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Published: Sunday, 9/23/2012 - Updated: 1 year ago

COMMENTARY

Stranding riders on a road to nowhere

Suburb’s pullout from TARTA puts commuters in tough spot

BY JEFF GERRITT
DEPUTY EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR
TARTA buses line up at Erie and Madison in downtown Toledo. Rossford will now be the community nearest to Perrysburg with continuing TARTA service. TARTA buses line up at Erie and Madison in downtown Toledo. Rossford will now be the community nearest to Perrysburg with continuing TARTA service.
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Glenn Perryman of Toledo boarded a downtown TARTA bus Tuesday on his way to the Perrysburg Hilton Garden Inn, where he’s worked as a dishwasher and cook for the past three years.

People such as Mr. Perryman, who spends more than three hours on a bus getting to and from work each day, make extraordinary efforts to stay on the grind, commuting to suburban jobs that often pay little more than minimum wage.

That’s about to get even harder. Mr. Perryman, 52, was enjoying one of his last days riding a bus from his home in West Toledo all the way to work.

On Saturday, Perrysburg was set to lose its Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority service. In a shortsighted and self-defeating move, the city dropped out of the regional bus system this year, stranding Mr. Perryman and hundreds of people like him who relied on TARTA to get to the affluent suburb to work, shop, visit, or see a doctor.

Perrysburg contributed $1.5 million to TARTA’s $28 million annual operating budget. Voters will decide in November whether to create a separate transit system to serve the city.

“[TARTA] is really convenient and reliable, and the bus drivers are usually nice, too,” Mr. Perryman, who doesn’t have a vehicle and makes about $8 an hour, told me as we rolled south on I-75. “I guess [Perrysburg] wanted to save money, but it’s selfish. Unless you’ve walked in our shoes, you wouldn’t know.”

Bus driver Liz Potts, a 23-year TARTA veteran, heard the stories all week: A young man who can’t get to his job at McDonald’s, a senior who needs the bus to get to a center, others like Mr. Perryman who make a few hundred dollars a week and now will have to pay someone to drive them to work.

“It’s sad that people don’t know how many people depend on this,” Ms. Potts told me.

Abandoning TARTA does more than hurt people such as Mr. Perryman and their employers. It drags all Toledoans down.

Today’s economies are regional. The nation’s most successful metropolitan areas — Portland, Denver, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, even Grand Rapids. Mich. — have learned to think and act in regional ways, while the most-divided regions struggle the hardest.

As an editorial writer and columnist for the Detroit Free Press and a resident of the city of Detroit from 2000 until last month, I wrote a lot about Detroit’s urban problems and the region’s inability to shake its divided and segregated past. Political myopia, fueled by race and class tensions, has killed more than 20 attempts there to enact a regional transit authority.

Like Toledo, Detroit has a regional bus system that is paid for largely by property taxes. Also like Toledo, Detroit’s regional system covers only select areas. Dozens of communities in the far-flung suburbs to the north and west have opted out, leaving Detroit workers disconnected from suburban jobs.

Perrysburg’s answer is to get a lower-cost company — paid by a 1.45-mill property tax levy instead of TARTA’s 2.5-mill tax — to run a local shuttle service. But city service won’t fill the gap for the nearly 67,000 people a year who boarded TARTA buses in Perrysburg for trips around the region.

After city voters fired TARTA in March, Perrysburg officials even had the nerve to ask the agency to maintain service until the end of the year. That would have penalized the other eight communities in TARTA that have stayed and paid.

Bailing on TARTA will undermine other regional efforts that require trust and cooperation. Public transit is an inherently regional issue; it’s about moving people and goods from one community to another. Building a regional transit system community by community makes as much sense as building an interstate highway with each state doing its own thing.

Business people usually understand this. Mr. Perryman’s boss, Izzet Sozeri, the general manager of the Hilton Gardens Inn in Perrysburg, tried to persuade City Council to take another route.

Mr. Sozeria told me that 25 percent of his 150 employees use TARTA, and many more workers use it to get to jobs at other Levis Commons businesses. Those employees, he noted, pay city income taxes.

Perrysburg’s transit plan might work for residents, but “it’s not a solution for business,’’ he said. “TARTA has been an important part of our daily life.”

Mr. Sozeria plans to run a hotel shuttle from neighboring Rossford to get his employees to work. Other workers won’t be as lucky.

Nearly 14 percent of households in the city of Toledo — more than 15,000 — don’t own vehicles, the American Community Survey reports. That compares to 8.7 percent across the region.

Even many residents who have working cars or trucks want options, especially with gasoline prices at nearly $4 a gallon. Transit can provide those choices, while sparking investment, reducing congestion, and improving air quality. A decent transit system also attracts the talented young people who drive the new economy.

Last year, TARTA passengers took 3.2 million rides, including nearly 270,000 trips on paratransit service. TARTA marketing director Steve Atkinson cited double-digit increases for adults, seniors, and people with disabilities.

Another major employment center, Sylvania Township, is thinking of leaving TARTA, despite the potential impact on Lourdes University, Flower Hospital, Sylvania Senior Center, and Sylvania Municipal Court.

Sylvania voters who face that choice in November should learn from Perrysburg’s mistake and stay in. Toledo is already one of the nation’s worst metropolitan areas for providing jobs in neighborhoods served by public transit.

Across the country, regions are rising, or falling, together. If metro Toledo wants to stay in the race, its leaders had better figure out how to keep more communities on the bus.

Jeff Gerritt is deputy editorial page editor of The Blade.

Contact him at: jgerritt@theblade.com or 419-724-6467. Follow him on twitter@jeffgerritt



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