Bus deal signed, but plan still has uncertainties

Sunday, June 11, 2006

The transit authority has several sources of secure revenue but others that, at this time, are more speculative.

When the Cape Girardeau County Transit Authority begins operating as consolidated public transit system next month, it will run on a $1.2 million budget that includes large fixed costs and uncertainties about revenue.

The transit program includes a bus route through Cape Girardeau, vans for riders requiring point-to-point service and a courier service included as part of a $360,000 purchase of Kelley Transportation Co. Inc.

Almost 70 percent of the agency's projected spending plan will be consumed by payroll and benefits, with the biggest single item, drivers, slated to cost $563,000.

To make the budget work, the authority has several sources of secure revenue but other large items that are, at this time, speculative. For example, the authority is assuming fares on the bus route will generate $120,000 a year, fees for point-to-point rides will bring in $100,000 and operation of the courier service will bring in another $105,000.

A shortfall in any of those areas could create a cash crunch, which is why the authority sought a county government loan guarantee and a promise from a tax fund for senior citizens to reserve $40,000 on its behalf, director Jeff Brune said.

The Cape Girardeau County Commission approved the loan guarantee, while the Senior Citizens Service Fund Board promised it would try to help in an emergency but didn't dedicate itself to a specific amount. The senior services fund is already slated to provide $55,000 this year.

"It is such a new venture, such an unknown, that you really don't know" how to project costs, Brune said Friday.

The county loan guarantee, for up to $660,000, covers the bank loan for purchasing Kelley Transportation and a line of credit for up to $300,000. While the line of credit has been described as a short-term measure, the projected budget anticipates that it may take 20 years or longer to pay off the note for the Kelley purchase, Brune said.

The bus route is the biggest unknown, Brune said. "I keep calling it the field of dreams -- if you build it, they will come."

The authority last week finished the paperwork for its purchase of Kelley Transportation. The Cape Girardeau taxi company that had for years provided subsidized rides for city residents through a coupon program.

To replace that service, the bus route will run the length of Broadway, loop west through shopping and medical service areas and return via a run through residential areas south of the core of town.

Fares for the bus system have been refined, Brune said. Regular fares will be $1.50, with a discounted fair of 75 cents for senior citizens and the disabled. Previously, the authority had set the senior and disabled fare at $1.

To make the budgeted amount for fares, the authority will need to provide more than 80,000 rides at full price annually, or approximately 6,700 per month. The buses will be 12-passenger vehicles similar to those used as airport shuttle buses. "We didn't want to get big city 40-passenger buses and drive them around with one person on them," Brune said.

The largest single funding source for the authority will be federal transit subsidies directed through the Missouri Department of Transportation. The projected budget estimates those funds will contribute about $330,000.

The MoDOT-controlled subsidies are stretched thin, helping 200 specialized transit providers and 30 public transit agencies statewide, said Brian Weiler, director of multimodal programs for MoDOT.

While the law allows a subsidy to match up to 50 percent of the locally generated revenue, the state typically can provide only a 35 percent match.

"We do not normally have near enough money," Weiler said.

The state receives many more requests than it can fully fund, he said. For the county transit authority, that means future expansion relying on additional subsidies will be difficult to squeeze into the budget, Weiler said. "The needs far outweigh the resources available."

Local funding sources include the city of Cape Girardeau, which will provide $69,000 to underwrite the bus service, a $55,000 grant from the senior citizens services fund, $12,500 from county revenue and $9,000 from the city of Jackson.

Two contracts, one with the state's contractor for rides for Medicaid patients, and one with the Workforce Investment Board, are slated to provide $310,000 total.

Uncertainties abound in the budget, from possible cuts in the contracts for service to rapidly increasing operating costs.

"There are a thousand unknowns," Brune said.

Fuel costs, for example, are budgeted at $170,000.

"A random geopolitical occurrence takes place, and costs could just skyrocket," he said.

rkeller@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

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