Springdale-based transit provider Ozark Regional Transit (ORT) has applied to receive $4.25 million in federal funding to pay for expenses related to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. ORT executive director Joel Gardner said he plans to spend the money wisely as opposed to expeditiously.
Gardner discussed the funding in a board meeting that ORT hosted virtually Thursday (April 23). Board members also discussed revisiting the 2020 budget that was approved before the health crisis. ORT’s next scheduled meeting is set for June 25.
ORT is expected to receive the federal funding through the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act that Congress and President Donald Trump approved in late March. The Federal Transit Administration, an agency of the U.S. Department of Transportation, will give a total of $25 billion to help public transportation systems respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gardner said the information he’s received on what the money could be spent on was not specific enough yet. Some of the expenses ORT faces as a result of the pandemic, included loss of paying ridership, cost related to cleaning supplies and cleaning labor, and charges associated with contract labor regarding COVID-19.
ORT also recently received $15,000 from the Arkansas Department of Transportation (ArDOT) and used the money for expenses related to COVID-19. Gardner said ORT has purchased isopropyl alcohol by the 55-gallon drum and 90-day use respirators for employees. The ArDOT money was distributed from car rental tax reserves.
Mindy Campbell, chief financial officer, said farebox revenue has declined because NorthWest Arkansas Community College is closed as a result of COVID-19, but ORT expects to recover this loss in revenue from the CARES Act funding. Campbell also said ORT had higher expenses for cleaning supplies in March as it works to keep its employees safe and healthy but ended the month with a positive balance of $8,000.
Ridership through February was up 8%, from the same period in 2019, said Kendall Luallen, system information director. Ridership declined 16% in March, from the same month in 2019. Through March, ridership has fallen 0.5%, compared to the same period in 2019.
Comparing the first two weeks of March to the first two weeks of April, ridership declined 51% from 999 passengers per day to 486 passengers per day. But Gardner said ORT has not had any service cuts.
Board member Peter Nierengarten, who represents Fayetteville, considered whether a funding reduction from the city would be something that ORT could be reimbursed for with the federal funding. Gardner said this would be one of the qualifying expenses. Another considered expense was a possible revenue loss as a result of not providing transit service for University of Arkansas football games. Nierengarten added that he would like to look at ORT’s budget for the remainder of the year.
In other business, Tim Conklin, transportation programs manager for the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission, provided an update on the 10-year regional transit plan. He said the plan was expected to be completed in April, and the city presentations for the plan have been postponed amid the pandemic. He hopes to host the presentations in late summer or early fall.
Alliance Transportation Group of Austin, Texas, was hired Dec. 21, 2018, to complete the Connect Northwest Arkansas plan. The $279,579 contract with the consultant will be put on pause to prevent charges while the presentations are delayed, Conklin said.
U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, and U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., officially announced the funding on Friday (April 21).
“The services Ozark Regional Transit provide are important to Arkansans and our community,” Womack said in a statement. “These emergency funds will support ORT’s operations during this crisis and help ensure the safety of both staff and riders. I thank the FTA for quickly awarding this funding to assist our local public transportation system.”
Added Boozman: “This funding will allow ORT to continue providing vital transportation services while safeguarding drivers and passengers.”
Gardner expressed his appreciation to the Arkansas delegation.
“From reduced ridership to the additional costs associated with modified operations and increased sanitization efforts, we are feeling the unprecedented impacts of this pandemic on all levels,” Gardner said in a statement. “These funds will help ORT bridge the losses we are currently experiencing and allow us to navigate the many challenges that still lie ahead.”