After a lengthy, sometimes heated, discussion Monday, the Idaho Falls City Council decided to withhold funding for the Targhee Regional Public Transportation Authority until a Federal Transit Administration audit of the bus service is resolved.
With a $140,000 annual contribution, Idaho Falls is the largest source of TRPTA’s local funding. If TRPTA were to dissolve, more than 1,000 greater Idaho Falls residents could lose their means for transportation.
Whether the agency will survive recent funding issues is in question.
Led by Councilwoman Michelle Ziel-Dingman, the council questioned TRPTA’s funding sustainability. It also questioned whether the agency has the authority to operate beyond Bonneville County.
The City Council invited TRPTA general manager Amanda Ely to present a sustainability plan on Monday, after the council decided at a Feb. 11 meeting to withhold TRPTA funding until it had a better understanding of the authority’s plans.
The majority of TRPTA’s funding comes from federal grants for rural public transport and Medicaid support for the non-emergency medical rides it provides for the sick and disabled.
Ely said she expects Medicaid funding to increase to 125 percent of normal this year, which would allow the agency to break even. However, only operational costs would be covered — depreciation expenses, such as the cost of replacing an aging bus, are not covered.
Last year, the authority received less than $181,500 from local sources. Idaho Falls gave $140,000, Bonneville County gave $35,000, Ucon gave $1,500 and Ammon gave $1,000. In the 2017 transit plan it presented to the Council, the agency expected to get $336,000.
A 2018 FTA audit found that the TRPTA had lost nearly $300,000 from its operating cost last year and was behind on many of its short-term funding goals.
A Feb. 21 letter from the FTA said “TRPTA management has inadequate technical capacity required to operate within the bounds of applicable FTA rules and regulations.”
According to the letter, FTA ordered TRPTA to submit a corrective action plan within 14 days or the federal authority would suspend all of TRPTA’s payment requests.
The corrective action plan was due March 7. Ely said she is still working on the plan and it has not been submitted to the FTA.
“As long as this is in effect and the sanctions are threatening, we don’t give them any more money,” said Councilman Jim Francis.
Idaho Falls is the largest contributor and benefactor of TRPTA’s services. In addition to Idaho Falls residents using the those services, TRPTA buses carry residents of surrounding cities to Idaho Falls, where they work, shop or attend appointments.
A memo from the Idaho Falls city attorney’s office pointed out that state law requires the creation of a transportation authority be approved by the voters of the county in which it operates. While Bonneville County residents voted in favor of creating TRPTA in 1994, surrounding counties, such as Madison and Bingham, have not. (TRPTA also services Driggs and Victor in Teton County.)
Although many of the TRPTA Board’s seats are currently vacant, Ziel-Dingman, pointed out that counties that have not voted for a regional transportation authority are represented on the board.
“I think that the TRPTA Board needs to be restructured,” Ziel-Dingman said. “I think that TRPTA needs to go through the legal process to extend its services, if the residents of these counties outside of Bonneville County want to support it, I think that that’s a decision that still has to be made.”
After discussion, the council decided to withhold TRPTA funding until FTA sanctions are resolved.
If TRPTA loses its largest source of local funding, many greater Idaho Falls residents could lose their only public transportation option.
In 2018, TRPTA provided more than 61,000 rides through Idaho Falls and other cities on its routes. More than 80 percent of TRPTA riders from Bonneville County are Idaho Falls residents.
Ely said the authority services a little more than 1,000 regular riders in the Idaho Falls metropolitan area.
If TRPTA were to lose funding from Idaho Falls, it’s not clear what, if any, public transportation system could replace it.
“Many cities don’t provide public transportation,” Ziel-Dingman said. “I’m certainly committed to finding another public transportation method that would replace TRPTA, if it were to dissolve. I think TRPTA absolutely provides a valuable service and impacts the lives of a few thousand residents and that means something to me.”
Reporter Brennen Kauffman contributed to this article.