By a razor-thin margin — 16 votes out of 520 cast — Spencer Township voters decided this week to withdraw their community from the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority. That shortsighted move will strand local riders, hurt employers, and undermine the region’s economy.
The action should galvanize area leaders, especially Toledo Mayor-elect D. Michael Collins and the Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments. The planning organization did not even take a position on the TARTA campaign in Spencer Township. Local elected officials and TMACOG must do more to promote regional efforts to collaborate, especially on transit.
Northwest Ohio will rise or fall together. In a regional economy, whether a community stays with TARTA — or a new member joins — affects every other municipality in the area.
TARTA’s Spencer Township service, funded by a 2.5-mill property tax, will end Dec. 31, TARTA marketing director Steve Atkinson said. Last year, TARTA reported more than 13,500 boardings in the township. It provides call-a-ride, para-transit, and express buses that connect riders to downtown Toledo.
Under state law, this is the last year communities can leave TARTA without the unanimous consent of the agency’s other member communities. Perrysburg withdrew from TARTA last year. After Jan. 1, TARTA, which provides 3.4 million rides a year, will serve Toledo, Sylvania, Sylvania Township, Maumee, Waterville, Ottawa Hills, and Rossford.
Spencer Township officials will consider running their own bus service. But no local shuttle can provide the regional connections that residents, employers, and employees need.
The township should also watch a federal civil rights complaint against Beavercreek, outside Dayton. After that city refused to allow certain regional bus stops, the federal government ordered city officials to fix the problem or risk losing federal highway money. Riders stranded by Spencer Township could consider a similar complaint.
The race of some TARTA riders undoubtedly played a role in Spencer Township’s vote, but racism is not unique to the Toledo area. Other polarized urban areas, with good leadership, have moved forward.
In conservative Grand Rapids, Mich., local leaders persuaded voters to support a six-city tax that leveraged $40 million in state and federal grants. The area is building a regional rapid transit bus line that will create jobs, cut commute times, and raise property values.
TARTA too can learn from this election. Given its resources, the agency delivers reliable basic bus service. But customer service is a year-round job.
TARTA needs to ensure that its communities are satisfied, resolving problems before they become major issues. The agency ought to consider a community credit program — similar to one in metropolitan Detroit — to make sure its members get what they pay for.
This region needs to find a better way to pay for transit, including a regional sales tax. Curtis Lancaster, the chairman of Spencer Township’s board of trustees, said he would back a plan to switch TARTA’s local property tax to a sales tax.
That would be a more fair and reliable way to fund mass transit. Area leaders and TMACOG should start looking at that option now.
Spencer Township’s TARTA vote was a setback for metro Toledo, and another sign that area leaders have failed to define northwest Ohio as a region. That must change if Toledo wants to move forward and compete successfully with other urban areas around the country.
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