March 29, 2014

Arlington transportation program for elderly, disabled seeks alternative money after losing federal funds

Grand Prairie and Mesquite are also seeking new financial support after federal grant disappears.

Arlington, Grand Prairie and Mesquite are scrambling to find new funding for transportation programs that serve the elderly and disabled after becoming ineligible for a longtime federal grant that subsidized fuel, bus driver salaries and other operating expenses.

For years, a legislative exception allowed the cities to use Federal Transit Administration capital assistance grants to cover significant portions of transportation operating costs, an ability typically reserved for para-transit programs in smaller urban areas.

But legislation in 2012, known as Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, or Map-21, eliminated that exception, leaving Arlington, Grand Prairie and Mesquite with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of expenses they had previously relied on the federal government to reimburse.

Arlington’s Handitran, the largest of the three programs, needs to find nearly $655,000. Grand Prairie needs to replace $262,000 in funding, and Mesquite will be short $250,000, according to the Regional Transportation Council, the Metroplex’s official transportation planning body.

“Map-21 came in and removed that as an option for us at this time,” said Bob Johnson, transit manager for Handitran. “We are going to be looking for alternatives to that funding gap.”

Last summer, the Regional Transportation Council stepped in to provide two years of temporary funding to help Handitran, Grand Prairie’s Grand Connection and Mesquite’s Transportation for the Elderly and Disabled get past the financial speed bump. That money isn’t guaranteed for expenses that occur beyond Sept. 30.

“For 2015 and beyond, we don’t think there will be enough operating money to keep them going exactly how they are,” said Jessie Huddleston, the regional transit coordinator and operations program manager at the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

The Regional Transportation Council is using nearly half of its funding for the Enhanced Mobility for Seniors and Individuals with Disabilities Program to support Arlington, Grand Prairie and Mesquite, Huddleston said. But that $3 million pot of federal funding also supports nonprofits and agencies across North Texas that provide similar transportation services.

The council has not decided whether the three cities will have to compete for funding in future years.

“We are going to try our best to look at every possible solution to keep funding them with this operating expense money,” said Huddleston, who added that the region won’t learn how much federal funding it has available to share until next spring.

“What we have told them is to start thinking about something else. We haven’t closed the door completely. We are absolutely committed to helping them in every possible way we can think of,” Huddleston said.

Mesquite and Grand Prairie program officials could not be reached for comment.

Handitran provided nearly 130,000 trips last fiscal year to Arlington residents such as Priscilla Arvani, 67. Arvani, who has low vision and partial hearing impairment, said she has depended on the city’s bus and taxi service to go grocery shopping, visit friends and attend doctor’s appointments since 2006.

“It’s very affordable. I’m so happy we have it,” said Arvani, who also relies on her guide dog. “There is no public transportation here.”

The city does have the Metro Arlington Xpress buses, but they provide limited service at the University of Texas at Arlington and the Trinity Railway Expres Centreport/DFW Airport station that is geared toward commuters.

Handitran riders pay $2 per one-way trip or $55 for a monthly pass. Besides fares, Handitran is funded through state and federal grants and the city’s tax-supported general fund.

Johnson said Handitran is not considering increasing fares to make up the funding gap.

“We are working with our federal legislation, state legislation and the North Central Texas Council of Governments to determine what is an appropriate long-term solution,” Johnson said.

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