A classification change resulting from the 2010 Census could cut funding for Loudoun-based Virginia Regional Transit and state lawmakers are scrambling to find a solution before the Sept. 30 deadline.
Last month, almost two years after the 2010 Census data was released, Virginia Regional Transit representatives were informed that a reclassification of Loudoun to an urban cluster makes it unlikely to receive 5311 funding—federal funding for public transportation in rural areas. If nothing can be done, VRT would lose funding for its Loudoun operations at the end of September.
“The Census is now using ‘hoppers’ and ‘jumps’ that link urban communities together; it takes Rt. 7 and links everything out to Leesburg and Purcellville to Fairfax,” Mark McGregor, VRT’s CEO said this week. “The Census shows us being all urban in Loudoun County. That puts us in the same cup of soup as Fairfax or Arlington or any of the Washington, DC, metro area.”
McGregor said he does not believe anyone is specifically “attacking” Loudoun or trying to remove VRT’s funding, but that the county has been caught in a technical change that could have significant impacts. Without the federal funding the onus would fall to localities to fund the public transportation services.
“I don’t think any community has experienced this the way we are experiencing it right now,” McGregor said. “Either Loudoun County and Leesburg are going to get a $5 million bill they didn’t anticipate or service will end Oct. 1.”
VRT served 550,000 riders in Loudoun last year. “All those people would be pushed back out on the roads,” he said.
McGregor said, at this point, he actually has “more questions than I have answers” about the reality of the situation and what can happen moving forward—especially given the abrupt and last-minute way VRT was informed. He said he has not even received a formal notice on the issue, only that his office was informed in a meeting that its standard application for federal funding would “not likely be considered” because of the Census change.
If the change stands, VRT could be eligible in the future for funding under the Urbanized Area Formula Program, but with the late notification there are concerns for a one-year funding gap.
The first public recognition of the problem came last week when County Administrator Tim Hemstreet told members of the Board of Supervisors’ Finance, Government Services and Operations meeting about the issue.
“Should that occur that is a significant change and significant impact to them and the county. A majority of service in Loudoun County would no longer be permitted,” Hemstreet told supervisors. The county gets $2 million to $4 million in service from VRT currently. “The board would have to decide if want to fully offset that or change the nature of the service and if so how you want to handle that.”
When the Town of Leesburg first learned of the potential loss of VRT service Jan. 9, Mayor Kristen Umstattd sent an email to Del. Randy Minchew (R-10) and Sen. Mark Herring (D-33) seeking their help. Umstattd made clear the impact the loss would have to Leesburg.
“This would mean that the Leesburg bus/trolley/SafeTRide would lose all intergovernmental funding totaling $543,000 on an annual basis,” Umstattd wrote. “In Leesburg, this is the equivalent of about one penny on Leesburg's real estate tax rate or a little over 5 [percent] of our real property tax revenues.”
Tuesday, Unstattd said VRT is a “very necessary service” for the people of Leesburg and Loudoun.
“We had been worried about it losing gas tax funds [for VRT] once the county has to start committing those dollars to the Silver Line,” Umstattd said of the Leesburg Town Council. “There is no Metro bus service in the county affiliated with the Metro line. Metro would not be taking over if VRT was not there.”
She said she believes it is the responsibility of the elected officials “make sure there is public transportation available,” noting that there are many people who use VRT’s service to commute to work that cannot afford a car and might be without options if the bus service were discontinued.
The Loudoun representatives in Richmond took immediate action after hearing from Umstattd. Just before the deadline for 2013 legislation passed Friday, Minchew finalized an amendment to the proposed budget bill that would allow VRT to receive some state funds so it could continue operations as normal. Herring and Sen. Dick Black (R-13) submitted a companion budget amendment on the Senate side.
“As we’re trying to sort this out and trying to figure out what other avenues of funding are available, my thought was to put in budget amendment to put in some stop-gap funding, an interim replacement for this [federal] funding,” Minchew said. If the budget amendment were accepted, the funding would go through June 2014, when the biennial budget ends. “We can’t program expenses beyond June 2014.”
In his amendment, Minchew has asked for $4 million to “hold the entity harmless” for that time. Minchew noted that funding appropriations through the budget can be decreased from any amendment request, but cannot be increased, so he asked for the maximum amount possible.
Deciding to ask for money from the budget earmarked for VRT made complete sense, Minchew said, given the widespread impacts if the service was to disappear.
“It would be devastating for all the great services that VRT provides in Leesburg and eastern Loudoun,” he said, “especially things like the 7-7-7 service which helps to get people to jobs.” He also noted that he believes the federal reclassification is “misplaced” because of Loudoun’s large rural areas, and the fact that the VRT service serves riders from rural areas of Clarke, Frederick and Warren counties.
Minchew said while VRT continues to work on the administrative side—McGregor was scheduled to meet with the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation Tuesday after this paper’s deadline—it was important to work from the legislative angle as well.
“We couldn’t wait,” he said, acknowledging that if an administrative remedy works the state money would not be needed. “If I didn’t get anything done this year, the funding would be gone. I think it is perfectly consistent to seek two different remedies. Each day that goes by we get closer to that September funding deadline.”
Minchew gave praise to the Town of Leesburg for its efforts to address the issue. Umstattd immediately “deployed” Town Attorney Jeanette Irby to Richmond to help draft the budget amendment, Minchew said. And the two walked the amendment for filing only minutes before the 5 p.m. deadline Friday, Jan. 11.
There is no date yet for when Minchew’s amendment will be heard by the House of Delegates’ Appropriations Committee, but he said he is hopeful it will gain support. Loudoun representatives Del. Joe T. May (R-33) and Del. Tag Greason (R-32) both serve on the committee, along with Del. Beverly Sherwood (R-29), from Frederick County, whose constituents use VRT service in Loudoun.