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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Gainesville City Commission addresses proposed funding cuts to RTS; UF invites city ‘back to the table’

Nearly 30 UF students and residents spoke during public comment

<p>UF first-year interdisciplinary ecology PH.D. student, Natalia Uribe, 29, boards RTS bus No. 34 on Wednesday, September 2, 2020. Uribe said she thinks the buses are safe and that not many people are using them.</p>

UF first-year interdisciplinary ecology PH.D. student, Natalia Uribe, 29, boards RTS bus No. 34 on Wednesday, September 2, 2020. Uribe said she thinks the buses are safe and that not many people are using them.

The Gainesville City Commission held a special meeting Thursday addressing the reductions in funding for the Gainesville Regional Transit System proposed by UF during “good-faith talks” between the city and the university.

No official decisions have been made regarding the proposed changes, and UF and the city are “still at the table,” according to a letter from UF sent Thursday.

In the letter, addressed to Gainesville Mayor Harvey Ward, UF’s Vice President of Construction, Facilities and Auxiliary, Dave Kratzer, affirmed the university’s responsibility to supervise students’ fees and provide them with transparent data. 

The letter also asked the city to provide RTS data so both the university and the public can understand how RTS allocates funds. Kratzer cited data transparency as UF’s principal request. 

Andrew Persons, the chief operating officer of the City of Gainesville, shared RTS’ history and data at the meeting. The transit system is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

The city made UF’s proposal public in a media release Tuesday. The university has been considering plans to replace its traditional contract with RTS with an agreement to pay month-by-month, totaling a significantly smaller annual contribution, according to the city. The proposed changes come after cost concerns from the university, which stated the current system was “no longer substantiable.”

Over the past 25 years, RTS has served over 200 million passengers, traveled nearly 78 million miles and received $75.2 million in grant funding. The transit system works with external partners such as Alachua County, UF and Santa Fe College.

RTS started as a county entity in 1974 and became a city entity in 1981. Just over 100 buses provide service to a total of 39 routes throughout Gainesville. 

RTS has historically relied on funding from UF. In 1995, Florida created a requirement for all state universities to “identify future growth of campuses” by supporting and upgrading transportation beyond roadway widening projects. In the following years, UF entered a partnership with Gainesville, Alachua County and the Florida Department of Transportation and further expanded student-oriented routes and RTS as a whole, Persons said at the meeting.

As part of an interlocal agreement with RTS, UF students are given prepaid, unlimited access to all of its routes. This is paid for through a transportation fee of $9.44 per credit hour.

Of the $28.5 million listed in RTS revenue sources for the 2024 fiscal year, UF services contributed around $14 million, making up nearly half of the system’s funding.

The changes in funding proposed by UF would switch the contract to monthly payments of $570,000, or $6.8 million annually, according to the city. This reduces UF’s current contribution of $13.7 million by over 50%.

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“The impacts are myriad,” Persons said.

As a result of these proposed changes, 11 RTS routes would be eliminated, including all five on-campus routes. The number of service hours would be reduced by over 80,000 hours, resulting in many routes running less frequently. The reductions would also eliminate over 50 RTS positions and violate the RTS contact with the Amalgamated Transit Union.

Curtis Howard is one of 18 international vice presidents for the Amalgamated Transit Union, a labor union representing transit and allied workers in the United States and Canada. Howard works for the union in Washington D.C. and was present to support the Gainesville sector of ATU. 

“It's taking the country backward,” Howard said. “If it starts here, then it will hit Jacksonville, Tampa and the other big cities.” 

Howard emphasized his care for the workers under ATU, and said their families, individuals with disabilities and students would be disproportionately affected by the proposal. UF would face legal pushback if this proposal came to fruition, he added.

“There will be a coalition that comes after [UF’s administrative board] to unseat them,” he said, “And I will be the guy leading that charge.” 

Commissioner Reina Saco expressed concerns Thursday about how the change might affect funding eligibility for grants based on RTS ridership. This may further decrease the system’s budget, she said.

“It comes down to being more than 7 million that the city would lose,” Saco said. “There could be several millions more compounded on top of that, through loss of advertising, through loss of grant opportunities, through loss of routes for fair-paying customers.”

Bus services in and around UF’s main campus are necessary, especially with parking being limited, Saco said. The fee students are charged for transportation is “not a bad deal” and she’s seen many utilize it.

“Students are using it,” Saco said. “I’ve never seen the bus empty. I’ve seen it used by someone at all times.”

Nathaniel Pelton, a 20-year-old UF political science sophomore and current chair of the senate transportation caucus, lives off campus and represents his fellow commuting gators in student government.

Pelton has heard an outpouring of support for the city and RTS from his constituents. 

“I know students that have frequent usage of the buses, whether that's five to 10 times per day,” he said. “They've told me that this situation would be debilitating for them.” 

RTS is also an important resource for homeless residents, Commissioner Casey Willits said. As the city continues to work toward increasing access to affordable housing, it is imperative to have transportation available, he said. Route 25, which stops near GRACE Marketplace, is proposed for elimination through the changes.

“I have some real concerns about how our homeless neighbors get back into the city, where they get a lot of other services,” Willits said. “We need money to help even just that one route.”

Twenty-nine speakers expressed concerns about the changes during the meeting’s public comment session, including UF students, RTS workers and Gainesville residents.

Elizabeth Walker, a UF natural resource conservation senior, lifelong Gainesville resident and RTS user is concerned for the future of the city’s bus system. 

“I imagine the system basically collapsing,” she said. 

Walker recalls growing up with the RTS bus system, using it throughout her adolescence to get to school and appointments. She doubts UF’s administrative board has personal experience with the RTS system. 

“Try riding the bus,” she said, referring to UF President Ben Sasse. “I would like to see some of the administration take the bus... and see if they really think they're not that important.” 

Mayor Harvey Ward was impressed with the meeting’s turnout and the lack of division between the speakers. He admired the unity it showcased, which he thinks is important when facing this issue, he said.

“We’re all part of this community,” Ward said, “And it’s a whole lot easier to be a part of this community when you can get around.”

Contact Bailey Diem and Sydney Johnson at bdiem@alligator.org and sjohnson@alligator.org. Follow them on X at @BaileyDiem and @sydajohnson15.






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Bailey Diem

Bailey Diem is a first-year journalism major and a metro general assignment reporter for The Alligator. When not reporting, Bailey can be found playing guitar or getting lost in a book.


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