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Editorial: Different rules hamper local transit systems

Dec. 03, 2012 @ 11:00 PM

Some less-populous areas in the Tri-State are caught up in a big-city bind when it comes to their public transit systems. The potential losers are people who rely on public buses to get around.

The troubles facing public bus service in Lawrence County, Ohio, and Ashland, Ky. -- and Huntington and Cabell County to a lesser degree -- originated when a new Census-related designation for the Tri-State area added a part of Putnam County, W.Va. That bumped the Huntington-Ashland population beyond 200,000, putting that area under regulations designed for larger transit systems.

The result was that those new rules prohibited transit systems from using any federal transit funds they received for operational costs, such as fuel and driver salaries. That was a departure from their practices under the previous applicable regulations. If necessary, they could use all of their federal allotments for operations.

The potential impact was lessened somewhat by a federal transportation bill passed earlier this year. But the upshot remains that bus systems serving Ashland and Lawrence County are receiving less federal money overall and they can only use less than half of their grants for operations. Local transit officials had hoped the transportation bill would provide exceptions to the limitations for smaller transit systems in the "big-city" category, but that didn't happen.

Lawrence County appears to be in the most difficult situation. It pays the Tri-State Transit Authority, which serves Huntington and Cabell County, $500,000 a year to cover the cost of four fixed bus routes. But under the newly applied funding formula, Lawrence County can only use about $100,000 of its federal funding toward that contract. Even with local matching funds, it falls well short of being able to afford continuing the contract with TTA.

Unless something is done, the fixed routes may have to be discontinued, according to Mike Payne, director of public transportation for Lawrence County Transit. He also anticipates that the county's demand-response service will have to reduced significantly. Combined, the two services serve about 25,000 riders a year.

In the case of the Ashland Bus System, service isn't likely to go away altogether, but the system would have to be downsized with fewer routes and remaining routes running less frequently, according to officials there. That system serves about 200,000 riders per year.

Ironically, placing the Huntington-Ashland metropolitan area into the category of larger transit systems only serves to hurt smaller segments of the region the worst, while the impact on the biggest local transit provider, the TTA, will be far less.

A delegation of local officials still hopes to change the situation and will travel to Washington, D.C., this week to meet with congressional representatives. Their message should be clear: Smaller transit services serving less populous areas will continue to be threatened under these rules, and the people who live there don't have subway trains to fall back on like people in big cities do.

We hope Congress will listen.

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