WASHINGTON – President Bush could remove millions of residents from Annapolis with the stroke of a pen — and possibly save the town’s transit system in the process.
A bill awaiting Bush’s signature would clarify a federal government classification that lumped Annapolis transit in with Baltimore in 2000, boosting the capital city’s population beyond the point where it can receive small-city transit funding.
The Transit Operating Flexibility Act, which was passed unanimously by both the House and Senate, will allow Annapolis and 51 other small cities around the nation to continue to use federal money for operating, despite new population growth.
“By definition, we went over our population by millions,” said Danielle Matland, director of transportation for Annapolis. “The result of that would be a drastic cut in our budget.”
Under current federal transit funding guidelines, regions with a population of more than 200,000 people cannot use federal grants to pay for operating expenses like drivers’ salaries and office staffing.
According to the 2000 Census, Annapolis has a population of 35,838. But Matland said the law covering transit funding looks at service areas, and for the government’s purposes Annapolis’ service area included metropolitan Baltimore. And the regions millions of residents.
The change was to take effect in federal fiscal year 2003, which begins Tuesday. It could have cost Annapolis the $600,000 it receives for operations, almost half of its $1.2 million transit budget.
“A half-million dollars is nothing to Baltimore or New York, but to us it’s almost everything,” Matland said.
The city’s 24-bus system has eight routes and serves just over 3,000 riders each day, a fraction of the 348 routes and over 500,000 riders that travel on Metrobus in metropolitan Washington.
This bill will not increase funding to Annapolis, just restore it to the level that had been budgeted for fiscal 2003. But the bill also only covers fiscal 2003, meaning the issue will have to be revisited in a year.
Matland said that the 200,000 Population Coalition, the driving force behind the legislation, is seeking to fix the guidelines for future years.
She said her department would still use capital funds to purchase four new buses for next year and create one new route. But it still suffers from a lack of drivers and competitive salaries. The current starting pay for drivers is $8 or $9 an hour, “barely more than McDonald’s,” she said.
“We don’t have those economies of scale where we can pay our drivers $45,000,” she said.
Matland stressed that Annapolis is more than just historic homes and a waterfront.
“We have a lot of people who live in subsidized housing and we need to serve them, too,” she said.