Planners urged to boost public transit

6/11/2008
BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

A future Ohio will have more extensive public transportation, both within and between its cities, and a growing economy based on its location and transportation assets, if speakers at a forum conducted by a state planning task force yesterday at the University of Toledo have their way.

"I could really like living in this town if we had a decent bus system," Rebecca Wood, who moved to Toledo from Cleveland in 2000, said while addressing the Ohio's 21st Century Transportation Priorities Task Force.

But right now, she said, living in Toledo without a car "is like being on parole or house arrest, except you haven't done anything wrong."

She was one of the participants at the forum, which drew about 100 people, who pleaded for more state funding for public transit, an area in which Ohio lags peers such as Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Michigan.

According to James Gee, general manager of the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority, Pennsylvania and Illinois annually budget about $60 per person in state transit funds and Michigan spends about $20 per person, but Ohio's annual transit outlay is $2.04 per person.

While soaring gasoline prices have induced more Ohioans to use public transportation, the additional fares don't come close to paying transit authorities' own skyrocketing fuel bills, Mr. Gee testified.

Kathryn Cox, the operations manager for Hancock County Transportation, said that during the past year, employment trips have overtaken medical trips as the top reason people ride the call-a-ride service there.

But service cuts have been avoided only because of United Way support, she said.

"We have been told time and time again that without us, those people would not be able to get to work," Ms. Cox said.

The session was the third of seven that the 60-member task force, created early this year by the Strickland administration, is conducting at locations across Ohio to solicit local leaders' and residents' opinions about the future direction of Ohio transportation programming.

"We want to paint the picture, generate a vision of what Ohio's transportation system should be," said Ty Marsh, the president of the Columbus Chamber of Commerce.

He is the chairman of the task force, which is scheduled to prepare a report for consideration during the state's 2010-2011 biennial budget process.

Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner, one of four Toledo-area members, cautioned that whatever vision results from the panel's deliberations will be tempered by Ohio's financial limitations.

Along with extensive local transit remarks, several speakers urged the task force to include intercity passenger-train service linking Ohio cities along with those in neighboring states.

While visions of 220-mph bullet trains are fine for the future, what Ohio needs now is a solid network of frequent trains running at 70 to 90 mph, just fast enough to be competitive with highway drive times, said Don Rozick, second vice chairman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen's Ohio state legislative board.

"Get people out of their automobiles and show them how much better it can be," Mr. Rozick said.

Freight transportation attracted relatively modest attention during the public comment portion of the three-hour meeting in Nitschke Auditorium, but it was a focal point for remarks by several scheduled speakers early in the program.

Rich Martinko, a former Ohio Department of Transportation official who now heads UT's Intermodal Transportation Institute, said developing a strong transportation and logistics-based economic sector is crucial to northwest Ohio's future.

While the private sector is best suited to make precise siting decisions, "political will and resources" will be needed to encourage and support those decisions, he said.

Jim Carter, a Wood County commissioner, said sometimes the support is as simple as vacating a few local roads, as Wood County did recently to support CSX Transportation's plans for a rail-truck intermodal terminal west of North Baltimore.

"We let the people who have the money and the ideas do some work," Mr. Carter said.

And Ray Huber, the Wood County engineer, later urged state leaders to think about the "final mile" - the local connections that the public sector often must provide to support private-sector projects.

For the CSX terminal, that could be providing a better truck route to and from I-75 to avoid two sharp turns in North Baltimore.

The task force is to hold the remaining public meetings today in St. Clairsville, tomorrow in Columbus, Tuesday in Cleveland, and June 23 in Akron.

Contact David Patch at:

dpatch@theblade.com

or 419-724-6094.