The Commonwealth Office of Transit Authority thanks Delegate Gregorio Kilili Sablan (Ind-Saipan) for recommending federal funds for the CNMI that includes $306,000 under the U.S. Federal Transit Administration for fiscal year 2015.
COTA administrator Thomas Camacho said the additional funding would “surely reinstate” the funding level of $1.1 million that would be “applied toward the operating expenses” of the Saipan Fixed-Flex Route and Paratransit Systems including Rota and Tinian, which are scheduled to go online by 2015.
Camacho noted that COTA, as the grant recipient under FTA, received lower funding in fiscal years 2013 and 2014.
According to him, COTA received a reduced award from $1.1 million in fiscal year 2012 Urbanized Area Formula Grant to $816,058 in fiscal year 2013 Rural Formula Apportionment.
“Unfortunately, COTA’s fiscal year 2014 rural grant had another decrease to $812,306,” Camacho said.
Camacho said funding level was reduced due to the U.S. 2010 Census results, which affected FTA programs.
“The CNMI population dropped from 69,221 in 2000 to 53,883 in 2010. This represented a decrease of 22.2 percent from the 2000 Census population,” he said.
Camacho said that, according to the 2010 Census and FTA formula grants, the 2010 Census Urbanized Areas descriptions resulted in four areas that were urbanized based on the 2000 Census. Going under the 50,000 threshold qualified an area as urbanized in 2010 and included Saipan and other states.
“However, Virgin Islands, Guam, and the CNMI agreed to have Census measure urbanization within their territories but asked that, regardless of the results, all urban areas be classified as ‘urban cluster,’ which are considered to be under the FTA,” Camacho said.
The results showed no urbanized areas identified in the CNMI and an urban area with a 139,000 population in Guam will be treated as “rural” for purposes of FTA’s programs.
Results also included an urban area with an over 50,000 population in Virgin Islands that was “ignored” by FTA as the statute provides for the entire U.S. Virgin Islands to be treated as an urbanized area for purposes of FTA programs.
“As a result, the CNMI is considered ‘rural’ for purposes of FTA programs, although the CNMI’s entire population is over 53,000,” Camacho said.
According to him, FTA does not currently have the statutory authority to grant administrative exceptions to allow operating assistance where it is not eligible under the current law.
“Congress took action to grandfather areas that were impacted by Census in 1990 and 2000, to phase in the adverse impacts over several years,” Camacho said. “Congress could do that again. The rules regarding operating assistance eligibility could be changed independent of Census considerations by reauthorization which Congress is currently debating.”
Camacho noted that Congress should consider and give federal grantor agencies the authority to waive the 20 percent federal matching requirement to consolidate all FTA grants.
“We need the capability and flexibility to manage and operate our public transit system, especially when our Mariana Islands are so isolated from the mainland U.S. and separated by water,” Camacho said.
Camacho said he is seeking Sablan’s and his office’s help in seeking a similar special treatment as the U.S Virgin Islands for the CNMI for purposes of the FTA program.
“While COTA ‘understands’ treating the CNMI as ‘urban cluster’ for purposes of federal funding that extended some federal programs beneficial to the CNMI, it is unfortunate that the ‘urban cluster’ negatively impacted public transportation funding for the CNMI,” he said.
As an example, Camacho said that if the CNMI had been designated as an “urban area” instead of an “urban cluster,” the CNMI could have availed and qualified under the 2013 and 2014 FTA Ferry Boat million dollar program.
“Unfortunately, only urbanized areas or section 5307 recipients are qualified to apply to fund their existing or new ferry system,” he said.