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September 21, 2013

Towns asked to pay more for shuttle

SHENANGO VALLEY — Thomas R. Tulip has put a bug in the ear of Shenango Valley officials about an impending funding shortfall for Shenango Valley Shuttle Service.

It remains to be seen whether that bug will free up any more taxpayer money for the fixed-route bus service.

Officials from Sharon, Sharpsville, Hermitage, Farrell and Wheatland actually stepped up to the plate in 2011 and agreed to set annual increases of 5 percent in their assessments. But, as of 2014, it won’t be enough, said Tulip, executive director of Mercer County Regional Council of Governments, which runs the bus service.

For years, PennDOT required an annual local match of $25,000. The municipalities easily covered that, Tulip said.

However, PennDOT changed the local match requirements in 2007 to 15 percent of its annual operating subsidy. The shuttle is budgeted to receive $676,111 this year, making 15 percent $101,417.

COG has been nowhere near reaching that level – budgeting $50,829 in local funds for this fiscal year – but PennDOT has accepted that shortfall in the short term as long as there has been a plan to increase the local match. The municipalities’ annual 5-percent assessment hikes were part of COG’s plan.

The problem arises from the fact that COG has used the shuttle’s reserves to the tune of about $17,500 a year as a local match. By the end of next year, the reserve fund will be depleted, Tulip told the COG board Wednesday.

“We have a little over a year to plan for additional years,” he said.

COG officials met with municipal leaders recently and Tulip said he will ask Mercer County commissioners to give him an ear.

His presentation Wednesday appeared to be a plea for COG as much as for the shuttle.

“Shenango Valley Shuttle Service is the lifeblood of COG,” he said, noting the COG office was built with federal funds made available through the shuttle.

COG takes an administrative fee from the programs it administers that can afford it. By far, the shuttle pays the biggest administrative fee, $105,000, which is 28 percent of COG’s operating budget.

“It’s going to be trouble if we can’t leverage that full grant amount,” Tulip said.

The plea comes at a time when the shuttle has expanded service by creating an express route to open service to West Middlesex, LindenPointe and Kohl’s, and is the only shuttle bus that goes to Walmart.

The service started July 1 and has been “a really good addition to our system,” said Mike Nashtock, transit operations manager.

Students of Butler County Community College have started riding the express to class and the Comfort Inn has asked for schedules, an apparent belief that its customers would use the bus service.

West Middlesex Mayor David George said he is encouraging borough residents to take the bus.

“I tell people, ‘Get out and ride it or we’re going to lose it,’ ” George said. “I really appreciate you taking the time to put it down there.”

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