Editor’s note: This is the final of a three-part series on the North Fork Area Transit, which resumed operations this week after nearly 90 days of suspended service.
A public hearing is a requirement for the Federal Transit Administration 5311 grant application, which is a major funding source for North Fork Area Transit.
The transit agency normally holds a public hearing each time the agency applies for the grant, which it has each time over the past 40 years. But this past year has hardly been ordinary for North Fork Area Transit, its employees, board members and the riders of the system.
Last week’s transit FTA 5311 grant application hearing did attract attention, including from the media and residents who have emailed Corinne Donahue, the mobility management team leader.
“Norfolk has received these funding dollars for over 40 years, so the transit agency has had these public hearings before any time the agency applied for the application,” Donahue said.
The application is important because it helps trigger federal and state grant funds, which are essential to operating the transit services.
The requirement of the grant application for North Fork Area Transit and the other 40 rural transit agencies in the state is to submit a two-year budget. Donahue said she believes the Nebraska Department of Transportation made that switch to two-year budgets about four years ago. Before that, it was each year.
For fiscal year 2024, which begins July 1, the total budget is $2.1 million. Fiscal year 2025, which begins July 1, 2024, will feature about a $4 million budget.
“The application is a proposed budget for FY 2024 and 2025. North Fork Area Transit representatives will approach the local governmental entities and businesses in the coming months to assist with transit service for the next year.” Donahue said. “We have not approached several of the entities because some budget cycles have not started. It will be coming soon.”
North Fork Area Transit will need to start replacing older fleet vehicles, but the agency does not have any replacement vehicles in the fiscal year 2024 budget. The agency has older vehicles; however, with the smaller start of services this week, it will be fine to begin replacement in FY 2025. If a transit agency pushes back vehicle replacement, at some point, it becomes cost prohibitive with maintenance costs to keep them in service.
So with North Fork Area Transit operating on a more limited scale, are all the vehicles still needed?
Unfortunately, the previous administration purchased older vehicles. Some are good to reuse and put in service, but others have high maintenance costs and must be assessed before starting maintenance work. The transit board and management will be looking at these costs closely as the agency begins the next fiscal year, Donahue said.
The administration services portion of the grant application is about $1 million, but that doesn’t mean half the funds are going to pay administrators.
Donahue stated the FY 2024 budget includes only three staff for administration, but upkeep of the facility, rent, insurance for the vehicles and employees, technology, phones, the accounting firm, the audit, marketing and promotions are all included in administrative services. Only $247,000 of the $1 million goes toward the administrative staff.
The biggest costs in the budget, which are typical for transit agencies, are staff salaries; bus maintenance like such as oil changes and lube service; and fuel, Donahue said. The grant application budget also contains revenue from fares, passes and contracted service fees.
Out of that $2.1 million budget, nearly $1.7 million in federal and state funds are brought back into the community from grants. The FY 2024 application budget will require about $378,000 to be raised locally.
Another need of North Fork Area Transit that is not included in the FY 2024 or 2025 budget is a new transit facility. The Madison County Board of Commissioners provided $750,000 to the transit agency last summer, with most of it scheduled to assist in the assessment of a new or renovated facility.
“The transit facility is definitely still needed,” Donahue said. “The agency currently cannot park all of their existing fleet in the bus barn that is leased today. ”
The current facility holds nine of the 15 vehicles overnight, with employees doing skillful driving to get them only about 6 inches from each other and to get that many to fit indoors. The other vehicles are parked outside the bus barn.
Another need for the agency is to have separate space for the dispatchers. There are six employees who work in the existing space, which is a large room. At times, it can be loud and noisy, which can cause difficulty with incoming calls for a ride.
The property is leased from the Norfolk Senior Center. Donahue said they appreciate the center and everything it has done for transit, but owning a facility long-term will help save money on facility leasing charges.
“North Fork Area Transit will make do at the existing site. The transit agency has for several years and will continue to do so. When the agency is investing a $2 million budget, and has a plan to keep going for another 50 years, you make it work. But one day, North Fork Area Transit will have a facility to house all transit vehicles and enough offices for staff and a dispatch center. ”
The second year of the budget, fiscal year 2025, increases to about $4 million, with $3 million coming from the Federal Transit Administration and state funding. The FY 2025 grant application budget requires a local match of $800,000.
Regional sponsorships climb to nearly $500,000 out of the $800,000 local match requirement. The agency will approach several of the regional employers who have used and supported the service previously to help provide those additional funds, such as the manufacturers in Madison County.
“They may say no. In the FY 2025 grant application budget, the regional routes are planned to be reinstated.” Donahue said.
“If North Fork Area Transit does not receive those sponsorships, the agency will not operate the regional routes, unless someone else (a business or organization) steps forward,” she said.
The second-year FTA application budget also includes four new vehicles for replacement. These vehicles are reimbursed at 90% (80% federal and 10% state).
Written comments on the grant applications will be accepted through Thursday, April 13.