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Budget cuts may hit public transportation

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Looming state budget cuts could reduce funding for state public transportation by up to 15 percent, officials said.

The director of the state Division of Public Transit said local organizations would likely cut services and lay off workers should the state follow through with plans to cut the division's budget 7.5 percent.

Thirty-three counties across the state have some sort of public transportation program. Public Transit Director Susan O'Connell told state budget officials if the state cut funding, it is unlikely local governments would step up to fill the gaps.  

"It is very unlikely that the local public transit systems will be able to make up the loss in state funding," O'Connell said.

Earlier this year, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin asked many state agency heads to cut 7.5 percent from their budget requests for the fiscal year that starts next July 1. Tomblin said the cuts are necessary to free up about $85 million in the general revenue fund to cover increasing Medicaid costs.

While most state transportation programs are funded with federal dollars or State Road Fund revenue, the Division of Public Transit uses some general revenue in its programs.

O'Connell said general revenue money serves as matching funds for several federal grants the agency secures for local public transportation programs.

Because the state money is used to help secure federal grants, O'Connell said state reductions would result in a double whammy for programs funded by those grants.  

"When state funds are lost for operating assistance, a like amount of federal funds are also left unmatched," she said. "The 7.5 percent reduction has the potential to turn into a 15 percent loss in operating assistance, something that local projects are unable to absorb without service reductions and layoffs."

In the last budget year, the division used about $2.8 million in state revenue as matching funds to secure $19.3 million in federal grants.

With a 7.5 percent cut in the next budget year, the state share of funds would drop to just under $2.6 million, and the amount of federal money would fall to about $15.3 million.

While Congress increased funds for public transit programs nationwide in a two-year federal transportation spending bill passed earlier this year, O'Connell said it's unlikely West Virginia will be able to take advantage of it.

 "To date, West Virginia has lost $666,361 in federal transit funds because of the lack of matching dollars," she said. "The very real possibility exists that unless a source of matching funds can be found, it is likely that additional federal transit funds will lapse and be lost to West Virginia's communities."

O'Connell said local organizations are hard-pressed to provide any matching funds as it is, so service reductions and layoffs may be the only option for cutting costs.

While the Division of Public Transit included the cuts in its budget proposal for next year, the actual changes to the agency's budget next year are not set in stone.

Tomblin and budget office staff members are reviewing all agency budget requests.

The winner of this November's gubernatorial election will take the proposals under consideration when he drafts the fiscal year 2014 budget bill and presents it to the Legislature in February.

In the end, the governor and Legislature will have the option to make changes as they work on the budget bill during next year's legislative session.

Contact writer Jared Hunt at jared.hunt@dailymail.com or 304-348-5148.

 


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