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Hall Area Transit faces 'another tough year'
Rising fuel costs, funding cuts provide challenges
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Hall County Area Transit spending for next year is still under wraps, but the Hall County-Gainesville Community Service Center's director said last week she expects "it's going to be another tough year."

Phillippa Lewis Moss said she has developed a proposed budget, "but it has not been reviewed by the financial team, so I can't release the information.

"Several changes are made to the proposed budget before it ever becomes public, so what I have before me now will be a mere shadow of what gets presented in a couple of weeks."

Rising fuel costs will be an issue, she predicted.
"What I can (say) is that we've budgeted a 40 percent fuel increase," she said.

The new fiscal year starts July 1.

The transit system is operating with a $1.4 million budget this fiscal year, with the bulk of that, or $1 million, for personnel. Other expenses include $230,000 for fuel and $110,000 for repairs and maintenance.

HAT spent $1.3 million in fiscal 2011, which ran from July 1, 2010, to June 30, 2011, with $948,392 for personnel, $180,864 for fuel and $107,617 for repairs and maintenance, according to budget information Moss provided.

The system receives 41 percent of its funding from the Federal Transit Administration; 10 percent, Georgia Department of Human Services; 8 percent, passenger fares; and 21 percent each, Gainesville and Hall County governments.

According to its website, HAT has operated since 1983 and has three main operations: the fixed-route Red Rabbit; Mobility Plus, a service for disabled riders; and Dial-A-Ride, a curbside van service for riders who call ahead.

The system's programs have come under scrutiny by the Hall County Board of Commissioners, especially given tight financial times.

Facing an $11.5 million budget shortfall last year, commissioners made deep cuts in many county services, including $120,000 to the Gainesville-Hall County Community Service Center, which runs Hall Area Transit.

On March 5, the commission agreed to apply for a federal grant that covers much of the county's Dial-A-Ride transit program, but signaled it would revisit the grant and other transit services funding at their next meeting March 22.

Some commissioners said they were concerned about the "strings attached" to federal grants, requiring monetary matches from local governments.

"I'm afraid this is just a never-ending cycle, which causes us to (be bound) in future relationships down the road," Commissioner Craig Lutz said.

The Dial-A-Ride vans are available to the general population but largely provide services to nondriving residents going to the senior life center, seeking mental health services or other essential help, Moss told the commission.

The Red Rabbit buses, with their broad red-and-white stripes, are likely more recognizable to the public, as they travel routes in and around Gainesville each day.

And ridership is on the rise, jumping to 215,433 in 2011 from 142,353 in 2010, or by 51 percent.

"I think the economy is the biggest contributor to the increase," Moss said. "People have elected to give up cars in exchange for transit. In some cases ... people haven't had any other choice but to give up their cars to ride transit."

With fuel prices rising, "we expect to see another spike," she added.

The system averaged 17,952 riders per month last year. It had 16,825 riders in January.

"It's typical (for ridership) to be a little bit lower in the winter months," Moss said. "We start the peak around May and then June, July and August are our biggest ridership months."