCCAA would be ineligible to receive the federal 5307 funding.

O’Connell said her office is available to assist in any way that it can with the changes brought by urbanization.

“Some of this is just new, not only for the area, but also we’re dealing with a new piece of legislation and a lot of guidance for that still hasn’t been made available by the Federal Transit Administration,” she says. “So that makes this even more complicated.”

— E-mail: cmoore@register-herald.com

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