Community

Barry Barker would rather not talk about some buses in TARC’s fleet.

They’re buses like the one Metro Councilman Tom Owen rode into downtown early Tuesday morning. That bus stalled and had to be banged, slammed and shoved by the driver to get running again, Owen said.

Why wouldn’t Barker, the director of Louisville’s public transit authority, not want to discuss malfunctioning TARC buses? Because he said the agency is struggling to find  the resources to address the problem.

The level of service currently provided by TARC is unsustainable unless more funding is provided, Barker told the Metro Council transportation committee on Tuesday.

“We’ve been able to stay afloat, but I’m concerned,” he said.

And the level of service TARC is  providing isn’t enough for what the city needs, Barker said.

About 47,000 trips are taken on TARC vehicles every week and the transit authority operates about 220 buses on 41 routes in five counties in the Metro area, Barker said.

More than 60 TARC buses are beyond the recommended 12-year, 650,000 miles life cycle, Barker said, and need to be replaced.

A grant TARC received for 26 new “clean-diesel” buses won’t be redeemed until next fiscal year “because we don’t have the local money to pay for it,” Barker said.

These ills, compounded with the demands to boost service on some overcrowded bus routes, maintain the current fleet of buses and create routes to employment hubs, has led Barker to lobby for other means of funding, such as a local option sales tax, which failed to win approval in the 2015 Kentucky General Assembly.

He also stressed the need for passage of a federal highway bill now under consideration in Congress.

Earlier this year, TARC announced cuts in service to four of the city’s busiest routes. Those cuts were in response to funding cuts in the federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program.

He said TARC customers may face more cuts if the federal transportation bill runs out, which it’s set to do at the end of the month if Congress fails to approve an extension or a new plan.

“If the feds do the long-term legislation, whether we agree with the funding levels or not, we can at least plan,” he said.

If the federal transportation bill runs out, the impact won’t immediately hit Louisville—buses will keep running as planned, Barker said. But replacing buses would likely be an issue. And grants and other funds from federal sources will soon halt.

“Dependent upon how long that goes on for can become very problematic,” he said.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced a six-year transportation bill on Tuesday, but a vote on the bill has yet to be held.

Barker said budgeting for transit service is a “year by year effort.”

A continuous “mainstay” funding source, Barker said, is the .2 percent local occupational tax the transit authority receives, which provides about $45 million annually. TARC also receives about $1.2 million from Indiana and shares in the $1.17 million Kentucky allocates for public transportation statewide.

The current base fare of $1.75 accounts for roughly 17 percent of the transit authority’s total operating cost. Barker said raising this rate is not an option on the table, as it would hurt “the folks that count on us the most,” Barker said.

He said if Louisville residents and city leaders want to see a more robust public transportation system, then the issue of transit needs to be thrust into the forefront of conversations about funding, budgets and priority.

“Certainly, Louisville could use some improvements in the transit system,” he said. “The question is: How do you pay for them?”

 

Jacob Ryan is a reporter for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.