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Two Plus Two Equals More

A pair of articulated Mountain Line buses drive through the rain on the central spine of Northern Arizona University.

Changing 2% to 3% may seem small, but it has encompassed almost five years of work so far for officials with the Mountain Line bus system who have been pushing Congress to increase the federal funding received by high achieving public transit agencies in small communities.

Last week, all that work came one step closer to paying off when Rep. Greg Stanton (D-Ariz.) and Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) introduced a bill that increased the money set aside for the Small Transit Intensive Communities (STIC) program, which gives money to transit agencies that punch above their weight.

“We’re working to improve access to great public transportation options across Arizona,” Stanton said in a statement. “This bill would increase the funding available to support already successful transit systems in Flagstaff and Casa Grande and help them reach even more residents, students and businesses.”

Erika Mazza, CEO of the Northern Arizona Intergovernmental Public Transportation Authority, which runs Mountain Line, said the change has been a goal of theirs for years and would allow them to expand and improve service.

STIC money can be particularly important for transit agencies like Mountain Line, Mazza said, because normally, federal transit money is not distributed based on service. Instead, the federal government gives out money based on population and density.

This can mean that more populous cities get far more funding than smaller cities, even if the transit agency in the smaller city is more efficient and carries more riders.

Case in point, the difference between Flagstaff and Avondale in the middle of the Phoenix metro area.

Because of Avondale’s larger population, in FY 2017, the city received over $3 million from the federal government for its public transit agency. But that agency only had 290,366 boardings that year.

Comparatively, based on its population, Flagstaff received just over a third of the federal money given to Avondale in FY 2017 despite having over 2 million boardings in the same period.

STIC helps level that gap, and provides communities with fewer than 200,000 residents additional funding if their transit agencies achieve ridership numbers similar to those in middle-sized cities.

In FY 2017, for example, Flagstaff received $955,000 in STIC funding, almost doubling the transit money from the federal government.

Mazza said Mountain Line has consistently achieved five of the six areas for which more funding is given, and in doing so, is among only 11 other small cities across the country with that level of success.

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In FY 2019, Flagstaff received $1.3 million from STIC. Mazza said the change they are pushing for -- to have 3% of federal transit money set aside for STIC instead of 2% -- could increase that to $2 million.

“That really does make a difference because it’s not money we're then asking the community for from a sales tax perspective. It is money that can be immediately turned back to the community,” Mazza said.

In the past, STIC money has provided Mountain Line the opportunity to invest in capital projects to improve service and become more efficient.

For example, some of that money funded software to better map how people are using the bus and where people are coming and going. STIC money also helped them to increase frequency on route 7, something that took effect just this week, and increase security on buses by installing cameras and audio systems.

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“And we wouldn’t have spent that kind of money if we didn’t have availability like this,” Mazza said, adding that the change would also help keep the STIP program relevant.

Each year, more and more transit agencies in smaller cities get to a point in which they get some STIP money, which means less to go around.

This year, that number rose to 145 cities competing for funding. When the program began, there were only about 70 or 80 communities across the country vying for that money, so there was a lot more to go around, Mazza said.

Bob Holmes, who lobbies on behalf of Flagstaff and Coconino County and has been pushing for the change, said while Stanton’s bill is a step forward, it is more of a symbol than something they are hoping passes.

The introduction of the bill shows there is lots of support for the measure from localities and politicians on both sides of the aisle, Holmes said.

The real goal is to get the change added to the Service Transportation Reauthorization Bill. That bill provides money for transportation infrastructure nationally and is passed every five to seven years, Holmes said.

If the change is added to that measure, it is likely to pass, but Holmes said if it isn’t added, they may have to wait another five to seven years to before they have another chance at it.

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Adrian Skabelund can be reached at the office at askabelund@azdailysun.com, by phone at (928) 556-2261 or on Twitter @AdrianSkabelund.

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