Legislation to provide cushion for reduced federal funding for MTD
A bill was recently reintroduced by U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Santa Barbara, aimed at saving small urban transit providers — like Santa Barbara Metropolitan Transit District — from a steep cut in federal funds.
Santa Barbara MTD has qualified for the federal Small Transit Intensive Cities program, which provides funds to transit providers serving urban areas with a population between 50,000 and 200,000 people. Funds go to these small providers that exceed average levels of service compared to larger transit agencies.
However, Santa Barbara MTD expects to exceed the population threshold following the 2020 census, disqualifying them from an estimated $1.9 million annually.
Hillary Blackerby, planning and marketing manager for Santa Barbara MTD, explained that there are six metrics transit agencies can qualify for for funds, and she believes Santa Barbara MTD has been the only one in the country which — since the inception of the program in 2003 — has met all six metrics every year.
“Functionally, what that means is we have more service, higher ridership and just better performance,” she told the News-Press. “We have as much service for a place that would have a million people. We don’t have a million people in South County, so our ridership is just generally fairly high for the area. We’re really proud of that.”
However, the nearly $2 million loss per year in funding, she said, removes Santa Barbara MTD from a big fish in a small pond to a “very small fish in a very large pond.” And, she said that preliminary predictions for the 2020 census results will put the region “just slightly 700 (residents) over 200,000.”
That’s why Rep. Carbajal reintroduced the Small Transit Communities Modernization Act, which would establish a three-year gradual phase out for communities that no longer qualify for program funding, instead of simply cutting it off immediately.
“I think any agency that has been doing extraordinary work in providing services, such as Santa Barbara MTD and other transit services, that much of the general public depended on, to one day wake up and not have the robust service that they’re used to to get to work for essential things in their lives, to go to school, I think provides a problematic situation for our community and the riders that depend on public transportation,” Rep. Carbajal told the News-Press. “The fact that we can provide a soft landing and allow MTD to recalibrate their service and reexamine other funding sources to make sure that the disruption is minimized and the level of reduction is also minimized is really the goal.”
The $2 million loss per year would definitely be a hit to MTD’s operating budget, Ms. Blackerby said, and also its capital budget for improvements and bus purchases. Ultimately, she said, “$2 million is a pretty big hit no matter which way you slice it.”
But, this legislation would buy them time to find other funding sources or reexamine budgeting.
“We’re really grateful to Congressman Carbajal for introducing this and really understanding what’s at stake for our community, the importance of transit in our community and the importance of not punishing us for being in a slowly growing region,” Ms. Blackerby said. “This would help us get our footing and prepare for making the other provisions for our needs.”
Rep. Carbajal said that because he sits on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Highway and Transit Subcommittee within it, he hopes to insert his bill language into the Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act of 2021, which could be parlayed into the larger infrastructure bill — the American Jobs Act — proposed by President Joe Biden.
“I am hopeful that we can get this over the finish line and provide relief to Santa Barbara MTD,” the congressman said. “Santa Barbara MTD has received its grant funding over the years because of their high performance and stellar job in serving the public with transit.
“It’s my job to make sure I continue to enhance the quality of life of my constituents, and this is an example of that.”