CAPITAL REGION — The Capital District Transportation Authority has adopted a $101 million annual budget that keeps existing services operating despite pandemic-related drops in ridership, starts construction on a new rapid-transit route, and lays out plans for getting more electric-powered buses in the future.
The authority gained a significant benefit — $52 million — from the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion COVID pandemic stimulus bill approved by Congress in early March. That money is covering the losses in customer revenue CDTA expects over the next three years, until things get closer to normal.
After a financially devastating year for public transit agencies across the country due to an abrupt drop in ridership, CDTA leaders believe there will be more stability this year — and an increase in ridership, as pandemic-related restrictions end and more people return to work. Federal bailout money has headed off any major cuts to personnel or services.
“The system itself is pretty much the same, just with fewer riders,” said CDTA CEO Carm Basile. “My optimistic side says it goes up this year, but not to where it was before the pandemic. That will take several years.”
The budget, which is up from a $97.7 million budget last year, took effect Thursday, since the mass transit agency runs on the same budget year as the state, with the fiscal year starting April 1. It was adopted by the CDTA board of directors at a virtual meeting on Wednesday.
The five-year capital budget totals $377 million and includes funding for development of a long-planned third bus rapid transit line, the Purple Line, between downtown Albany and the University at Albany/Crossgates Mall area. That will be the authority’s third rapid-transit route, following launch of the River Corridor line between Waterford/Troy and downtown Albany last year.
Basile said 2021 will be a year of construction for the new Western/Washington Avenues route, with utility work, curb cuts and sidewalk construction along the route and construction of a $9 million addition to the Albany bus garage to accommodate an additional 16, 60-foot articulated buses to service that route. A $61 million federal grant is covering 80 percent of the cost of developing the route, with local and state funds covering the rest.
“Right now, it’s looking like service launch in late 2022 or early 2023,” Basile said.
The new budget also includes funding to expand “flexible” service and the popular CDPHP Cycle! bike-rental program, and to launch an e-scooter rental program this spring. CDTA will also be receiving an additional four electric-powered buses in the fall, giving it a total of eight electric buses, with the possibility of buying more in the future. The authority put its first four electric buses on the road in January 2020, and continues to test them as part of a “pilot” program.
Basile said the authority could buy additional electric buses within the next few years, but is moving slowly on electrification because of the amount of charging infrastructure needed to support them, and the logistics of re-charging multiple buses. “We’re going year by year, but we want to move in that direction,” he said.
The federal stimulus money will also help cover about $2 million in unexpected expenses CDTA had last year, for installing plexiglass shields on buses, increasing the amount of bus cleaning, and buying personal protective equipment for employees. During the year, about 90 CDTA employs had cases of COVID — the worst period was this past winter. But now, more than half of the authority’s 725 employees have had at least one vaccination.
“COVID-19 has presented challenges on the organization unlike any other year,” said CDTA board Chairman Jayme Lahut of Niskayuna. “Thanks to an already solid financial foundation, we were able to craft a spending plan that will allow us to welcome customers back to our system while expanding new mobility options for the community. It also provides for appropriate resources to safeguard employees and customers during the next 12 months. This includes appropriate service levels, cleaning, and disinfecting systems.”
The CDTA provides bus and other transit service in Schenectady, Saratoga, Albany and Rensselaer counties.