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Published: Thursday, 9/27/2012

Reassuring TARTA's critics

The Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority serves eight communities and carries more than 3 million riders a year. It is essential to this region's health and economic growth.

Unfortunately, TARTA looks a little shaky right now. One of its constituents, Perrysburg, dropped out this year, and the city stopped getting service last Saturday. Voters in another member community, Sylvania Township, will decide in November whether to do the same.

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TARTA has sued the Lucas County Board of Elections over wording in the referendum that would allow Sylvania Township to opt out. Whether or not TARTA prevails in the suit, its ability to retain and attract communities will depend far more on mutual agreements with satisfied partners than on lawsuits.

Others could follow Perrysburg, dismantling regional transit and eroding further efforts to cooperate and collaborate. It's a problem that deserves the attention of all Toledo-area leaders.

TARTA's critics, such as Perrysburg Mayor Nelson Evans, argue that the authority doesn't deliver sufficient service to justify its 2.5-mill tax.

To be sure, much of this carping is shortsighted and self-defeating, ignoring the regional nature of local economies. But TARTA must be willing to change how it does business to retain communities and add others. Oregon and Springfield Township, for example, are logical candidates for TARTA, but the authority must provide more than reliable service to win them over.

In attracting and retaining communities, TARTA could learn something from SMART, metro Detroit's tri-county bus system, otherwise known as the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation. SMART too is funded by local property taxes and serves affluent suburbs that worry about subsidizing more urban areas.

To meet those concerns, SMART provides so-called community credits to municipalities that receive less transit service from SMART than their millage payments could pay for. The credits pay for locally run transit, such as door-to-door van and small-bus service for seniors and people with disabilities. The community credit program is especially popular in outlying, rural communities.

TARTA's 17-member board of trustees -- nine from Toledo and one each from other members -- would have to approve any such program, said marketing director Steve Atkinson.

Credit programs should not be so rigid that they prevent the regional transit authority from planning and developing service in a rational and cost-effective way. Still, by ensuring some degree of equity, a community credit program could undercut the primary rationale for abandoning TARTA. That alone makes it worth a try.



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