Now that the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority has been repaid the money it lent to a levy campaign committee, it can turn to more serious matters -- such as how to convince financially comfortable, automobile-driving Sylvania Township and Perrysburg residents that they have a vested interest in remaining a part of the public bus service.
For years, some officials in the Toledo suburbs have wanted to opt out of TARTA because they don't believe they get enough return on the millions of dollars in property tax revenue their residents contribute annually to the system. Recently, they found a friend in state Rep. Randy Gardner.
The Bowling Green Republican inserted a provision in the recently passed state budget bill that opens a two-year window during which communities can ask voters whether they want to be part of TARTA. Previously, any TARTA member could block another member's attempt to leave the authority.
The narrowly worded amendment was a direct attack on the bus system that each year serves more than 3 million riders, many of whom have no other way to get to work, school, the doctor's office, or the grocery store. Remarkably, Gov. John Kasich, a strong proponent of regional cooperation and sharing of resources, did not use his line-item veto to strike this example of narrow-minded provincialism before signing the $55.8 billion two-year budget.
The argument that some communities pay more for the bus service than they receive is accurate. That's the way any shared service works. Not everyone can get back more than they put in. But that doesn't mean they don't get good value.
TARTA has made great strides in recent years to improve service and efficiency. It has eliminated routes with few riders, reduced assignments of bus drivers to fixed routes, and applied technology to schedule vehicles more efficiently. It also has cut spending on overtime, advertising, marketing, printing, and utilities. Recent grants to purchase new vehicles, install a solar array, and upgrade lighting will reduce costs even more.
More than 61,000 people a year use TARTA to get to and from Sylvania Township. Some 70,000 people ride the bus to and from Perrysburg every year. When Owens-Illinois moved its headquarters to Perrysburg, TARTA expanded bus service for its workers. Perrysburg also benefits when shoppers ride TARTA buses to and from Levis Commons.
James Gee, the transit authority's general manager, says adult ridership to and from Perrysburg has increased in recent years, while Sylvania Township has remained steady. Demand for the Toledo Area Regional Paratransit Service for disabled riders has grown in both communities And there almost certainly will be more riders in future years for all services, as gasoline prices approach $4 a gallon and the economy continues to rebound from the recent recession.
According to Mr. Gee, a recent survey found that people who use public transportation save, on average, $10,000 a year. The money they save is spent, benefitting the broader economy.
Some argue that Perrysburg and Sylvania Township could run their own bus services more efficiently, or that they should be able to contract with TARTA just for the services they need, such as Call-A-Ride and TARPS. They ignore the fact that northwest Ohio is becoming more interconnected, not less. It makes no sense for increasingly interdependent communities each to establish its own bus service with different standards, fares, and rules.
Regional public transportation is a lifeline for the elderly, the disabled, and people who do not or cannot drive. To be effective, it requires cooperation and commitment. And it requires a vision that is broader than one that only asks: What's in it for me, today.
The service TARTA provides will become more important over time. Those who clamor to get off the bus now will howl to be let on in the future, if they don't manage to run the vital bus service off a cliff.