COLUMBIA — Public transportation in South Carolina's rural communities is receiving a $45 million boost in coronavirus aid, representing three times what those transit systems normally receive a year from the federal government.
That money, being distributed by the state Department of Transportation, is just part of the $120 million total coming to South Carolina for public transportation. But the rest is going directly to city transit systems across the state, DOT Director Christy Hall told her board on Thursday.
Her board unanimously agreed with the way she's doled out the pot of federal CARES Act money overseen by the DOT so far and gave her the go-ahead to distribute the rest as needed.
But the aid amounts did come as a surprise to at least one board member.
Commissioner Robbie Robbins of Summerville asked twice, just to be certain, that the funding is in addition to their annual allocations.
"Sounds like a pretty good deal," he concluded.
That reaction helps explains why DOT didn't disperse the entire $45 million at once, Hall said to Robbins' disbelief.
The agency distributed one-third, or $14.8 million, last month to South Carolina's 21 rural shuttle services in amounts based on the DOT's normal dispersal formula. But each one got more than their total federal funding for the entire 2019-20 fiscal year — between $23,000 and $182,000 more. Several that also operate urban bus systems received CARES Act funding directly from the Federal Transit Administration too.
The amounts sent by the DOT last month range from $213,180 to Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority, serving Richland and Lexington counties; to $1.2 million for the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Rural Transportation Management Authority, better known as the TriCounty Link. The five-county Lowcountry RTA, also called Palmetto Breeze, and the Allendale Scooter jointly received $1.57 million.
The Central Midlands RTA separately received $15.3 million as an urban transportation provider. The Palmetto Breeze also received $2.4 million directly through the CARES Act. The transportation system that got the most was the Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority (CARTA), at $16.9 million.
"It's a substantial amount of funding," Doug Frate, the DOT's director of intermodal transportation, told the board.
All of the money must reimburse actual expenses, but eligible uses are broad, to include paying staff and general operations, which helps replace local taxes they're not getting due to the economic shutdown, Hall said.
"We feel this is the right first step," she said about the $14.8 million, "and then we'll get an assessment of any additional needs they have."
The DOT is asking the transit systems to submit plans for the money.
"We recognize the immediate stopgap measure which this does," Hall said. "We have a huge oversight responsibility of these funds. Everybody wants to make sure these funds are spent appropriately."
The money for public transportation is just one piece of billions coming to South Carolina in coronavirus aid.
The Legislature will meet next month to determine how to distribute $1.9 billion from the CARES Act to reimburse state and local governments for COVID-19-related expenses. The state Department of Education received $216 million, the bulk of which will go to school districts statewide. And colleges in South Carolina are splitting $185 million, though much of it must go to students. Other assistance flowing from that law includes $63 million for child care and $14.5 million for law enforcement.