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PART: We need local match to keep service

By David Bodenheimer
The Dispatch

Published: Thursday, May 5, 2011 at 3:04 p.m.

Brent McKinney, executive director of the Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation, met with Davidson County commissioners Thursday morning in hopes of persuading them to consider additional funding sources and spoke to the benefits the busing service offers area residents as the financially troubled agency looks for ways to keep from folding.

PART has seen its operating budget drop from $3.5 million to $2.3 million over the past few years, McKinney said. Last month, PART’s board recommended levying a $3 tax on every registered vehicle in five of the seven counties that PART serves, including Davidson. McKinney didn’t speak to this point Thursday, instead focusing much of his presentation on how vital PART service is. McKinney said the board is still reviewing the tax, which would generate approximately $3.2 million if approved by each of the five counties. The other counties asked to consider the fee are Guilford, Forsyth, Surry and Randolph.

“Our board asked us to take a look at any other options,” he said. “If you did it today at $3, we wouldn’t get a check until next May. You have to enact it, you have to notify the department of motor vehicles, and they have six months before they would start collecting.”

PART has been losing money since 2008, a chart presented to commissioners from McKinney showed. PART is locally funded by a 5 percent tax on rental cars, which generates about $70,000 from Davidson County.

To go along with a $3 registered vehicle tax, PART’s board is also recommending a fare increase. In March, McKinney reported increases of the standard ride fare would jump from $2 to $2.50. On Thursday, McKinney said that proposed increase would stay the same but that a monthly pass, initially slated for a $10 increase, will increase from $60 to $75. If these fare increases are passed, McKinney said revenue from fares would increase from $660,000 to $771,870.

PART also receives money from the N.C. Department of Transportation’s State Maintenance Assistance Program. Last year, McKinney said PART received $1.2 million from the program but warned he was unsure what the agency would receive this year given the state’s own budget shortfall.

PART also applied for $784,500 in federal funds from the Job Access Reverse Commute, a division of the Federal Transit Administration to help supplement its budget.

“What PART needs is a local contribution to help reach our total expenses,” McKinney said. Operating expenses last year for PART totalled $5.89 million. “This is nothing new. This is a forecast that we knew would happen, and we reported that to the board in January 2007. Without local help, we will deplete our fund balance, and we will simply not be able to provide that service.”

Local contributions, from the seven counties that PART serves, generate $1.18 million, and grants from the City of Burlington — where PART hopes to expand service — and a grant from Amtrak funded the agency with an additional $245,000.

In a further effort to save costs, McKinney said PART is considering eliminating some of its low ridership routes and adjust its fleet to put smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles on routes with less commuters. Last month, PART tabled adjustments to each of Davidson County’s routes — Route 8, which follows U.S. Highway 52, and Route 9, which follows Interstate 85 Business Loop. McKinney said these routes are still being reviewed.

Davidson County riders totaled about 10 percent of PART’s ridership levels last fiscal year, McKinney said. “From U.S. 52, we provided 16,320 trips, that’s 408,000 miles your citizens did not drive,” he said. “In the (Interstate) 85 corridor, we carried 18,105 with the average trip leaving that corridor about 53 miles. Total for Davidson County riders was 1.3 million (miles).”

McKinney said this represents $180,000 in fuel cost savings to county riders. “Bottom line is, I think PART’s a good service,” he said.

But the proposal may have fallen on deaf ears as a couple of the commissioners were not receptive to forking out more money to fund the service. In 2008, PART built three park and ride lots in the county at its own expense. Chairman Sam Watford criticized PART for setting up these lots and asking for money in return to keep services moving.

We told you at the time we didn’t think you could justify building the lots and running the routes,” Watford told McKinney. “You said then (2008) that you had the fund balance, we’re going to pay for it, and the riders will come. The riders haven’t come. Looking back, in hindsight, wouldn’t y’all have been better off to stay and not expand to the rural counties? You would have lasted a whole lot longer. I see the thing going down completely in a few years, unless something drastic happens.”

McKinney responded by saying PART focuses just as much on depleting emissions by carpooling as it does packing its buses

“This is about fuel consumption, getting people to jobs and getting them back home. But we’ll respond to whatever their wishes are,” McKinney said of commissioners.

McKinney pointed out that PART reduced consumption of gas in its total service area by 650,000 gallons in 2009. In fiscal year 2010, McKinney said transit trips eliminated 23.4 tons of mono-nitrogen oxide emissions.

Commissioners took no action on the information from McKinney, and Watford said the board would wait to see what the official proposal on any changes from the PART board would be before making any decision on additional funding

David Bodenheimer can be reached at 249-3981, ext. 227, or at david.bodenheimer@the-dispatch.com.

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