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Tuesday, October 21, 2014
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Published: Monday, 1/6/2014

EDITORIAL

U-turn

The Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority ended service to Spencer Township last week, ringing in the new year with another hole in the region’s transit system. Nearly two years ago, Perrysburg withdrew from TARTA, which now serves seven communities, including Toledo.

The good news is that a law aimed solely at TARTA, allowing members of any Ohio transit authority funded by property taxes to withdraw by popular vote, expired with last November’s election. Leaving TARTA now will require the unanimous consent of the authority’s other members, an unlikely event.

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Funded by a 2.5-mill property tax, TARTA provides more than 3.4 million rides a year. It offers regional connections that no local shuttle service can.

The region should now focus on encouraging other communities to join TARTA — Oregon and Springfield Township are logical candidates — and improving service with a more sustainable, reliable, and fair funding system.

Nor should regional leaders give up on persuading Perrysburg and Spencer Township to rejoin TARTA. Doing so likely would require another referendum, as well as the approval of TARTA’s board of trustees.

Because of federal and state grants that supplemented local funding, Spencer Township got more than $160,000 worth of needed transit service each year for $88,000 in property taxes. Still, anti-transit sentiment helped drive a 14-vote defeat for TARTA in November.

In December, Spencer Township rejected a short-term contract with TARTA. It opted instead for a one-year contract with Silver Cab Co. to provide local transportation. That’s better than nothing, but the plan falls far short of the comprehensive service previously provided by TARTA, including call-a-ride transportation, door-to-door para-transit service for riders with disabilities, and express routes with regional connections.

To their credit, Lucas County commissioners have opposed communities leaving TARTA, understanding the importance of transit to the region’s economy. Employers whose workers rely on public transit to get to their jobs have also been vocal TARTA supporters.

Still, the silence of most Toledo leaders has been shortsighted, almost shameful. The Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments, the region’s metropolitan planning organization, has been so lacking in leadership that it failed to take a position on Spencer Township’s campaign to leave TARTA.

TARTA must continue to improve service and innovate to maintain support. A Web site the agency launched last fall — tartatracker.com — enables Internet users, including those with smart phones, to monitor bus routes in real time and get estimated arrival times.

The authority is installing larger bike racks on new buses to accommodate increased demand. TARTA continues to plan for a new terminal in downtown Toledo.

But TARTA cannot, by law, lobby communities. It needs advocates, including those in elected office. As the chief executive officer of the region’s central city, Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins must take a lead role in using mass transit to help build a 21st century regional economy.

Mr. Collins represents a city in which nearly 14 percent of households don’t have vehicles. His constituents are hopping on buses to get to jobs in suburban malls and industrial parks.

Urban regions nationwide that Toledo competes with for talent and capital are expanding transit to slow sprawl, reduce road congestion, improve air quality, and jump-start millions of dollars in development related to transit. Transit attracts educated young people who drive the new knowledge-based economy.

Without a decent regional transit system, Toledo will continue to lose college graduates, private investment, and federal grants to other areas of the country. Grand Rapids, Mich., a city smaller than Toledo, is counting on a forthcoming $40 million rapid transit bus line to reduce commute times, raise property values, and create jobs and development.

To build the 9.6-mile Silver Line, the region enacted a six-city property tax increase in 2011, which leveraged $32 million in federal grants and $8 million in state matching dollars. Local officials estimate the new rapid bus line will give Grand Rapids a 5-to-1 return on investment in such things as retail stores, housing, and other development.

In Toledo, the transit debate must move from local communities deciding whether to stay in TARTA to a regionwide conversation about moving from a fragmented local property tax to a more-uniform and sustainable regional sales tax; creating a better, more reliable bus system, and considering whether certain high-density corridors can support rapid transit buses or even light rail.

Without a first-rate public transportation system, Toledo cannot become a first-class city or region.



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