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Valley Transit rolls forward with $3.5 million in CARES funds

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A $3.5 million federal grant is intended to help public transportation operation Valley Transit navigate through the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration on Thursday announced the grant, as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

The money will be used to support public transportation throughout the service area, starting with offsetting the lost revenue and unplanned expenses that have resulted from the pandemic, Valley Transit General Manager Angie Peters said this morning.

Peters said the funding can only be used for COVID-related expenses, including costs that normally would have been paid for by revenue generated from transit fares and sales tax.

But with ridership down 80% and sales taxes down from retailers that were shuttered for at least two months, a portion of the funds will help with operational expenses, as well as the agency’s investment in masks, hand sanitizer, disinfectants and barriers to make the buses safer.

How far the funds will go depends on the longevity of the public health crisis, Peters said. Sales tax is a major component of the agency’s budget.

Based on the annual numbers, she figures the CARES funding could run out by mid-2021.

Valley Transit had tried to scale up some of its offerings with additional evening service, but that recently dropped back, she said. Another service reduction is expected next month, though details are not yet finalized.

The transit system currently operates regular frequency service weekdays and Saturdays. Job Access has not been impacted.

A historic $25 billion in grant funding is expected to help sustain the nation’s public transportation systems, U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine L Chao said in Thursday’s announcement.

The nation’s public transportation systems face extraordinary challenges, Federal Transit Administration Acting Administrator K. Jane Williams said in a prepared statement.

“These federal funds will support operating assistance to transit agencies of all sizes providing essential travel and supporting transit workers across the country who are unable to work because of the public health emergency.”

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Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 509-526-8321.

Vicki covers business and economic development, including tourism, the Port of Walla Walla and the Strictly Business column, as well as features. She has been reporting for the Union-Bulletin since late 2001.