By Joe Pinchot
Herald Staff Writer
MERCER COUNTY —
Mercer County Regional Council of Governments approved a budget Wednesday for Mercer County Community Transit, but COG officials expect they’ll be back in September with revisions.
When it comes to transit’s sister organization, Shenango Valley Shuttle Service, COG is planning to expand service.
The transit budget is in flux because COG has a fare hike pending with PennDOT, ridership is down and the state legislature is working on a budget and a transportation funding plan.
The fare hike, if approved, would not only raise more money but would change the funding scheme for state reimbursements from being based on zones to one based on actual mileage, said COG Executive Director Thomas R. Tulip. It usually takes a year to get a handle on how such a change will affect COG’s revenues, he said.
Almost all of the transit rides are subsidized by the states through programs that serve the elderly, the disabled and people with medical issues. The fare hike would boost what some riders pay, but not by much, Tulip said.
Tulip said he expects the fare hike will be approved in time for the fiscal year’s beginning on July 1, but officials are not sure if PennDOT will grant the full 9-percent hike requested or a smaller increase.
The state cut funding for transportation under its senior and medical transportation programs last year, and transit’s ridership has taken a dip, by about 7,000 rides. COG expects to end this year with a $110,000 deficit because of those factors, more than the $76,000 that was budgeted this time last year.
“We have controlled our expenses but our revenues have dropped,” Tulip said.
Year-end expenses are expected to be $1,620,250 – $162,762 less than budgeted – while revenues are expected to come in at $1,509,000, $197,630 less than budgeted.
The COG board approved a balanced budget of $1,710,450 for 2013-14.
Shuttle’s finances are steady in the $1,044,310 budget approved Wednesday, which includes small assessment hikes to member communities and a bump in state revenues.
Shuttle will add a new route that runs to West Middlesex, downtown Sharon and the Shenango Valley Mall in Hermitage, picking up the Route 18 corridor and stopping in LindenPointe technical business park.
Two LindenPointe tenants, Butler County Community College and Sharon Regional Health System, supported serving LindenPointe because the route will improve access for students of BC3, Tulip said.
Tulip added that the connection to West Middlesex is more speculative, to gauge whether there will be support from the borough.
Tulip said he wants to give the route, which will make the loop faster than the existing routes that wind through Sharon, Sharpsville, Hermitage, Wheatland and Farrell, a full year to see if it will work out, although it could be cut sooner if no one rides.
The budget includes money to hire an additional driver and clerk for the new route.
Shuttle provides about 100,000 one-way rides a year.
West Middlesex officials will be asked to sponsor the route by paying a small annual assessment.