The Idaho Falls area’s bus service is shutting down.
The Targhee Regional Public Transportation Authority board held an emergency meeting Monday morning and voted to dissolve. The closure of the local bus service, which has existed since 1994 and has several lines in Idaho Falls and surrounding towns, comes amid financial problems at the agency, including losing out on federal payments during last winter’s government shutdown and Federal Transit Administration spending restrictions imposed after a series of audit failures.
“The Federal Transit Administration notified the Targhee Regional Public Transportation Authority in November 2018 of its concern regarding the transit agency’s lack of financial controls,” an FTA spokesman said in an email Tuesday. “In February 2019, FTA placed TRPTA on drawdown restrictions, prohibiting it from receiving capital expenditure funds, after a Financial Management Report recommended corrective actions to address the situation and restore access to federal funds. FTA is coordinating with the Idaho Transportation Department to review options, including re-assigning federal funds to another eligible agency to provide transit service to Idaho Falls area residents.”
Those restrictions led the city of Idaho Falls, TRPTA’s biggest local funder, to withhold its funding.
FTA audited TRPTA in 2018, sending the agency a copy of the audit in December and expressing concern about numerous accounting and bookkeeping procedures and errors. According to a letter FTA Regional Administrator Linda Gehrke sent in February, FTA had found similar problems in 2013 and 2016 audits.
Gehrke wrote that FTA was putting restrictions on TRPTA’s major equipment and infrastructure purchases, and requiring FTA approval for some payments because it wasn’t satisfied with TRPTA’s response and said the agency had missed a deadline to reply with a corrective action plan.
“Further, FTA will not be obligating any new grant agreements to TRPTA until such time that TRPTA can demonstrate adequate technical capacity and financial management capabilities in a correction action plan complete with reasonable implementation dates,” Gehrke wrote.
The City Council decided in March to withhold its payment to TRPTA until the audit issues were resolved. TRPTA board Chairman Michael O’Bleness sent Gehrke a response a couple of days later with a corrective action plan promising to tighten accounting procedures.
“Management and the staff have and continue to work diligently to make corrections and improvements to TRPTA’s separation of duties and organizational structure, fixed asset management as well as reporting and calculation errors and any other issues as outlined in the findings,” he wrote.
However, FTA didn’t lift the sanction. A timeline provided to the Post Register outlines more back and forth over the rest of March and April, culminating with FTA expressing concern with TRPTA’s “financial sustainability and management’s responsibilities” and demanding and receiving repayment of $7,715 for a double billing last week.
“I’d hate for the theory to be the city withheld payments was the problem,” said Councilman John Radford. “I don’t think that’s the case, and we would never have withheld those payments if things were going as they should be. My hope, personally, is we find a transition to a system that will work for the population that really needs the service.”
Patients face service loss
As well as running fixed bus lines, TRPTA provides rides to some people with disabilities or who are medically fragile. The timeline for when services will end isn’t fixed but the dissolution is expected to take about 90 days at this point.
“Those discussions (with other agencies) will really be what drives that time frame that it takes, from the board of directors’ standpoint,” O’Bleness said. “We think to shut it down in an orderly process, to give people plenty of time to rebook the rides on other services from the Medicaid standpoint and from cities and counties to have an opportunity to do some planning.”
City Councilwoman Michelle Ziel-Dingman, who is the city’s representative on the TRPTA board, said the board would meet sometime in the near future to plan out the details.
“We want to assure that the services that are currently being provided are potentially maintained by a different provider and that clients/riders and employees have as much notice (as possible), as well as our stakeholders and partners,” she said.
TRPTA serves about 1,000 people a month and provides more than 23,000 rides over the course of a year, O’Bleness said.
“It’s an important service for those people that need it,” he said.
O’Bleness said financial difficulties, including losing payments during the shutdown, contributed to the decision to close.
“We don’t have enough resources coming in to operate the public transportation in the way that we need to operate it,” he said. “The last two years we added additional staff to make sure we were providing high-quality service, and we had hoped that we would receive additional support from our local partners, and unfortunately that didn’t come through.”
While the amount of debt and costs to dissolve the agency still need to be nailed down, Ziel-Dingman said it is likely in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. A document provided to board members Monday says TRPTA is behind on its payments to the Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho, and Ziel-Dingman said at Monday’s City Council work session TRPTA has been using a credit line to help support operations, including taking on $8,500 in debt to cover its most recent payroll. She said TRPTA will sell its buses and facilities, and 90 percent of building costs and 85 percent of the cost of any vehicles worth $5,000 or more will go to the FTA, according to a document given to board members.
“Very little money from the liquidation will actually return to TRPTA’s pockets to help pay down the debt, unfortunately,” Ziel-Dingman said.
City faces decision
The City Council now needs to decide whether to make a remaining $35,000 quarterly payment to help TRPTA wind down. The Council discussed it Monday but hasn’t decided yet.
“In sum, I sensed an openness to the request,” Mayor Rebecca Casper wrote in an email to O’Bleness. “However, in the end, most of the council members expressed a desire to know more before committing taxpayer dollars.”
Casper wrote the Council would want to know if the FTA would match the city’s funds; how the money would be spent, and assurance it would be used to pay for services and not to pay down TRPTA’s debt; a statement of TRPTA’s assets and liabilities; and a plan for dissolution, including a timeline. Casper told the Post Register the Council would look to balance fiscal prudence with ensuring people who need medical rides are taken care of.
Bonneville County is the agency’s second-biggest local funder, to the tune of about $35,000 a year.
“For an agency that’s over 20 years old, these kinds of exceptions on the audit shouldn’t happen, and if it was a new agency you could understand it, but then you get three of them,” said Commissioner David Radford, the county’s TRPTA board member. “There’s, I think, some trust issues between the federal government and our local public transportation agency.”
As well as financial problems, David Radford said there have been employee morale issues — employees get retirement benefits but no health insurance. He also said many of the routes are underused, and competition from ride-sharing services such as Uber has led to fewer passengers.
“I just think that there’s got to be more of a local public reason to support it, and one of the things I’ve noticed in the county, as a representative, is that a lot of the routes that go out into the rural areas of the county aren’t, in my opinion, overly utilized,” he said. “And so you have to stop and ask yourself, why is the county basically 25 percent of the local match in some years if it’s not being utilized by a lot of the residents in the county?”
Casper plans to put together a working group to discuss how to move forward. She said some people who rely on TRPTA for medical rides might be able to use Medicaid dollars on rides with private services. Taking care of them, she said, would be a priority.
“There’s no doubt in anybody’s mind that TRPTA provided an important service, and as we try to figure out a path forward that’s the primary, number one concern in my mind,” she said.
Ziel-Dingman, who also heads the Bonneville Metropolitan Planning Organization policy board, said she wants to make sure the services TRPTA provide continue in some form.
“I am supportive of providing these services, and providing financial and planning assistance to provide these services, to the residents who need them,” she said. “And I look forward to the next phase of this conversation.”