The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Latest News

August 20, 2013

‘Urbanized area’ designation puts public transit funds in jeopardy

BECKLEY — Public transit in Raleigh and Fayette counties is at risk of going away unless leaders find a way to negotiate a new funding landscape.

A new “urbanized area” from Beckley into Fayetteville was revealed by the 2010 census.

The urbanized designation is having the unintended consequence of endangering public transit services. When the area was rural, state funding helped match a federal investment in transit, but the new urban designation takes those state funds off the table.

Now, local leaders are struggling to find a way to come up with the difference so that services can be maintained. This is difficult in an area where small municipal governments are struggling for cash as it is.

“We’re very likely looking at some kind of transportation levy because as far as I’m aware, none of the counties and towns have the money to put in,” said W.D. Smith, executive director of the Region 4 Planning and Development Council.

“The lack of funding is the big gorilla in the room,” says David Cole, Smith’s counterpart in Region 1.

The situation will play out differently in Raleigh and Fayette counties, which currently have separate public transit systems.

In Fayette County, Mountain Transit Authority (MTA) now provides bus service. It is a rural transit authority that also serves Webster, Greenbrier, and Nicholas counties.

There are contradictory signals as to its plans going forward.

At a meeting of the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) Monday in Beckley, Cole reported that the MTA recently announced that its board no longer wanted to provide service in Fayette County.

“The MTA does not want to taint themselves with the urban criteria that goes along with operating in this area,” he said, since that criteria could cut it off from state funding.

It was originally thought that since so little of its services occurred in Fayette County, that it could continue to operate as a rural provider. However, it’s apparent now that if it is going to serve any of the urbanized area, it is going to have to become an urbanized transit authority, said Smith.

“They indicated early on that they did not want to because they were not staffed for it and did not have the budget to support the required local cost share,” he said. “From their perspective, it sinks the fiscal ship.”

But Bill Mauzey, director of MTA, says his organization is considering “still being in Fayette County in some capacity,” though not in the urbanized area running mostly along the U.S. 19 corridor.

Susan O’Connell of the West Virginia Department of Transportation says the ball is in the MTA’s court.

“The MTA has not put forth any kind of plan,” she said. “We would be willing to consider something in Fayette County if that’s what the MTA wants to do, because they already operate there, but I don’t know if it makes sense from an operating perspective.”

Mauzey protested that the MTA was not given adequate information to inform such a decision.

“If we were informed with more details of how the match money worked, we could have maybe got more involved,” he said. “We never had enough information that we needed to move forward. We investigated all we could. We didn’t have anything to make the decision with.”

The MTA recently canvassed Fayette County communities for funds to expand its services there, so local leaders were surprised to hear of its possible intention to pull out of Fayette.

“Where does this leave the municipalities in Fayette County with public transportation?” asked Oak Hill City Manager Bill Hannabass, whose city recently gave $6,000 to MTA.

“My disappointment is that we have not been a party to this conversation at all,” said Fayette County Commission President Matt Wender, who learned of the matter at Monday’s meeting.

The situation in Raleigh County is different, but just as serious.

Currently, Raleigh County Community Action Association (RCCAA) provides transportation services there, including four bus routes and several other specialized services for residents and commuting workers.

Much of its funding comes from two programs that were repealed under last year’s federal Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act. That money is now rolled into Urbanized Area Formula Program funds.

But since RCCAA is a private non-profit and not a public transit authority, it is not eligible to directly receive those federal funds.

A couple of options exist for creating a “designated recipient” that would sub-grant the funds to a provider like RCCAA.

A new public transit authority with an independent board could be created to be the recipient.

Or an existing government entity could become the conduit of the funds for a sub-grantee to operate the transit system. This would require some staff resources to execute.

In either case, something must be done by the end of this coming fiscal year, June 30, 2014.

Both MTA and RCCAA will continue to operate in Fayette and Raleigh until that time. After that, the path is unclear.

The MPO decided to move forward with creation of a scope of work document that would establish the public transportation needs of the two counties, in the hopes that a provider would step forward to operate both.

“We have to define what it is we really need, and we may redefine what transportation services are being provided in the area,” said Cole. “In fact, we may be priced out of the market without an additional revenue stream. But we have to do our due diligence to identify that.”

Bobbi Thomas-Bailey of RCCAA expressed concern that a lengthy study could delay proceedings.

“Raleigh County has no transit if this doesn’t get done,” she said.

“We do know the clock is ticking. Certainly we don’t want to see transit come to a standstill at that point. ... That would be disastrous,” said Beckley Mayor Emmett Pugh.

—E-mail: cmoore@register-herald.com

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