Feds to give $30.8 million to local transit agencies for coronavirus relief

The money will be spent on payroll, cleaning supplies, and other operating costs at the transit authorities in Pinellas and Hillsborough.
"Cover Ur Face B4 U Ride" reads a sign on a No. 9 Pinellas transit authority bus, stopped in May along the 200 block of 5th Ave N.
"Cover Ur Face B4 U Ride" reads a sign on a No. 9 Pinellas transit authority bus, stopped in May along the 200 block of 5th Ave N. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jan. 20, 2021|Updated Jan. 20, 2021

Tampa Bay’s bus agencies, struggling with decreased ridership and financial challenges linked to the coronavirus pandemic, are set to receive $30.8 million in federal relief money.

The transit authorities in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties will split the local portion of a $14 billion Federal Transit Administration COVID-19 relief package that was passed this month.

The funds have restrictions similar to the $91 million allocated to the region in April as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. The money, which is a reimbursement not a direct grant, is aimed at retaining workers and keeping transit service going.

“We’re going to be using it to keep jobs, keep our own routes going, and keep providing service to all those people in our community who rely on public transit,” said Brad Miller, chief executive of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.

The money from the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act can’t be spent on capital, such as buying new buses or starting a new transit line.

Hillsborough’s transit authority is about to undergo service changes next week, with some routes seeing decreased frequency and others getting cut altogether. It is unlikely that the latest federal money will help restore those service cuts, which have been in the works for months. Instead, the money will primarily be spent on payroll and other operating expenses, said Cyndy Stiglich, interim chief financial officer.

The funds do not have to be paid back and do not require a local match, as is often the case with federal transit money.

The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority is expected to get $15.7 million of the local share, with PSTA receiving $15.1 million. The split will be finalized this week, Stiglich said.

Between this relief package and the CARES Act, the Hillsborough authority is set to receive about $55 million dollars. That’s about equal to one year of ad valorem property tax revenue, the agency’s largest funding source.

The Hillsborough authority is prepared to see less money from property taxes in the future, Stiglich said. The money from these two relief packages will help offset that decrease.

“That’s how the transit agency pays the bills,” she said. “This is definitely going to help us keep money in reserves to prepare for next year and the year after that when the increase in ad valorem is going to be significantly less than the last couple years.”

In both counties, the transit agencies were hit hard by declining ridership during the coronavirus pandemic. Hillsborough finished its first fiscal quarter of the new year 10-percent off-target in farebox revenue, a loss of a little over $1 million.

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Pinellas is seeing a ridership drop of about 30 percent over previous years. The agency made the decision last spring to provide rides for free so passengers can avoid common touchpoints at the farebox. They board in the back of the bus.

“The (federal money) is offsetting that loss of farebox revenue,” Miller said. “Also, during COVID, our expenses are up because we’re cleaning the buses more and buying thousands of masks and gloves.”

There’s now a “mountain of masks” in the agency’s dispatch room, Miller said, for those drivers and passengers who don’t have their own.