After several precarious weeks of searching for a way to continue serving more than 1,000 people, the East Tennessee Human Resources Agency will be able to keep running its vans and buses, thanks to the City of Knoxville.
Come July 1, about 1,300 riders in surrounding counties would have lost access to rural transportation services. (Riders subsidized through programs like TennCare or other insurance companies were never in danger of losing the service.) But ETHRA has received approximately six months' worth of federal funding—a transaction that was facilitated by the city—to keep operating, with plans in the works to re-tap federal funding sources that had suddenly run dry.
Last July, the Federal Transit Administration sent a letter to Gov. Bill Haslam informing him that 2010 census data showed the population densities of several areas surrounding Knoxville—specifically Oliver Springs, Clinton, Seymour, Loudon, Lenoir City, and parts of Alcoa and Maryville—increased, and would be classified as "urban" areas rather than "rural." Those population changes would impact how much federal transportation funding was sent to each provider. That would also mean rural public transportation services—ETHRA and Knox County CAC—would be subject to fines if they continued to serve those areas now classified as "urban" using rural public-transportation funding.
But Mike Patterson, ETHRA's transportation director, says he had only been aware of the letter since October, when his organization thought they'd have until October 2013 to figure out how to continue funding its service.
"We were aware of what the impact may be, but because we did not have a real firm deadline, we ran out of time," he says, explaining that the state never gave him a firm answer on whether he would have until the end of the state's fiscal year (June 30) or the federal fiscal year (Sept. 30) to either stop service or come up with funds. So, ETHRA decided to work on the assumption the organization had until the end of the state fiscal year.
Doug Burton, the principal transportation planner for the Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization, says it's ETHRA and CAC's general public riders who were most at risk for losing their service if they live in areas that are now designated as "urban." There are no fixed routes for ETHRA or CAC services like Knoxville's KAT buses. People who wish to use these services must call ETHRA or CAC to request a ride.
At a May 15 TPO meeting, Patterson was on hand to talk about ETHRA and CAC's admittedly few options, due in large part to the lack of regulations concerning the use of federal transportation grants.
Congress passed the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century bill, which divvied up federal public transportation grants, last year, though it only officially went into effect in October 2012, and only approved the first six months of the fiscal year's money. The second six months were sent out this spring. But the Federal Transit Administration, which directs local agencies like Knoxville's TPO on how to use the money, hasn't issued a complete list of guidelines for how to use allocated funding. So while KAT has been able to go ahead and decide how to use the urban public transportation grants it received, the FTA has issued no directions on how places that have been re-designated as "urban" areas should also access funds.
"In the past, the city of Knoxville has pretty much not had interest from ETHRA or CAC in this source of funding [for urban transportation]. However that's changing," says Cindy McGinnis, KAT's general manager.
And it did change.
In late May, Mayor Madeline Rogero met with the surrounding county mayors and Patterson to talk about both short-term and long-term options. Rogero says the ultimate goal for ETHRA is to have access to the urban funds that the federal government sends to Knoxville, though ETHRA would receive those funds through the TPO, not the city (as KAT does).
"Our goal is for there not to be [a gap in service]," Rogero says.
Burton has always maintain that it would be entirely possible that ETHRA could subcontract with the city, but it would only work if there was money KAT hasn't allocated. Luckily, Burton says, the city was able to find "a couple hundred thousand" dollars in the funding budget that KAT hadn't allocated.
ETHRA won't be able to just take the money, either. They must match the grant. Patterson says that won't be a problem. ETHRA's team moved quickly, Burton says, to make sure they had all their legal documents ready to submit to the FTA in advance of this emergency funding.
"I know ETHRA has been burning the midnight oil on this," Burton says.
Patterson says that ETHRA will apply to receive federal urban transit funding, which he says could be taken care of before the six months of funding runs out.
Still, the decision to officially hand over the funds will be decided on Wednesday morning [June 26] by the TPO executive board, which consists of mayors from the surrounding counties. As Burton says, it's not a done deal, but there is no indication that the funding won't be approved. It will also have to be approved on Thursday by the Knoxville Transit Authority.
Burton says finding a way to keep ETHRA running has been a top-priority issue at the agency, and there was no precedent to fall back on or reference.
"We've been working pretty much nonstop on this, trying to find some funding. Our main goal is to see if we can keep the service going, and second is to find a more permanent long-term solution," Burton says. "This is the first time another agency has inquired about possibly using those [urban] funds, so it was also the first time we had to look at these [urban funding] regulations," he says.
Ultimately, Burton says this process is creating an opportunity for the Knoxville area to prevent future funding scares like this.
"It's starting a bigger discussion in our community about the level of transportation service [needed]," he says. And that may include moving the responsibility of distributing funds from the city to the TPO, though nothing formal has been proposed, Burton says.
Patterson says he doesn't have enough good things to say about Mayor Rogero and the city's effort to lend a helping hand to ETHRA.
"I'm just really pleased no one is losing their service," Patterson says.
Correction: The original story suggested the city was giving ETHRA Knoxville taxpayer money. The funds ETHRA received are from the federal urban transportation grants sent to the city. KAT will not be operating ETHRA routes.