Hall Area Transit could find itself in a serious funding hole in a few years, after the 2020 census likely shows Hall County’s population topping 200,000.
As a public transportation agency now serving a “small urban area,” nearly half of Hall Area Transit’s operating expenses are covered by the Federal Transit Administration.
As Hall climbs above 200,000 people, it gets redefined as a “large urban area” and “would no longer be eligible for that 50 percent match,” said Community Service Director Phillippa Lewis Moss, who oversees Hall Area Transit.
“That’s significant. … That is something we need to start getting prepared for,” she said at a recent area roads planning meeting. “The sooner we come up with solutions, the sooner we come up with strategies to bridge the gap.
“We definitely don’t want to wait until the day before.”
Hall Area Transit provides a fixed-route bus service, Gainesville Connection, which circulates mostly around Gainesville but ventures to some parts outside the city, such as Oakwood.
It also offers Dial-A-Ride, a countywide curbside transportation service that requires reservations at least 48 hours before pickup.
According to the latest budget report filed with FTA, Hall Area Transit had nearly $1.4 million in operating expenses in 2016, with $547,844 from the federal government. Some $120,000 in fares made up 8.7 percent of revenues.
Workers who struggle to make ends meet are the ones who rely on public transit the most. According to a survey by Hall Area Transit reported in 2017, of about 12,500 bus riders each month, 64 percent of them are making less than $15,000 a year.
Area officials believe Hall’s population already has eclipsed 200,000, with the numbers expected to continue surging. In South Hall alone, hundreds of homes have been approved so far this year.
If the federal funding can’t be replaced, “there won’t be any Gainesville Connection,” Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan said. “The city can’t afford to carry the whole load, not at this point.”
Talking with Hall County officials is one way to address the situation, he said.
“We’ve got some time to see what we can work out together,” Dunagan said. “I think for a progressive city, we need some kind of (public) transportation, and where we go with it, I don’t know.”
Moss did say, without many details, that “there is some funding that may allow small to large urban communities transition for a couple of years.”
Otherwise, several other funding options are available, including higher fares, advertising at bus shelters and on benches, public-private partnerships and a transportation special purpose local option sales tax, she said.