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FTA denies congressman's plea for transit funds

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has denied a request from U.S. Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) to reconsider its decision to deny Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) funding to the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA) for the addition of three new Xpress bus routes in Clayton County.

The denial shoots down a last-ditch effort to accommodate riders who will be left without transportation after March 31, when the county's C-TRAN bus service is scheduled to shut down permanently.

On Feb. 16, the Clayton County Board of Commissioners (BOC) consented to an agreement with GRTA which involved the county transferring $2.4 million, and 18 of its regular-service buses to GRTA, in exchange for GRTA operating three new Xpress routes from Clayton County to Atlanta for up to three years, or until funds expire.

On Feb. 26, FTA Regional Administrator Yvette Taylor denied a request from GRTA Deputy Director Jim Ritchey for $4.3 million in federal CMAQ funds to assist in the new Xpress bus routes. The new routes would have offered service from Riverdale to the College Park MARTA station; from Jonesboro to the Lakewood/Fort McPherson MARTA station; and from Clayton State University to the Lakewood/Fort McPherson MARTA station.

On March 15, Scott wrote to the FTA , asking Taylor to reconsider the denial of the funds, saying the decision would leave "no bus transit options in Clayton County," effectively "stranding them [C-TRAN riders] in their homes."

Taylor's March 23 letter to Scott echoes the Feb. 26 denial, stating that GRTA had "not provided a financial plan to demonstrate the long-term viability of the service." She added that "for lack of willingness by local officials to continue the service into the future," riders would be left stranded once CMAQ assistance ends. "The financial plan is required to ensure that the temporary use of CMAQ funds lead to continued and viable transit service for the public," Taylor said. "Fundamentally, FTA is concerned that absent this financial plan, new service will be provided to the Clayton County community, only to be terminated at the conclusion of CMAQ eligible assistance."

Scott's Chief of Staff Michael Andel released a statement Tuesday in response to the FTA's recent decision: "Congressman Scott is disappointed. But, as the letter says, the state does not offer long-term funding for transit. This has been the same problem for the commuter rail line and other projects. Federal agencies cannot fund transit operating costs. If the state does not create dedicated transit funding solutions, then commuters will only have congested roads as their choice of transportation."

On March 16, the county approved an alternative for C-TRAN's medically-disabled riders, drafting three of its C-TRAN paratransit vans into a new service to be offered through its Seniors Services department. The service, scheduled to begin in April, will only be offered to riders with approved income levels.

The county intends to use Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to pay for the service. BOC Vice Chairman Wole Ralph, one of four commissioners who voted back in October to end C-TRAN, said he is "disappointed" with the FTA's position. "The board indicated its willingness to provide an alternative to C-TRAN, and a willingness to provide a funding source," Ralph said. "We followed their guidelines in the two letters. It is unfortunate that the FTA has taken this position."

BOC Chairman Eldrin Bell, who voted to keep C-TRAN, said the board's inaction on a December FTA proposal to provide C-TRAN with a $2.7 million to continue the service until the end of June, has soured the federal government's generosity. "Previously, the government was allowing Clayton County to enter into an agreement with MARTA for $2.7 million of federal funds," Bell said in an e-mailed statement. "However, my Board took a ‘poison pen' to that resolution and turned it down. The ARC then redistributed the money that was rejected, and disbursed it to the rest of the region."

Bell said he would like the commission members to "change their minds regarding C-TRAN funding, rather than trying to change [the] FTA."