Statesboro officials have reduced the city’s projected first-year cost of a public transit bus system from $300,000 to $182,520 by working with the Coastal Regional Commission, or CRC.
That smaller number depends on approval of $353,880 in federal and state grants to cover the rest of a projected $536,400 in first-year costs. City Manager Charles Penny informed the mayor and council last fall that the city could not apply for Federal Transit Administration grants without working with the CRC, since the regional commission already receives FTA funding to operate its on-demand bus system in Bulloch County.
As currently proposed, Statesboro’s city system would be operated on two, mostly fixed routes. But it would be considered a “flex service” because it would provide a pick-up option away from the usual stops with 24-hour notice, explained Kiara Ahmed, civil engineer on city staff.
She provided an update to City Council during its Jan. 21 work session, and Penny commented on the funding and tentative timeline.
“In October … I actually told you that we were going to need about $300,000 in order to implement the system, but fortunately, because of working with CRC and using those 5311 funds, we’ll be able to come in under that $300,000,” Penny said.
Section 5311 is a passage of federal law establishing FTA grants for public transit systems in rural areas.
Applying for grants
With estimated capital expenses of $214,200 to purchase four small buses and launch the system, Statesboro is applying for a $171,360 federal grant, through the state, to cover 80% of those costs. The city and CRC have already, in December, applied for a $21,420 Georgia Department of Transportation grant to provide another 10%. The final 10%, also $21,420, would be paid by the city.
The city can use money it has earmarked for public transit from the Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax to pay capital costs.
For operating costs, only a federal grant – not a state one – is available and would cover 50% of annual costs. So the FTA operating grant would be for $161,100 of a projected $322,200 first-year operating cost, and the city would need to cover the other $161,100. Rider fares, $1 for a one-way trip or $2 for a round trip on a single route, would cover a portion of the cost.
The buses would operate from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, Ahmed said.
City officials now propose using a total of four Ford E-350-based shuttle buses, small ones that can carry 10 passengers in seats plus two wheelchairs. Two buses, one in each direction, would run on each of the two routes, which would cross in the middle of town. The CRC would operate the buses for Statesboro.
“We’re not starting out with the big buses,” Penny said. “We’ve learned from some other folks’ mistakes. One of the communities had started out with the big buses, and they had major financial problems. We don’t have a ridership at this point because we don’t have a transit system, and what we’re trying to do is build our transit system to get the ridership.”
Hinesville’s transit service was one that experienced financial challenges after buying large buses, said Statesboro Mayor Jonathan McCollar.
The tentative timeline Ahmed presented shows the Georgia Legislature approving its budget, with the state share of funding, in March 2020. The Georgia Department of Transportation could then submit the application to the Federal Transit Administration, and the federal grant could be awarded in June or July.
The timeline also suggests ordering buses in June or July of this year, for the transit system to begin service a full year later, in July 2021.
“I want to under-promise and over-deliver,” Penny told the mayor and council. “I don’t want to put a date of April and then we’re not ready in April.”
He called the plan “a good start if you want to offer this service in Statesboro.”
The program would not have a spare bus because purchasing spares is not permitted with 5311 funding, Ahmed said.
“We have additional buses, so if we have a problem with a bus in the system, we don’t mind flexing one in just to make sure we keep the routes working,” said CRC Executive Director Allen Burns, who also attended the City Council work session.