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Published: Monday, 6/9/2008

TARTA exec seeks money for bus service

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Soaring fuel prices are prompting more people to use public transportation, but Ohio's spending on buses and trains isn't keeping up, a local transit official says.

The state's per capita support for buses and rapid-transit trains ranks it with rural states like West Virginia and South Dakota, not peers like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Illinois, according to James Gee.

Mr. Gee, general manager of the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority, plans to address that issue tomorrow afternoon at an Ohio 21st Century Transportation Priorities Task Force meeting in Nitschke Hall at the University of Toledo.

"We need to get the message to the state of Ohio that we need more support for public transit," Mr. Gee said Thursday following a TARTA board of trustees meeting during which, among other things, the possible need for a fare increase and service cuts to offset the transit authority's skyrocketing fuel bill was discussed.

The meeting tomorrow is one of a series that the task force, appointed by Gov. Ted Strickland's administration has scheduled across the state to develop recommendations for Ohio's transportation programming and to assess funding alternatives to pay for that programming, has scheduled.

"If we continue just doing things the way we always have, we as a state are headed toward failure in our transportation policy," said David Dysard, the Ohio Department of Transportation's deputy director for its Bowling Green district office.

"We need to change, and we know people have ideas and concerns they want to address."

"This is where general folks get to provide input on what they think our transportation issues are and, if they have them, suggest solutions," said Tony Reams, executive director of the Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments.

With costs for both petroleum products and construction materials escalating, Mr. Reams said, it may not be possible to address all the needs, "but we need to have something to shoot for."

Transit, he added, has already gained prominence on the Web site - TransportationforTomorrow.ohio.gov - that the task force has set up to collect public comments. The task force meeting at UT is scheduled to begin at 4 p.m., with public discussion to start at 5 p.m.

During April, the most recent month for which statistics have been compiled, TARTA's adult and senior citizen ridership rose 16.7 percent, one of the sharpest monthly increases in the transit agency's 38-year history and one Mr. Gee attributed entirely to record gasoline prices.

For the first four months of 2008 combined, he said, total ridership is up 7.4 percent, while the adults and seniors category is up 8.6 percent.

Yet despite that increased demand, TARTA has had to cut service because its fuel costs have nearly doubled over the past year.

Starting yesterday, the transit authority reconfigured its weekend service to reduce from 15 to 14 the number of trips on each route; consolidated from two to one the weekend routes in East Toledo, and shortened several routes serving Rossford, Maumee, and Perrysburg to rely more on Call-A-Ride service.

Today, the transit authority is introducing three new commuter express routes. One runs from the St. Joseph Church commuter lot in Sylvania to Arrowhead Park in Maumee; another from St. Joseph to Levis Commons and Owens-Illinois headquarters complex in Perrysburg; and the third goes between Perrysburg's River Place lot and Arrowhead.

"We are trying new services, addressing the demand created by gas prices," Mr. Gee said. The buses and driver hours for the new routes are being reassigned from a canceled express bus based at the Holiday Plaza shopping center in Maumee that formerly ran to downtown Toledo and Arrowhead.

Transit officials have calculated a net saving of $153,000 annually from the service changes that took effect yesterday and today - far short of the $700,000 fuel hit TARTA's budget could take this year.

At $1 per ride, TARTA's fare is tied for Ohio's lowest. Francis Frey, a TARTA trustee from Maumee, said during the meeting Thursday that a 10-cent or 15-cent increase "wouldn't come close" to balancing the fuel budget, either, but it would spread the impact of rising expenses more evenly among riders than service cuts do.

"Service cuts will impact some users directly," Mr. Frey said. "Some of our folks are on the [economic] margins, and this [TARTA] is their only chance to get to work."

Besides the farebox and state or federal support, TARTA relies on two property levies assessed in its service area to pay for its operations: a 1.5-mill tax that transit district voters replaced last year and a 1-mill tax that expires in 2010. But rising complaints that suburban property owners contribute a disproportionate share of the transit budget have put the levies at risk; the recent replacement passed only because strong support from Toledo overwhelmed defeats in six of the transit system's suburban areas.

Mr. Gee said last week he had no firm recommendation for a fare increase, but expects to prepare one in time to hold hearings before the TARTA board's next scheduled meeting on Aug. 7.

Contact David Patch at:

dpatch@theblade.com

or 419-724-6094.



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