OmniRide faces $16 million budget shortfall in Prince William Co., fueled by rising transit costs

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An OmniRide bus. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)

OmniRide is facing a $16 million budget shortfall in Prince William County unless the county can afford a steep subsidy increase sought by the bus system for the budget year that begins July 1.

Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission (PRTC), the agency that oversees OmniRide, is subsidized in Prince William through a motor fuel tax, which is projected not to bring in nearly enough to cover the $33 million the transit agency is requesting from the county.

OmniRide will be forced to cut service if it can’t secure local funding to offset its rising costs, although it’s not immediately clear what those service cuts might look like.

Although members of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors broadly support the county’s need for robust bus service, during a meeting Tuesday they expressed skepticism they can afford to continue paying the steep subsidies sought by OmniRide.

“I think we can all agree on this dais that we do support transportation,” said Occoquan Supervisor Kenny Boddye, a Democrat. “We cannot be expected to fully fund PTRC requests year after year after year. We can’t. That’s unsustainable for us as a locality, and frankly it’s unfair to ask a single locality to do that.”

Rising costs fueled by inflation and the drying up of pandemic relief dollars has led the transit agency to need substantially more money than past budget cycles, according to Phil Parella, PTRC’s chief financial officer.

Inflation has driven up the cost of bus materials, insurance and wages. OmniRide is competing for the same workforce as other regional bus transit agencies, which is also driving up labor costs, as is a collective bargaining agreement reached last year after a strike by drivers.

Parella said OmniRide is not alone in its fiscal troubles. Other regional bus services in Fairfax County and Alexandria are also experiencing rising costs. And The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which oversees Metro, is facing a significant budget shortfall as a result of low ridership and the expiration of pandemic aid.

PTRC received $38 million in COVID recovery funds, which prevented mass layoffs. But that funding has dried up, helping to create the massive gap in the agency’s financial outlook.

County transportation staff argued that the board fully funding OmniRide’s requested subsidy would be unsustainable and create a massive spending deficit for the county in the coming years. Boddye said funding the subsidy in full was a “non-starter” for him.

But staff offered alternative solutions, including partly funding the transit agency’s request. Staff also urged the board to lobby the General Assembly to legislate a consistent stream of local dollars to fund mass transit. Woodbridge Supervisor Margaret Franklin, raising concerns about OmniRide’s funding request, also said the board must push lawmakers in Richmond to help fund local bus service.

Other staff suggestions included supporting additional electric vehicle fees to offset loss in motor fuels tax or create a new tax to help fund transit.

Gainesville Supervisor Bob Weir, a Republican who opposes increasing funding for the agency, argued OmniRide is growing unsustainably and spending too much. Brentsville Supervisor Tom Gordy, also a Republican, called OmniRide’s request an outlier in the county’s budget as among the only substantial cost increases for the county this cycle.

Board chair Deshundra Jefferson, a Democrat who frequently commutes via OmniRide into Washington, called on the agency to make cuts within its system, noting she is “concerned” with the steep price tag the county faces.

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