Toledo area leaders and voters should note what happened this month in Ann Arbor and Detroit: Millages that will increase spending for public transportation passed by decisive margins.
Toledo competes with these regions for talent, business development, and federal aid. Even these modest steps forward show our northern neighbors are putting this region in the rear-view mirror.
In metropolitan Detroit, voters approved, by a 2-1 margin, a millage increase of 70 percent for the tri-county bus system known as SMART. In Ann Arbor, voters approved by an even wider margin a tax to expand transit service in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti city and township.
Most voters who supported these tax increases are not regular bus riders. Still, they understand the economic, social, and environmental benefits of a convenient, reliable, and efficient regional transit system.
Moreover, both regions had strong leadership on transit, especially from the business community. That’s something woefully lacking in Toledo.
Any leader who advocated better regional transit here would have public support: A recent survey and a series of 10 public meetings this year, conducted by the Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments (TMACOG), found that people in this region want better transit.
In TMACOG’s 2014 transportation survey, expanding public transportation was ranked as extremely important, very important, or important by more than 80 percent of respondents. Of the 11 transportation issues listed, expanding transit was ranked extremely important by more than a third. That was a higher share than for any other issue, except improving roadway safety and maintaining the existing transportation system.
“Public transportation got a lot more attention throughout the region, both at public meetings and in the surveys,” Diane Reamer-Evans of TMACOG told The Blade’s editorial page. “Everywhere in the region, it was a top issue.”
TMACOG is working on a 30-year-transportation plan for Lucas, Wood, and southern Monroe counties that will determine how more than $7 billion will be spent on transportation projects and services. The new long-range plan will take effect in July, 2015, after it gets state and federal approval.
The long-range plan currently includes proposals to expand the area served by regional public transit, and to increase local, state, and federal funding for it. But the new plan should go further, recommending a specific way to increase funding, such as a uniform and sustainable regional sales tax.
Political and business leaders must also step up. Despite TMACOG’s recommendations, the region has gone backward in the last two years, with two communities — Perrysburg and Spencer Township — pulling out of the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority.
This year, voters in another member community, Rossford, will decide whether to withdraw. With nearly 3.5 million annual passenger boardings, TARTA now serves seven communities: Toledo, Maumee, Rossford, Waterville, Ottawa Hills, Sylvania, and Sylvania Township.
The most immediate challenge for maintaining a viable regional transit system is keeping Rossford in. Last year, TARTA provided about 50,000 rides in the city.
This year, use of Rossford call-a-ride service is up 10 percent, said TARTA marketing director Steve Atkinson. Employers in Rossford’s industrial park and retail centers depend on TARTA buses to get their employees to work.
To their credit, members of the Rossford City Council, after conducting months of research, have recommended staying with TARTA. An independent consultant found that the city is receiving far more service than it pays for through TARTA’s 2.5-mill property tax.
Rossford taxpayers contribute about $305,000 a year to TARTA; $95,000 of that is diverted to the city for infrastructure improvements. According to Rossford’s consultant, TARTA provides $537,000 in annual service, far more than the $210,000 it receives from the city.
Nearly 14 percent of Toledo households don’t have vehicles, according to Census figures. The region ranks among the worst U.S. metropolitan areas for its share of jobs in neighborhoods that are served by public transit.
Transit and transit-oriented development mean a stronger regional economy. This region cannot continue to go backward while others move forward.