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Published: Friday, 10/2/2009

TARTA eyes service cuts, fare hike as income falls

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Gee Gee
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Service cuts such as elimination of Toledo's Sunday and holiday bus service and a 25-cent fare increase are on the table for early next year as the Toledo Area Regional Transportation Authority grapples with a $900,000 forecast plunge in property-tax revenue.

James Gee, the transit agency's general manager, said he expects to compile a package of cost-cutting recommendations by the end of next week and will present them at public meetings later this month to solicit public comment.

Mr. Gee reported the situation to the TARTA Board of Trustees yesterday during the same meeting at which Stacy Clink, the authority's controller, reported that fuel expenses through August were $423,321 under budget, thanks to prices that have been sharply lower after hitting record highs in 2008.

Those soaring fuel prices had been the justification for a modest round of service cuts last year that included consolidating three routes. But while transit advocates called on the transit authority after fuel prices retreated later last year to reinstate those service cuts, TARTA officials cautioned that their budgetary future was not yet assured.

That caution was borne out last month when the Lucas County auditor's office completed property revaluations that reduced the county's tax rolls by about 12 percent.

TARTA relies on public support to cover more than three-quarters of its operating expenses, and its two levies, totaling 2.5 mills, provide more than two thirds of those subsidies. This year's property-tax revenue is $16,482,012, a figure expected to decline to about $15.6 million next year because TARTA's larger, 1.5-mill levy is "inside millage" subject immediately to valuation changes.

Mr. Gee said eliminating service on Sundays and six major holidays - New Year's Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas - would save TARTA about $800,000.

"If there's some other way to reduce the cost [of service] during the week, or spread it out some other way, we're still looking at it," he said yesterday.

A fare increase from $1 to $1.25 would increase revenue by an estimated $150,000, Mr. Gee said.

Rather than use a traditional public-hearing format, Mr. Gee said he plans to hold "open-house" meetings Oct. 22 to hear comments about the situation.

"We want to try something a little more individualized for our customers," the transit manager said, with the open-house format allowing agency staff to answer questions one-on-one.

Those sessions will be held at the transit authority's administrative office, 1137 West Central Ave., from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., he said.

Ridership at TARTA is down by nearly one sixth this year, primarily because high local unemployment means fewer people taking the bus to work.

TARTA's last across-the-board fare increase occurred in January, 2006, when the base fare rose from 85 cents to $1. Last summer, it increased the fare for suburban Call-A-Ride routes from 60 cents to $1, and eliminated 10-cent transfers. Discounts remain for seniors, children, and disabled people.

The dollar fare ties for the lowest among Ohio transit agencies, although the elimination of transfers raised the cash price for trips requiring bus connections to $2 or more. Transit officials expected that step to induce a surge in bus-pass sales, which has occurred.

Mr. Gee said if the base fare rose from $1 to $1.25, other fares would rise proportionally, including a 50-cent hike to the Toledo Area Regional Paratransit Service fare, now $2.

TARTA's latest budget squeeze is occurring as the authority approaches the expiration of its labor contract with its mechanics and drivers.

Mr. Gee and Ed Dustman, the business manager for Amalgamated Transit Union Local 697, said negotiations had not begun as of yesterday but will be scheduled soon. TARTA and the union last year agreed to a one-year extension of their old contract without any pay increases or changes in benefits, but that extension expires Nov. 1.

The old contract, originally a three-year deal, was imposed by a state arbitration panel, 15 months after the previous pact's expiration, after labor and management reached impasses on issues including pay, health benefits, and scheduling rules.

The transit authority and the ATU, meanwhile, recently reached a tentative agreement on a 14-month contract for about 50 Toledo Area Regional Paratransit Service drivers that became TARTA employees last year when the transit authority stopped using a contract operator.

If they approve the agreement, TARPS drivers will receive lump-sum payments of $300 for part-timers and $600 for full-timers, but no increase in their $14.38 per hour wage.

Mr. Dustman said a union vote is scheduled for tomorrow. While union leaders are recommending approval, the business manager's enthusiasm about the contract was muted. "It's the best we're going to get out of the economic situation we're in," he said.

Mr. Gee said the contract would be presented to the transit authority trustees for their approval Nov. 5 if the union endorses it. The contract will be retroactive to yesterday if both sides accept it.

Contact David Patch at:

dpatch@theblade.com

or 419-724-6094.



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