Athens Transit will receive a federal grant of more than $9 million to fund operations and capital expenses for the coming year. The aid is part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed by Congress in March. Of the $9 million, Athens Transit will receive $1.3 million for capital expenses, such as new buses, equipment or buildings, and $7.7 million to cover all operational costs, such as salaries and fuel, from Jan. 20, 2020 to June 30, 2021.
“This is a huge win for transit and the ACC community as a whole,” Athens Transit Director Butch McDuffie told the Athens Politics Nerd website (athenspoliticsnerd.com).
With so much uncertainty surrounding the ACC budget and potential loss of fare revenue this year, the grant is welcome relief for McDuffie, who has been aggressively pursuing such funding options to keep his agency running.
Normally, these kinds of federal grants require the use of matching funds, but this one won’t cost the local government a penny. Even better, money that had been held for use as matching funds can now be freed up for other projects, according to McDuffie. If the coming recession turns out to be relatively mild, more of this grant money could be redirected into capital projects, such as a new bus transfer station on the Westside.
Local buses have been fare-free during the coronavirus pandemic in an effort to protect drivers and passengers from each other, with boarding through rear doors only. Even if fare collection resumes, Girtz’s proposed 2021 budget calls for Athens Transit to be fare-free on nights and weekends starting in January.
Relief is on the way for Athens artists, as well. Commissioners Tim Denson and Jerry NeSmith proposed adding $85,000 to a fund administered through the Athens Cultural Affairs Commission to finance local art projects. The rest of the commission has agreed, bringing the fund to $100,000 total. The ACAC was planning to award 20 artists $750 each, but, with the additional funding, they will now be able to support 50 artists with awards of $2,000. This extra money will come from the Resiliency Package, which is a fund of $3 million earmarked for economic support and recovery. The Athens Cultural Affairs Commission will decide how to distribute these funds “in the most equitable and expedient manner” sometime this month.
At its May 5 voting meeting, the commission also extended the ban on “shareable dockless mobility devices,” also known as electric scooters, until Dec. 4. Commissioner Allison Wright, chairwoman of the Legislative Review Committee, said that her committee was focusing on “more relevant” matters, like crafting a more robust anti-discrimination ordinance, and needed to delay a decision on the scooter issue.
The LRC will be reviewing a report from the Athens in Motion Commission about electric scooters as they make their decision in the coming months. The report states that these scooters are “especially appropriate for ‘last mile’ travel” to and from bus stops. However, it also gives a list of their potential drawbacks, including a greater risk of crashes than bicycles.
The commission originally implemented the ban in December of 2018 to prevent scooters from blocking sidewalks and causing traffic problems. This is the second time the ban has been extended.
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