Should Mass Transit Exist Here?
Recently, Escambia County commissioners proposed increasing the gasoline tax by 5 cents to fund and improve mass transit. This proposal incurred the wrath of a number of citizens and received little support. In the face of this overwhelmingly negative reaction, the county administrator pulled the issue from the Feb. 15 commission meeting agenda.
What is the future of mass transit in Escambia County? How does it affect you, and what can you do?
Mass transit service in Pensacola began in 1884 with the Pensacola Street Car Co. Citizens rode on mule-drawn cars. Next came electric trolleys. By 1918, Pensacola had 45 trolley cars and 21 miles of track. Gulf Power ran trolleys until January of 1932, when they replaced trolleys with buses.
Gulf Power sold the transit operation in 1945, but transit in Pensacola remained in private hands until 1968. By then declining ridership led the owner, American Transit Corp., to announce it would discontinue service. Throughout the United States the automobile was forcing transit companies out of business.
To keep some service, the City of Pensacola agreed to subsidize operating costs. In 1969, the city entered into an agreement with ATC to manage and operate the transit system. In 1971, the county agreed to help. The City Council and Board of County Commissioners entered into an interlocal agreement shifting responsibility to the county, with costs shared by both.
The city and county have maintained this agreement ever since.
Until last summer, that is, when the city gave notice it could no longer afford to share in the cost of operating ECAT, and would not renew the agreement. Negotiations ensued, and the city agreed to one final year, provided the county identify a source of dedicated funding by April of this year.
Much of the cost of ECAT is funded with federal and state grants, plus fares. This year, these three sources of revenue total $4.9 million. Federal and state assistance, however, requires a local contribution. This year's local contribution is $2.7 million. The city kicks in $900,000 and the county $1.8 million. Spread over Escambia County's population of 300,000, this amounts to $9 per person.
Every transit property in the United States is funded in this way. The local contribution can come from dedicated funds or from the general fund.
Escambia County's contribution comes from the general fund. General fund money comes from property taxes, paid only by property owners. The city has given notice its contribution will end in September.
Rob Mahan is director of finance for Escambia County Area Transit.
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