Politics & Government

Federal fund cutoff could slash Macon bus service, officials warn

The looming expiration of a federal transportation funding program has the Macon Transit Authority warning that its bus service could see severe cutbacks, losing popular routes such as the ones serving Geico and Robins Air Force Base.

About half of MTA’s net operating cost is paid out of the federal “Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century” fund, or MAP 21, said MTA General Manager Rick Jones.

“We get funded by a number of programs, but it’s MAP 21 that funds those programs,” he said.

That’s $2.7 million that would go away if MAP 21 is allowed to expire May 31.

“It’s not just funding that’s related to transit. It’s roads and bridges and highways, too,” Jones said.

Jones and other local officials plan to join in the April 9 “Stand Up 4 Transportation Day.” It will begin with an 8 a.m. event at Middle Georgia Regional Airport, which Mayor Robert Reichert and Airport Manager Doug Faour are expected to attend along with MTA officials, Jones said.

Bus rides will be free to everyone all day -- a move which may cost about $4,000 -- and various activities will be planned at Terminal Station, 200 Cherry St., he said. The event at MTA’s headquarters and main transfer point likely will include Nu-Way hot dogs and health screenings.

The goal is to get public support for renewed transit funding, Jones said. The local effort will work in conjunction with events nationwide, including rallies at state capitols; 93 other agencies are signed up to participate nationwide, including Atlanta’s transit system.

That’s according to the American Public Transportation Association, which is coordinating the effort.

The MAP 21 program was created in 2012 and was supposed to expire in September 2014, after spending $21.3 billion nationwide for federal transit programs and $40 billion for highway work, according to the association. But it was the only major avenue of transit and infrastructure funding, and Congress extended it until May 31, 2015.

Now that the date is approaching with no further renewal or other funding identified.

Jones said MTA’s bus and paratransit service cost about $5.5 million to run in the past fiscal year. Fares only covered a small portion of that cost, and the rest was split evenly between Macon-Bibb government and MAP 21 funding. Even a brief cutoff of federal dollars would be devastating, he said.

Reichert’s administration agrees, seeing MTA as instrumental to the revival of downtown, Macon-Bibb spokesman Chris Floore said.

“We don’t want to see any further cuts from the federal or state level,” Floore said in an email. “When you have a trend of people moving back to the urban cores and seeking other modes of transit besides their cars, we need more funding to add routes, expand service areas, and improve on-time efficiency.”

The first routes to go probably would be the most recently added, serving Geico and Robins, Jones said.

Geico employs about 5,700 people. Jones said roughly 3,000 Macon-Bibb residents work at Robins in Houston County.

“We probably carry 300 or 400 of them every day,” he said. But just as important as taking people to current jobs is helping people get to potential employment and ensuring they’ll be able to get to work if hired, Jones said.

“We need to give our unemployed in Macon opportunities to seek work,” he said.

The American Public Transportation Association argues that uncertainty about funding for transportation infrastructure and public transit discourages private investment in businesses that depend on those services.

“The transportation industry, in near unanimity, is advocating for a long-term, sustainable and reliable transportation funding bill, not another short-term extension of MAP 21,” the group states.

Jones also said he would like to see a permanent funding commitment, but he expects nothing more than a short extension of MAP 21 until at least after the 2016 election.

To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.