Transit authority fears funding cuts

Contact Reporterwwright@vagazette.com

— Changes in state funding could affect the Williamsburg Area Transit Authority's budget in the upcoming fiscal year.

WATA's directors said they are concerned about reduced funding from the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation during their March 15 meeting. The drop could stunt the authority's ability to develop new routes and transportation centers.

The state may also be reconsidering how it funds projects by creating a system that grades proposals, similar to the Smart Scale program.

WATA's funding is split between three groups: The federal government provides 80 percent, while state and local funding covers the remaining 20 percent.

Recent WATA projects used close to 4 percent local funds and the other 16 percent came from the state.

If state funding drops, the authority would need to use more of its local funding to fill the gap.

"That 4 percent may increase," said Steven Hennessee, a board member and Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation transit projects manager.

The state department answers to the Commonwealth Transportation Board, a 17-member group appointed by the governor to oversee transportation projects around the state.

Hennessee said WATA heard an initial warning about the funding shortage from the transportation board, although it is still too early to tell how much might be cut.

"I would not even feel comfortable putting percentages on it right now," he said.

Authority staff said the state is also considering a change in which projects receive funding.

"There will be a push to make the projects more competitive," said Josh Moore, transit authority deputy executive director.

Using a new program, the state will begin to treat transit projects like they would those for roads or other transportation projects, Moore said.

Moore compared the program to Smart Scale, where localities request funding for specific projects that are then prioritized by a regional board. The program (formerly called House Bill 2, now called Smart Scale), grants about $177 million to Peninsula projects from 2017 to 2022.

"It'd be a statewide transit program," Hennessee said.

The more local money organizations plan to use, the more attractive their applications would look, he said.

Porter said paying attention to what could happen on the state level is important given the implications of what it could mean for the organization.

"It might mean we could have to cut budgets, or cut routes," said Bill Porter, interim executive director of the authority. "We ought to be keeping an eye on what's going on there."

Wright can be reached by phone at 757-345-2343.

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