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Transit Systems Face Shortfalls After State Budget Cut

CATS lost about $3.2 million in state funding for public transit in the new state budget.
CATS lost about $3.2 million in state funding for public transit in the new state budget.

State funding for public transportation was cut 26 percent in the budget passed last month by the Republican-controlled General Assembly. That has local agencies like Charlotte Area Transit System scrambling to replace the funds.

Lawmakers shrank the size of the State Maintenance Assistance Program, which helps local bus and transit systems pay for things like drivers' salaries, fuel, insurance and vehicle maintenance.  

In the fiscal year that ended June 30, CATS got about $11.1 million from the state. This year, it's getting $3.2 million less, or a cut of about 29 percent.

CATS was counting on that money. It was in the transit system budget approved last month. Officials learned of the cut in late June.

Now CATS says it's "looking closely" at its budget to find ways to reduce the impact of the cut. The big question is whether CATS - and other affected agencies - will have to reduce service.

Nobody from CATS was available for an interview. But in a statement, CATS called the cut "significant" and said it equals about 31,000 hours of bus service or 9,000 hours of rail service.

Similar pain is being felt in the rest of the state's 25 urban transit systems, from Raleigh to Greensboro to Asheville. Others affected include bus systems in Hickory (which suffered a loss of $29,810), Gastonia (lost $58,886) and Concord (lost $82,264).

Ron Tober is a former CEO of CATS, who now works as a transit consultant. "The reduction contained in the budget, I think, comes as a surprise and is going to have to be absorbed somehow. It'll mean less service on the street and taxpayers may take a hit in some cities," Tober said.

"I think that what we've seen from this legislature is that there is a bias against public transportation. Why? I don't know," he said.

The legislature also cut the highway construction and maintenance budget, while adding money in other areas, like the DOT's administrative budget and for repairs at the Global Transpark in eastern North Carolina.  

North Carolina Department of Transportation spokesman Bruce Siceloff said revenues from DMV fees are expected to be down this year. Those revenues are a key component of the Highway Fund that pays for public transit. But he said it's not clear why the legislature cut the public transportation budget.

"We depend on the legislature to set the budget and determine what money is available for each use," Siceloff said. "We don't comment on what the legislature does. We take the funding they provide for us to do our work."


state maintenance assistance program chart

David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.