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City eyes grants for bus system
Staff’s transit recommendation carries $811K up-front, $658K annual costs
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City of Statesboro staff members are ready to move forward with applications for state 10% matching funds and a federal 80% grant toward equipment costs of $811,750 to launch a city bus system.

The system is expected to cost $658,800 a year to operate and maintain, with a different federal grant potentially providing 50% of that and rider fares a little over $78,000 annually. These projections are for a system with the main buses running two, two-way fixed routes, 6 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Of four options presented by Connetics Transportation Group, or CTG, in its May transit study report, city staff last week recommend this as the most “cost effective” option based on ridership projections. But it has the highest up-front capital cost and second-highest annual operating cost.

"That study said that there's a need for a transit system in Statesboro, we have pent-up demand and how do you get it done," City Manager Charles Penny told City Council in a work session Sept. 17. "And so today, if council is so inclined and you give me direction, there are some things that we can do."

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Statesboro City Manager Charles Penny

Mayor Jonathan McCollar and City Council took no formal action on a city mass transit plan during the 4 p.m. open work session in Joe Brannen Hall or the 5:30 p.m. regular meeting that day at City Hall.  But during the work session they gave Penny a nod to place a $29,000 funding item for an implementation plan on the Oct. 1 agenda, in anticipation of a November grant application deadline.

They also informally agreed that the city cannot afford to establish a transit system without federal funding.

 

One recommendation

Kiara Ahmed, civil engineer on the city’s public works and engineering team, delivered the staff recommendation.

"We're recommending today to do the red and blue fixed-route alternative," she said.

Color-coded on CTG’s maps, the proposed west-southeast “red” route and north-south “blue” route cross in downtown Statesboro, where a transfer point would be provided. A ride across town on either route is projected to take about 30 minutes each way.

This is a “fixed route” plan because the main vehicles, 15-19 passenger buses, would not vary from the scheduled stops.  However, a lift-equipped bus or van, capable of carrying five to eight passengers, would provide Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant paratransit service within three-fourths mile of the route.

A total of five buses will be needed, including those of both types, Ahmed said.

CTG projected that such a bus system could attract 96,000 passenger trips a year.

"This one provides the highest cost effectiveness, the highest ridership count, the lowest annual (operations and maintenance) subsidy per rider, the lowest annualized capital cost per rider,” Ahmed said. “It also serves an acceptable amount of jobs, residents and low-income and subsidized housing.”

Consultants and city staff assumed a $1 one-way regular one-way fare, with some discounted fares of 50 cents and paratransit fares of $2. In all options, the city and federal government together would pay more for each ride than the riders themselves would.

With the red and blue fixed routes, the projected $78,625 in fares would leave $580,175 annual cost in need of subsidy. If approved for the 50% federal operating grant, the city would need to pay the other half, $290,088.

“Since this is annual we have to look at that almost $300,000 annually,” Ahmed said.

If the bus service attracted the anticipated 96,000 rides, the continuing per-ride subsidy, city and federal, would be $6.04.

 

Grants necessary

If approved, a federal 80% grant could provide $645,600 of the $811,750 up-front capital cost of the plan. A 10% state match, potentially amounting to $81,175, is potentially available through the Georgia Department of Transportation, which would leave the city to pay $81,175, according to Ahmed’s charts.

The current GDOT deadline is in November, and the GDOT will initiate a federal grant application on the city’s behalf, Ahmed said.

Statesboro has $450,000 earmarked for public transit in the special local sales tax for transportation, or T-SPLOST, approved by Bulloch County voters in 2018. The city paid CTG almost $69,000 for the study, and T-SPLOST money is now budgeted for the transit implementation plan, expected to cost about $29,000, Penny said.

If $81,000 goes to the local match for capital costs, these would leave about $271,000. However, T-SPLOST cannot be used for continuing operating costs.

So Penny told the mayor and council that if they wanted to see a transit system started next fiscal year, 2020-21, then $290,000 would need to be set aside from the general fund “if we get the grant.”

“If we don’t get the grant, then I’m not recommending that you move forward with it,” Penny said. “Most transit operations are done with federal funds and state funds and with cities doing the match.”

He said he would put the implementation plan contract on the Oct. 1 agenda for a vote. Councilman Sam Lee Jones said the $29,000 would be “money well spent” to see if the grants can be secured.

 

Mayor agrees

But he and even Mayor Jonathan McCollar, a leading advocate for public transit in Statesboro, said the project will not move forward unless a federal grant is secured.

“I agree with you today,” McCollar said. “If we don’t have federal funding, we simply cannot do it. We can’t afford it.”

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Mayor Jonathan McCollar


Dismissed options

Another option would have used the red and blue routes in a “flex route” plan where drivers would deviate from scheduled stops to pick up and drop off passengers on request. This was projected to attract 60,500 rides each year and carry annual operating and maintenance costs of $502,200. However, fewer riders would mean fewer fares, amounting to $45,375, leaving a required subsidy of $7.55 per ride.

A loop-shaped route traced in orange had a projected annual ridership of 77,400 passenger trips, operations and maintenance costs of $664,100 and collected fares of $64,050. That would leave a required subsidy of $7.75 per ride.

A “demand response” option, using a small bus or van to pick up riders when they call well in advance – with no regular routes – was estimated to cost $262,200 a year to operate. But the consultants projected that this approach would attract only 7,100 riders and yield $14,200 in fare revenue, even with a $2 fare.  So it would require a subsidy of almost $35 a ride.

Up-front capital costs, to buy the buses and other equipment, were projected at $370,000 for the demand response option, $641,750 for the red and blue flex routes and $807,000 for the orange fixed route.

 

Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.

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