County talks future of public transportation system

(Photo via Google).

Ahead of Cortland County’s request for proposal for a transportation operator, questions have emerged regarding where the county’s public transportation system is headed.

At last week’s Agriculture, Planning, and Environmental committee meeting, county planning director Trisha Jesset said the request for proposal is still very much in flux, as legal verbiage continues to be fine tuned in conjunction with the county attorney.

“There are a couple issues,” Jesset said of the service. “Finding drivers for these routes is the number one issue. Everybody can be on board to provide service for certain areas, for certain routes at certain times — and even extended hours — but if you don’t have the drivers, then you physically can’t do it.”

Jesset said that along with the county’s mobility manager Melissa Potter, she has had conversations with other countries. Their take? Finding an appropriate driving staff is a statewide issue.

Jesset and Potter said they have also had conversations with other service providers in the county, including Cortland County Community Action Program (CAPCO).

“They provide transportation services for individuals, mostly Medicaid recipients,” Jesset said. “They are hoping to extend their services beyond that.”

One of the biggest takeaways of their linkup with other agencies, Jesset said, is that most stakeholders think public transportation is the county’s “number one challenge.”

“Right now there are several organizations in our area who have their own transportation system that they want to improve, but they don’t know how to and serve their own people,” she said. “The state has their priorities too. We are working on figuring out solutions where we can help each other.”

The priority right now, Jesset said, is revamping the current system.

“It’s taking a lot of time, but it is getting there,” she said. The county for instance, she said, is looking at a new logo and color scheme for its public transportation.

Grants such as the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) 5311 grant could help the county. Recent NYSDOT funding through the 5311 grant included $43 million for capital and operating assistance to support public transportation services in rural areas with populations of less than 50,000.

These funds, made available to the state through the Federal Transit Administration and administered by NYSDOT are provided through the Formula Grants for Rural Areas program (Section 5311), according to the program’s website. The program can provide up to 80 percent of capital and 50 percent of operating project-related costs, with the remaining funds provided by New York state and project sponsors. Gov Grants Help, a website meant to provide municipalities with grant assistance, estimates the deadline for the 5311 grant application could be in early October.

The application for the grant is currently not out yet.

“The state has been behind on releasing grant applications,” Jesset said. “We receive funding from the state to do everything; operations, purchasing vehicles, (and) mobility management.”

Typically, the grant application is out every July, Jesset said. 

“The state is aware our grant application is going to look very different this year,” she added.

Part of the different funding requests this year would include new computer software.

“We want to be able to connect together all of the different services that we offer,” Potter said.

The county also wants to keep track of who is using the service with new software. As of now, Jesset said, personnel count the money received in bus fares and track how many people used the service that day.

“We cannot improve a system we don’t have accurate data on,” Jesset said. “We cannot analyze our system, where we need to be and where we need to go without knowing where the users are.”

Another option on the table is to have a local share in the county budget, providing further funding for public transportation.

“What would that money go toward?,” Legislative Minority Leader Beau Harbin (D-LD-2) said. “It would be hard because the very first question people would have is how much is the transport being used.”

Legislators mentioned this is an ongoing conversation and will continue to be revisited.