Monday, Jun 18, 2018
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Looking for a leader

A regional sales tax would help create the unified transit system that metro Toledo clearly needs

The Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority isn’t running out of gas — yet. But it needs a steady, reliable, and sustainable funding source to meet this region’s increasing needs for mobility and economic growth.

Local leaders are clamoring for jobs, economic development, and improved race relations. Yet they have remained practically silent about a key driver of economic and racial equity — and of northwest Ohio’s ability to build a 21st-century economy that is not governed by municipal borders.

Last month, members of the Amalgamated Transit Union called on TARTA leaders to push for change in how the agency’s local tax subsidy is collected — including sales-tax funding, which is how most regions pay for mass transit.

Property taxes are an inadequate, unreliable, and unfair way to fund mass transit. In recent years, revenues have fallen as real estate values slumped.

Equally important, a regional sales tax would create a unified system within the Toledo metropolitan area. The current system, based on local millages, has allowed communities to, in effect, opt out of regional transit, creating a fragmented and patchwork system.

Funded by a 2.5-mill property tax, TARTA serves seven local communities and provides more than 3.4 million rides a year. The current system is woefully inadequate.

Nearly 14 percent of Toledo households — disproportionately poor and African-American — don’t have vehicles. The Toledo area is ranked among the worst U.S. metro areas for having jobs in neighborhoods served by public transit. In suburban Toledo, only one-third of jobs are accessible to transit users.

So where’s the leadership on transit? By law, TARTA cannot lobby communities directly. The Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments, the region’s metropolitan planning organization, should take a more proactive role.

TMACOG’s 20-year plan includes expanding public transit and increasing local, state, and federal funding to do so. But the regional group has been so lacking in leadership on transit that it failed to take a position on campaigns last year in Rossford and Spencer Township to leave TARTA.

Transit leadership will have to come from the region’s elected officials — ideally, Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins most of all. Yet Mr. Collins has shown little interest. Toledo’s leaders apparently don’t understand that their constituents are hopping on buses to employers in suburban malls and industrial parks.

Other large central cities across the country have had far better leadership. Denver enacted a regional sales tax in 2004 to build 140 miles of rail and rapid bus lines. In Michigan, Grand Rapids — a city smaller than Toledo — expects a $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 Grand Rapids area enacted a six-city tax increase in 2011. Local tax money leveraged another $32 million in federal grants and $8 million in state matching dollars.

Urban regions around the country — areas that Toledo compete with for talent and capital — are expanding transit to slow sprawl, reduce road congestion, improve air quality, and spark millions of dollars in transit-oriented development. Access to transit also attracts educated young people who drive the new knowledge-based economy.

Without leadership, however, Toledo continues to lose ground. In the past two years, Perrysburg and Spencer Township have pulled out of TARTA. If Rossford secedes, that would leave just six members in the transit authority: Toledo, Ottawa Hills, Sylvania, Sylvania Township, Maumee, and Waterville.

It’s encouraging that union members are calling for better transit funding. But until at least one high-ranking elected official joins them, the region will continue to slide into reverse.

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