CARES Act funding aids city, transit authority

More aid to assist the city of Tuscaloosa’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic has been awarded by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration.

More aid to assist the city of Tuscaloosa’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic has been awarded by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration.

A $5.7 million grant was announced Thursday for the Tuscaloosa County Parking and Transit Authority.

These grant funds, made available through the Trump administration’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, will go toward operating and preventive maintenance expenses.

Russell Lawrence, executive director of the Tuscaloosa County Parking and Transit Authority, said ridership is down about 60 percent in the wake of the state and national stay-at-home orders.

But revenues have fallen off more than that as the agency stopped collecting bus fares about two months ago, a policy that will continue until at least mid-June, Lawrence said.

With this drop in funding, the FTA grant will help shore up any revenue and financial losses the local transit authority is experiencing as a result of the coronavirus response.

“We’re not taking fares, we’re not getting revenue, but we still have expense obligations that we have to meet,” Lawrence said. “We were very fortunate to get this. It’s certainly a shot in the arm and it couldn’t come at a better time.”

Federal officials confirmed that the grant dollars were meant to allow the local Transit Authority to maintain its fixed-route and paratransit services during the COVID-19 public health emergency.

“We know many of our nation’s public transportation systems are facing extraordinary challenges,” said FTA Acting Administrator K. Jane Williams, in a press release announcing the award, “and these funds will go a long way to assisting our transit industry partners in battling COVID-19.

“These federal funds will support operating assistance to transit agencies of all sizes providing essential travel and supporting transit workers across the country who are unable to work because of the public health emergency.”

Tuscaloosa city officials were expecting this announcement and already have plans for its use.

As part of the Restart Tuscaloosa plan that was endorsed by the City Council on May 12, Mayor Walt Maddox proposed using the $5.7 million in FTA grants to offset annual appropriations of about $679,000 that the council makes each year to the Tuscaloosa County Parking and Transit Authority.

Doing so would free up this same amount for several fiscal years, allowing $679,000 to be directed to other General Fund-related issues starting next year.

“That’s a very good thing for our fiscal ’21 budget,” Maddox said earlier this month.

Leveraging other grants and federal aid sources in order to free up local tax dollars for other city-related purposes was a major component of the Restart Tuscaloosa plan.

Using these dollars to cover operational and capital expenses, normally funded through sales tax revenue, will help make up for what is expected to be lost as a result of the stay-at-home orders that were issued to slow the coronavirus spread.

For example, a $125,205 grant through the U.S. Department of Justice for Coronavirus Emergency Supplement Funding is expected to be directed toward offsetting public safety-related expenses during the current fiscal year.

Another $861,006 grant for the airport through the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program Grants-In-Aid for Airports can be used to offset runway and airport improvements within the Elevate Tuscaloosa plan, for which $1.5 million has been designated for fiscal 2020 and fiscal 2021. This grant can be used for runway and hangar work while $861,000 in Elevate Tuscaloosa funds can be directed elsewhere.

“This historic $25 billion in grant funding will ensure our nation’s public transportation systems can continue to provide services to the millions of Americans who continue to depend on them,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao.

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