How transit agencies can best use new federal resources to combat COVID-19 impacts


InTransit Extra

Underscoring the central role transit plays in American life, Congress, President Trump and the Federal Transit Administration have announced three relief efforts to help agencies respond to and recover from COVID-19 impacts.

Listen to Susan Schruth and Sean Libberton share their perspective.

1. New federal grant funding

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) includes $25 billion in transit grants to help transit agencies prevent, prepare for and respond to the coronavirus.

According to the FTA’s apportionments announcement, funds have been allocated to urbanized area and rural area formula funds recipients. In regions where there are multiple transit providers, the designated recipient will need to provide the FTA with a split letter so that it can allocate funding accordingly.

Highlights

  • Both urban (5307) and rural (5311) formula funds can be used for operating and capital – and for COVID-19 expenses as well as items typically eligible under these programs.
  • FTA is prioritizing operating expenses.
  • A local match is not required.
  • Grants can be applied to reimburse crisis-related losses incurred on or after Jan. 20, 2020, including to pay furloughed employees and to cover operating expenses.
  • There is no lapse time for the funding; the money is available until used. However, FTA urges agencies to apply for funds as soon as possible, which could help demonstrate additional need for future aid packages.

Depending on projected local revenues and the unknown nature/lifespan of this crisis, agencies may wish to provide some level of local match to extend the grant’s benefits as far into the future as possible.

In limited cases, where an agency doesn’t have a dire operating need, federal funds could be applied to operations and local funds could be used for capital projects. In these cases where projects are fully funded without using federal resources, the FTA requirements would not apply, including NEPA and Buy America, which could accelerate delivery.

 

2. Exemptions from existing federal requirements

FTA has opened its Emergency Relief Docket, enabling transit agencies to submit to FTA requests to waive federal requirements, if those requirements would impede the agency’s efforts to respond to or mitigate COVID-19 impacts. Some provisions are not waivable and to date, FTA has noted in response to submitted requests that what the transit agency seeks relief from is not, in fact, an FTA requirement. During a webinar on Monday, April 6, FTA recommended that agencies first consult with their regional office, which may save some time if, in fact, no waiver is required.

Time-saving provisions that FTA has indicated need no waiver:

  • Agencies unable to conduct drug or alcohol training or testing due to COVID-19’s impacts can document these obstacles and test and train later.
  • Use of federal 5307, 5311, and CARES funds for operating and certain capital expenses associated with COVID-19 are exempt from the public review and comment process typically associated with metropolitan or statewide transportation improvement programs.
  • Sole-source procurement is permitted when a coronavirus-related emergency does not allow time for competitive solicitation, but documenting basis is important to provide contemporaneously with sole-source procurement.

 

3. New uses for existing federal funds

The FTA also has activated its Emergency Relief Program in states where the governor has declared an emergency. The program allows existing urbanized and rural formula funds to be used for capital and operating costs necessary to eliminate or lessen threats to public health and safety.

Systems serving metropolitan areas can seek up to 100% federal reimbursement of eligible expenses, which include:

  • System operating expenses
  • Protective equipment for employees
  • Cleaning/sanitizing rolling stock, equipment and facilities
  • Hand sanitizers for high-traffic areas

 

Action steps

To ensure transit agencies get the most from these resources, owners may want to consider taking the following proactive steps now:

1. Identify priorities. Agencies may want to determine the budget categories for which they want to apply.

2. Organize a recordkeeping system. Agencies can begin thinking about recordkeeping systems that will allow them to easily substantiate draws for these emergency operating expenses, such as furloughed employees, operating costs and other items acquired to deal with the crisis.

3. Submit an application. FTA has indicated that TrAMS is available for grant applications, which includes new coding for COVID-19 funding. Once drafted, agencies can work with their FTA Region immediately.

4. Plan a recovery strategy. At least one additional relief package could be on the way as Congress considers a significant infrastructure funding bill. It’s not too early to begin thinking about how much capital agencies will need to fully recover from this crisis.

5. Implement impactful projects. Agencies could consider accelerating small, customer-impacting capital programs now while ridership is low.

HNTB has vast experience in FTA funding programs and requirements and can help agencies optimize these critical resources and creatively respond to and recover from the crisis. Our National Transit and Rail Practice stands ready to support our transit clients in any way possible.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Susan Schruth
National Transit Practice Consultant
HNTB Corporation

Susan has been in the transit business over 32 years, 22 of which were with the Federal Transit Administration.  She held staff and senior leadership positions including being a regional administrator for 10 years, being lead on the Lower Manhattan Recovery effort, the Katrina response, the ARRA recovery program, and serving six years as Associate Administrator for Program Management – the largest office at FTA, responsible for program guidance, engineering, oversight, and safety.

Contact her at 571-388-6975 or sschruth@hntb.com.

Sean Libberton
National Transit Practice Consultant
HNTB Corporation

Sean has 27 years of experience serving the transit industry, including more than 20 years at the Federal Transit Administration, where he managed FTA’s Office of CIG Project Planning and Analysis and served as deputy associate administrator for the Office of Program Management.

Contact him at (703) 678-9979 or slibberton@hntb.com.