Feds award city of St. George CARES Act funding for mass transportation needs

File photo of SunTran bus, St. George, Utah, Feb. 13, 2018 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — As part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, public transit systems across the county will soon receive economic support to help remain operational amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

United States Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has announced a “historic” award of $25 billion in transit infrastructure grants available across the country, including to St. George SunTran, which is scheduled to receive approximately $3.3 million in funding from an aggregate pot available to St. George of $4.7 million.

The balance in CARES funding will be open for St. George to submit additional grant applications in the future.

This funding mechanism does not have an expiration date but will have to be used for public transit unless Congress changes established restrictions that prevent any leftover grant funds to be used for other municipal needs.

Cameron Cutler, director of public works for the city of St. George, said the current allotment earmarked for SunTran will pay for a myriad of expenditures.

Cutler said $2.9 million will go for operations – salaries, fuel and office supplies – with $360,000 used on capital investments, including $50,000 on bus camera replacements, $70,000 for two paratransit van replacements, $40,000 for Americans with Disabilities Act “up fit” for two vans and $200,000 for an electric bus charging station.

The electric bus charging station, city officials say, will help meet the needs of St. George’s public transit mix in the future.

In this 2019 file photo, Cameron Cutler, city of St. George chief engineer, presents the master plan for potential traffic signal locations, St. George, Utah, Oct. 9, 2019 | Photo by David Louis, St. George News

“When we go to replace a bus, which lasts about eight to nine years, we look at replacing them with an electric bus,” Cutler said. “This grant does not cover the cost of electric buses, but it will cover the charging station.”

Acceptance of this round of CARES Act grant funding for St. George is contingent on approval at Thursday’s City Council meeting.

The agreement between the city and the Federal Transit Authority has been tentatively placed on the consent agenda, which normally is passed as a block of requests that do not require City Council discussions.

The SunTran award from CARES funding comes on the heels of a total award of $10 billion to commercial and general aviation airports across the country, including more than 30 airports in Utah.

St. George Regional Airport has qualified to receive approximately a $4.3 million piece of the pie.

The funds are available for airport capital expenditures, airport operating expenses – including payroll and utilities – and airport debt payments.

CARES Act funding is paid 100% by a federal government guarantee for grants awarded under fiscal year 2020 appropriations. Under normal circumstances, grant recipients would contribute a matching percentage of project costs. Under the CARES Act, the local share is eliminated.

“When you think of it from basic services of airport, transit and wherever the Congress put funds toward … the attempt is to keep services going during the economic impact of COVID-19,” Cutler said.

Although SunTran has experienced about a 30% reduction in ridership, the fact that the system is small and efficient means each route receives enough passengers to prevent cutbacks in service.

“Ironically we were right in the middle of increasing service to Washington City when COVID hit,” Cutler said, “but we proceeded to start it up, and it’s still running. Actually we had to hire a few employees to cover that service.”

Normal employee attrition from retirements and COVID at-risk “part-time” work staff resignations has caused public works to lose a few employees, but there have been no layoffs and no negative effects to the department, which oversees public transit, airport, city vehicle operations and streets (road services, traffic lights, signage and drainage), as well as city engineering and development.

“We are plenty busy,” Cutler said.

As a point of reference, Cutler added, the city experienced a “slight” decrease in applications in engineering and development when COVID-19 hit but then held steady and now is growing again.

“We are still a couple of weeks behind in accommodating what developers are asking for, but we are busy,” he said.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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