Public transportation in Caldwell County and across the region is getting a boost through the federal COVID-19 relief package.

The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet has been awarded nearly $22.9 million through the Federal Transit Administration. The money, part of the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, will be distributed to 17 public transit agencies across Kentucky, including Pennyrile Allied Community Services (PACS).

“It should help us better serve the public in this time of need,” said Harold Monroe, executive director of the Hopkinsville-based agency.

PACS will receive $2.87 million for its public transportation program in Caldwell, Lyon, Trigg, Livingston, Crittenden, Christian, Hopkins, Muhlenberg and Todd counties. Only Blue Grass Community Action Partnership, which serves 11 central Kentucky counties, received more grant money.

“Public transit agencies and their employees are a lifeline to thousands of Kentuckians who depend on them for daily transportation,” Gov. Andy Beshear said in a news release announcing the grant. “For those Kentuckians, the bus service is how they get to doctor appointments, the grocery and other essential locations.”

The funding will sustain the transit agencies by covering some operational expenses, including administrative leave for employees forced to self-isolate because of exposure to people infected with COVID-19.

Though PACS Transportation is publicly funded, a minimal charge to users of the transit service helps offset some of the fixed costs like salaries. But over the last couple of months during the state of emergency under the cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic, ridership has shrunk considerably while expenses to the agency continue. And in some cases, when the service is utilized, the cost to operate is now even greater.

“When the governor shut down the world, people didn’t need to be taken to the doctor, the beauty shop or the barber,” Monroe said. “We are seeing some increases (in ridership) as they gradually open things back up, but we are nowhere near what we were at one time.”

Monroe said state guidelines for PACS Medicaid Transportation until further notice limit occupancy to one person per trip. That lowers efficiency for a program operating on a thin margin.

Prior to the coronavirus related mandate, the executive director said you might see four or five riders on a van to a dialysis clinic. For now, even spouses who may both have the same appointment on the Medicaid ride have to be transported separately.

“That’s really increased a lot of expense to us,” Monroe said.

Additionally, each bus or van must be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected after each use, and employee time across the public transportation agencies in the state has been lost to illness. The number of riders on city transit in Hopkinsville and Madisonville has been reduced and the intercity bus route to Nashville, Tennessee, has been cut out until travel restrictions are eased.

The new funding will sustain the transit agencies by covering some operational expenses, including administrative leave for employees forced to self-isolate because of exposure to people infected with COVID-19. Other eligible expenses include purchases of fuel and procurement of personal protective equipment such as masks, gloves, disinfectant wipes, disinfection services and protective barriers between drivers and passengers.

The outbreak and associated shutdown have hit PACS in other ways.

Monroe said the number of daily meals served to seniors and others has nearly doubled from before the pandemic. The weekday lunches are either being delivered to homes or distributed for pick-up at senior centers. With the facilities closed, congregate meals have not been served in two months.

“It’s really a struggle,” Monroe said of stretching the budget to cover all needs, a problem worsened during the pandemic.

The struggle was already ongoing and growing across all services to seniors, too. With almost 10,000 baby boomers turning 65 every day, even when funding is not cut, the shortfalls grow as the need for services increases.