CARTS eyes post-pandemic recovery as riders slowly return

·5 min read

Jun. 25—Even as its annual ridership plummeted through COVID-19, the Cullman Area Rural Transportation System (CARTS) kept the buses running, providing federally subsidized reduced-rate fares that connect rural residents — many with special needs — to vital services they couldn't access any other way.

Though CARTS took in fewer fares through the pandemic, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) provided additional subsidies to the service's typical annual allotment of appropriated federal funds, which reach the Cullman County Commission each year through the Alabama Department of Transportation. To comply with state mandates and accommodate many of its at-risk riders, the service adjusted its boarding and ridership policies to enact distancing guidelines and limit the number of people on each bus during the pandemic.

At its regular meeting on Thursday, the commission agreed, as it customarily does, to apply for the upcoming year's rural transportation grant and to provide the required matching local funds to keep the CARTS wheels turning (and the federal dollars flowing). But in a signal that the pandemic's extraordinary funding measures are tapering, CARTS will enter the 2023 fiscal year without the supplemental operating funds provided by the CARES Act.

"This will be the first year that we've not had CARES Act money to figure in our budget [in a while], so it hurts," said CARTS director Joyce Echols. "But," she added, "we knew it was going to go away at some point."

At a public hearing preceding the commission's vote, no one spoke in opposition to the agency's renewed request for next year's federal funding. But Echols came prepared just in case, sharing a professionally-produced video featuring testimonials from CARTS riders who rely on the service for dialysis and other medical visits, trips to the grocery store, and similar necessities.

Ridership with CARTS dipped dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic, with annual numbers falling beneath half of the agency's pre-pandemic levels. Echols said the service provided approximately 30,000 trips for local passengers last year, compared with approximately 80,000 annual trips in the years immediately preceding the pandemic. Echols told the commission she expects ridership numbers to gradually recover through the remainder of this year and into 2023.

In other business at it regular meeting, the commission:

* Approved a measure to include eligible staff employed at the Cullman County Public Library in the county-administered payroll system, in order to afford them participation in retirement benefits through the Retirement Systems of Alabama.

* Recognized and congratulated county road department employee Phillip Batemon, who is retiring after 18 years of service.

* Accepted $365,142 in grant funds for Stony Lonesome OHV Park through the Federal Highway Administration's Recreational Trails Program (RTP). The RTP money will be used to fund bids on the installation of two bridges as well as other improvements at the park; the county will meet the grant's matching-funds obligation through the contribution of in-kind labor.

Approved

* the purchase of a Freightliner M2-106 grapple truck for the road department in the amount of $231,367, to be used for vegetation removal along county roadsides

* Approved a $142,504.50 bid award to Ameriseal of Ohio, Inc. for surface maintenance at the Cullman Regional Airport taxiway.

* Approved the signing of an Alabama Department of Youth Services Agency grant agreement in the amount of $153,888 for fiscal year 2022-2023, with Cullman County administering that amount as the designated fiscal agent on behalf of Lauderdale County.

* Awarded

* a bid in the amount of $131,400 to Willoughby Roofing & Sheetmetal, Inc. for the re-roofing of the county office building located at 402 Arnold Street NE in Cullman.

* Awarded a bid in the amount of $56,568.50 to Terry Sligh Chevrolet for purchase of a 4x4 truck for the county water department.

* Awarded a bid in the amount of $56,555 to CTS Software for the purchase of operational software for CARTS, along with one year of software maintenance and support.

* Awarded a bid in the amount of $37,900 to Mitch Smith Chevrolet for a 2020-model SUV to be used by the Probate office. Though the commission facilitated the bid, the cost for the vehicle will be paid out of the Probate office's discretionary funds.

* Authorized Cullman Emergency Management Agency director Tim Sartin to apply to the Alabama Department of Public Health for a $25,000 grant, which would be used to fund the purchase of supplies and equipment — housed and maintained in Cullman County — for the State Mortuary Operations Response Team (SMORT).

* Approved the purchase of a BlueROV2 remotely operated vehicle (ROV) in the amount of $11,146, using grant funding supplied by the Cullman County Community Development Commission. The coroner's office will fund shipping expenses for the vehicle, which will be used in rescue and recovery efforts, as well as for other underwater observation needs, at Smith Lake.

* Approved the previously-authorized $230,000 surplus sale of a water department milling machine, to reflect a higher valuation of the machine's final sale price.

* Ratified the county's payment of landfill charges, in the amount of $22,075.43, to cover the cost of the free garbage dump promotion for residential customers at the Cullman County Landfill during the month of May.

* Approved the posting of the speed limit on County Road 713 at 15 miles per hour.

* Approved a new prohibition on through traffic for commercial trucks along County Road 623, limiting traffic along the road only to passenger and local delivery vehicles.

* Ratified 2021 insolvencies, errors, and taxes in litigation, as well as uncollected taxes in litigation and insolvencies for previous years, as reported by the Cullman County Revenue Office.

* Approved the solicitation of fee-based advertising for third parties interested in purchasing ad space on signage posted at Smith Lake Park.

* Appointed

* associate commissioner Kerry Watson as the commission's representative on the legislative committee of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama.

* Approved the use of the parking lot at the county board of education building for a Nov. 12 car show to be hosted by Cullman Caring for Kids.

Benjamin Bullard can be reached by phone at 256-734-2131 ext. 234.