Greater Toledo needs an effective regional public transportation system to help area residents get to their jobs and other vital destinations. And it has one: A Brookings Institution study out today ranks the service offered by the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority an above-average 40th among transit agencies in the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas.
Despite this success, Republican lawmakers in Columbus want to make it easier for member communities to drop out of TARTA. Worse, they are including this shortsighted political gambit in the same budget bill that would reduce state aid to transit authorities across Ohio.
Regrettably, TARTA has given its detractors ammunition in the form of a new state audit that concludes the authority illegally lent nearly $67,000 to a transit tax campaign in 2007 and 2008. Hearteningly, TARTA officials acknowledge the need to recover the loan proceeds promptly to neutralize the issue.
"We need to pay it back as quickly as possible," TARTA General Manager James Gee told The Blade's editorial board. "We realize it's the right thing, and we're going to do it."
State Auditor Dave Yost concluded that the interest-free TARTA loans to the levy campaign committee were an illegal use of public money. Mr. Gee said he relied on an opinion from the Ohio Secretary of State's office that upheld the loans, and noted previous audits had not flagged them. The legal opinion, however, may have mistakenly considered TARTA a private corporation rather than a public agency.
No matter. A failure to resolve the loan dispute soon could invite a taxpayer lawsuit that might jeopardize TARTA's property tax levy. TARTA and its riders don't need that controversy.
More pernicious, though, is language in the state budget approved last week by the Ohio House of Representatives that could promote a fracturing of TARTA. The provision inserted by GOP lawmakers from Lucas and Wood counties would give TARTA member communities two years to seek voter authorization to secede from the transit agency, as Perrysburg and Rossford have threatened.
The measure would supersede current rules that allow any TARTA member to block another member community's effort to leave. It would encourage fragmentation of public transportation in the region, when Gov. John Kasich wants local governments to work together more closely and cost-effectively to provide basic services. Mr. Kasich has every reason to persuade the Senate to strip the anti-TARTA provision from the budget bill.
Proponents argue disingenuously that the measure also could encourage suburban communities to join TARTA. Nothing prevents these communities from doing so now, if they were so inclined.
And the new Brookings Institution study may give them new reason to consider signing up. TARTA trails only Dayton's transit authority (No. 27) among Ohio agencies in the Washington think tank's ratings. It ranks ahead of authorities in Cleveland (41st), Columbus (45th), Akron (58th), Cincinnati (71st), Detroit (73rd), and Youngstown (97th).
The study notes that TARTA can get the typical rider to 34 percent of jobs in the metro area within 90 minutes, compared with an average of 30 percent for transit authorities in the top 100 metro areas. TARTA's coverage is especially important to low-income workers and households, the report adds.
TARTA ranks a bit below the national average in overall coverage, defined as the percentage of working-age residents in the metro area who live near a transit stop. And TARTA riders have to wait five minutes longer than the national average for a bus at rush hour, the study says.
Such problems can be addressed with more-adequate funding and expanded service. Affordable, accessible, high-quality public transportation is even more important when gasoline costs $4 a gallon and the local unemployment rate remains high.
TARTA can help tackle these issues by getting its loan distraction out of the way as soon as it can. And if Columbus politicians aren't prepared to help TARTA with funding, they at least should avoid weakening the local transit agency further.