The Greater Lynchburg Transit Company will receive more than $7.6 million in federal funding to help the bus system weather the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic.
With fare collection suspended during the course of the health emergency, the federal aid will ensure bus drivers will continue to get paychecks, help the transit system cover the cost of regularly cleaning its bus fleet and offset a reduction in local funding.
Brian Booth, GLTC’s general manager, said the money likely is to be used to cover a wide range of operating expenses in the next two fiscal years.
At a GLTC board meeting Wednesday, Booth recommended $4.23 million of the federal funding be allocated for the 2021 fiscal year, which begins July 1, and the remaining $3.36 million be set aside for the 2022 fiscal year.
The funding was made available through a sweeping $2 trillion federal coronavirus rescue package signed into law in late March.
“The CARES Act money is to prepare for, respond to and recover from the coronavirus pandemic,” Booth said, referring to the relief package. “They’re trying to make sure that public transit is able to continue through the recovery of the economic stress created by the pandemic.”
The aid awarded to GLTC represents just a fraction of the $47.2 million in federal funds allocated to small urban transit agencies across the state by the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, which has been tasked with distributing the money.
According to guidelines issued by the DRPT, the money is not limited to expenses directly tied to the pandemic and can be used to pay driver salaries, fuel and maintenance costs, among other expenses.
The guidelines also note the aid can be used to continue to pay employees who are not required to work because of a reduction in service or who are quarantined after potentially being exposed to the virus.
Booth said none of the system’s approximately 55 bus operators have shown symptoms of the disease or come in contact with anyone sick with COVID-19.
About five employees, however, are currently on administrative leave because they have underlying health conditions that make them especially vulnerable to the virus or because they are looking after children home from school.
Since the virus spread to Lynchburg in mid-March, GLTC ridership has decreased by about 30%, according to Booth.
On March 23, GLTC stopped collecting bus fares, a major source of revenue for the transit system. A week later, the system reduced a handful of bus routes in response to a drop in ridership and limited bus capacity to nine riders.
Despite the fall in revenue, GLTC is projected to end the 2020 fiscal year with a more than $500,000 surplus, in part because of reduced costs associated with fewer routes and a reduction in overtime pay.
The federal aid has allowed the city of Lynchburg, which is facing a nearly $6.5 million budget shortfall in the next fiscal year, to reduce its share of GLTC’s annual operating costs by more than $1.1 million, according to Lynchburg Chief Finance Officer Donna Witt. GLTC had initially requested the city provide $1.6 million to help cover operating expenses.
“This is a happy thing,” Witt said.
Richard Chumney covers Liberty University for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5547.