The Targhee Regional Public Transportation Authority is again in danger of losing city support.
The Idaho Falls City Council voted Monday to withhold the city’s next payment to TRPTA unless the agency presents it with improvements to its current plan. The city had planned to give TRPTA $140,000 in quarterly payments this year but the agency would have to present changes to its business plan to the council by April to receive the next installment. The decision jeopardizes the largest source of local funding for the only government-owned public transportation in eastern Idaho.
“I do not feel good about putting taxpayer dollars into this particular model. I think we need to explore other models because this one seems to have been ailing for a while now,” Mayor Rebecca Casper said.
This isn’t the first time Idaho Falls leadership has had issues with TRPTA. In November 2013, the Council gave TRPTA an ultimatum to make big changes or forgo its next payment. The agency acquiesced and the city made its contribution as scheduled.
TRPTA’s executive committee chairman Michael O’Bleness spoke to the Council during its Monday work session about an audit that had just been completed of the agency. The audit found that the public transportation system had lost nearly $300,000 from its operating cost last year and was behind on many of its short-term funding goals.
Some of the cash problems were out of TRPTA’s control, such as a federal reimbursement it had to make for a previous overpayment it had been given and the federal government shutdown which froze its funding at the beginning of the year.
“I do think that TRPTA has a path forward, but I don’t think it has a path forward with (the current) transit plan,” O’Bleness said.
Local funding has proven the biggest issue with TRPTA. In the 2017 transit plan it presented to the Council, the agency expected to get $336,000 from local sources last year, but ended up receiving less than $200,000. Agency leaders approached Rexburg and other cities earlier in the year seeking a funding increase that did not come through.
The federal government shutdown’s effects also forced the agency to reach out to cities for personnel help. Letters requesting that cities help take over the agency’s legal, vehicle procurement and human resources departments were sent to several of the contributing cities in the region. All three related departments in the Idaho Falls city government rejected the possibility, citing potential legal issues from being involved and staff who would have to be hired to do the work.
The majority of TRPTA’s funding comes from federal grants for public transport in rural areas and Medicaid support for the non-emergency medical rides it provides for the sick and disabled in the region.
“This is a very vulnerable part of our population. But we do see buses driving around all the time without people in them,” Councilman Jim Freeman said.
In 2018, TRPTA provided more than 61,000 rides through Idaho Falls and other cities on its routes.
Twenty percent of the program’s funding comes from the counties and cities it services, with Idaho Falls being the largest contributor. The city also receives the most benefits from the program — more than 80 percent of riders from Bonneville County are Idaho Falls residents and the agency recently announced a new series of fixed bus routes through the city.
TRPTA general manager Amanda Ely and other administrators could not be reached for comment, but O’Bleness said the agency had already begun working on an updated business plan and it should be prepared to meet with the council over the next few weeks.