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Federal funding option for C-TRAN dies before consideration

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

The Clayton County Board of Commissioners (BOC) failed to consider a resolution that would have allowed the county to leverage federal stimulus dollars to extend the life of C-TRAN -- the county's bus service -- from March 31, 2010 to June 30, 2010.

Due to the board's unwillingness to act, the county will miss out on a $2.7 million Federal Transit Administration (FTA) grant and will have to pay at least $2.1 million back to the federal government once the service ends, according to the bus system's operator.

In October, the BOC voted to suspend all operation of C-TRAN as of March 31, 2010, due to funding shortfalls. On Tuesday, Dec. 15, the board adopted a resolution to allow the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), which operates C-TRAN, to apply for a $2.7 million FTA grant on behalf of C-TRAN.

As per the Dec. 15th resolution, MARTA would use the money to cover C-TRAN's operations through the rest of the fiscal year, and "the total cost of the extended service" would be paid "exclusively from the ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009) grant funds," acquired through the FTA.

On Dec. 21, however, MARTA General Manager and CEO Beverly Scott informed the BOC in a letter that a Dec. 8 meeting involving MARTA, Clayton County and FTA officials made it clear that "the use of ARRA funds for C-TRAN operating assistance cannot supplant local funding obligations." Scott further informed the board that their Dec. 15th actions would "not be sufficient" and that the county would first have to expend all money set aside for C-TRAN in its fiscal 2010 budget, before being able to access any FTA grant funds.

On Tuesday, BOC Chairman Eldrin Bell motioned for the board to adopt an amended resolution, committing the county to spend all of the $6.6 million it had already set aside in fiscal 2010 for C-TRAN operations. The motion never came to a vote, due to a failure of any other commissioner to second the motion.

Commissioner Michael Edmondson said the county would have had to spend approximately $2 million between now and the end of the fiscal year in order to get another $2.7 million from the FTA to extend C-TRAN service until the end of June. He said Bell's proposal was not a sufficient "long-term, funding solution."

"This is a funding problem, not a lack of desire to have a bus service," Edmondson said on Wednesday. "The FTA said they wanted us to spend more of our money before they gave us this money. It would be great if we could get that ARRA money, but the price tag to get that money is something we can't afford. It is an expensive, short-term fix that still doesn't provide long-term funding for the bus [system]."

During Tuesday's meeting, Riverdale Mayor Evelyn Wynn-Dixon spoke on behalf of the Clayton County Municipal Association, during the public comment period. She said the county's mayors were committed to helping fund C-TRAN and that the FTA funding may have held over C-TRAN while local legislators searched for a state-wide funding solution during the next legislative session.

"As a former rider myself, it [the bus] was my lifeline to get off of welfare," said Wynn-Dixon. "[Approving Tuesday's resolution] would have given the legislative delegation the time to find a solution. All of the mayors of Clayton County are in support of this, but I can only speak for myself ... I know that my city will be devastated. This is going to hurt a lot of people."

Sen. Valencia Seay (D-Riverdale), was not present at Tuesday's meeting, but met with commissioners on Dec. 14 -- along with other local legislators -- to gauge the county's commitment to funding C-TRAN. A member of the Senate Transportation Committee for 8 years, Seay said the board's actions on Tuesday will likely discourage the state from providing C-TRAN with any financial support.

"I have been traveling through the state for years trying to find funding for transportation," Seay said. "At that meeting [on Dec. 14], it was said that three years ago, the county was looking for other ways to fund C-TRAN. Three years ago, they never came to me ... I could have dedicated more of my time to finding funding for C-TRAN.

"Obviously, their minds were already made up," Seay continued. "Based on what we have before us, there is not a willingness to find funding solutions. As a statesperson, I don't have a vote in this. It's a sad day for those who cannot afford to get about the county."

State Rep. Mike Glanton (D-Ellenwood), chairman of the Clayton County Legislative Delegation, was present at Tuesday's meeting. He said the board's decision does not change his motivation "to find funding for transportation in Georgia."

On Wednesday, MARTA's Scott said the deadline to present the FTA grant application on behalf of Clayton County was Dec. 24, and as such, the $2.7 million will go back to the Atlanta Regional Commission to be administered to other regional transit companies. She said the county will have to pay at least $2.1 million back to the federal government to cover the cost of C-TRAN equipment purchased using federal grants, if it chooses to end the service in March.

Scott said the FTA grant was not "a permanent solution" to C-TRAN's funding problems, but that "it sure looked promising." "It seemed to be pretty much a no-brainer to me," Scott said. "There was an opportunity to get another $2.7 million that would have been 100 percent federal money to extend the service. That's a lot of money. A lot of people went through a lot of work to get that money. They [the BOC] chose not to take the steps necessary."

Bell called the board's inaction on Tuesday's resolution "unconscionable."

"The resolution was simply to say that we would put in the money we already allocated and the FTA would put in the money to take us to June," Bell said. "The cities even offered to help. If this had been extended to June, the state may have been able to find some way to assist us. The board expressed last night that they are not even willing to spend the money allocated to this matter ... they're not interested in continuing C-TRAN, if the county has to spend $1.

"This is the one time that everybody is willing to help the county, but the county is not willing to help themselves," Bell added. "It's just sad. It's just a shame that we don't care more than this about our citizens."

Commissioners Wole Ralph, Sonna Singleton, and Gail Hambrick could not be reached for comment.