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Published: Monday, 11/5/2012

TARTA says it will survive regardless of vote results

Proposal to exit system on 2 townships ballots

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Perrysburg’s pullout from the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority this year will take $1 million in property-tax revenue out of the transit authority’s budget, and should Sylvania Township and Spencer Township voters approve withdrawal referenda Tuesday, the agency will lose nearly $2 million more.

And while the transit authority also will be relieved of the costs of operating buses in those communities if they leave, the agency’s estimates show that Sylvania Township’s withdrawal, in particular, would represent a net loss for TARTA.

But General Manager James Gee says there is no tipping point at which the loss of suburban member communities would push the transit authority into a financial crisis, even though suburban revenue has helped subsidize transit operations in Toledo.

As an organization, TARTA “would shrink, we would lose hours of service” if the suburban exodus spreads, he said. “But we would still survive. Our expenses would be down, too.”

What will happen if more suburbs follow the lead that Perrysburg took in March, Mr. Gee and transit advocates said, is that people who depend on public transportation to get around will have a harder time doing so, regardless of whether the suburbs provide their own substitute transit service.

And so far, officials in neither Sylvania nor Spencer have developed any plans for transit service if voters opt out.

“It’s a social impact. It’s a community impact,” Mr. Gee said. “People who live in Toledo, and work in [Sylvania or Spencer] township, or go to doctor’s offices in the township, will lose that access.”

TARTA service to Perrysburg ended Sept. 22, six months after its voters’ approval of a transit authority pullout was certified. Since then, Perrysburg has provided limited service within its boundaries, operated by a contractor city officials plan to hire permanently if city voters approve a local levy on Tuesday’s ballot.

Janel Haas, the director of Perrysburg’s Way Library, said cessation of TARTA service in Perrysburg has had two visible effects there: reduced numbers of out-of-town patrons and more people applying to qualify as disabled so they can ride the city’s service, which initially was limited to people with disabilities.

“The biggest difference is the people that didn’t live in Perrysburg, those are the people they [librarians] are not noticing any more,” Ms. Haas said, and there has been “a big surge” in requests for help filling out paratransit applications.

But Denise Niese, executive director of the Wood County Committee on Aging, said she had observed no increase in requests for agency transportation to the Perrysburg Senior Center after TARTA service ended in the community.

TARTA’s 2012 budgeted revenue of $28.75 million includes $16.73 million from its two property taxes, including $1.49 million from Perrysburg in its final year. Sylvania Township property owners’ tab is $1.93 million, while Spencer’s is about $87,000. Toledo residents pay 63.1 percent of TARTA’s taxes, $7.77 million, but also have by far the most extensive bus service.

The transit authority budgeted $4.38 million in operating revenue during 2012, $682,057 in state assistance, $1.37 million in grants for use of alternative fuels, and $5.58 million in federal assistance that includes $665,000 for paratransit operations. Mr. Gee said the actual operating revenue will be closer to $5 million because of increased ridership and a new contract with the Lucas County Board of Developmental Disabilities.

The transit authority, Mr. Gee said, is “scalable” — able to reduce its operations to serve a smaller area — and for now can do so without layoffs because it has put off replacing employees who have retired or resigned.

The six-month transition period included in the state law that allows TARTA communities to withdraw unilaterally, instead of first getting their fellow members’ consent, provides time for such attrition, “and a lot of people are leaving because of changes in state [public-employee] retirement,” the transit manager said.

“Eventually, you get to a point where you just can’t do that any more,” he continued, but for now that point is beyond the horizon.

The authority’s federal funding, Mr. Gee added, is based on the Toledo metropolitan area’s entire population, not just that of TARTA members, and that revenue therefore is not affected by suburban pullouts.

Of the two communities with opt-out referenda on the ballot Tuesday, a withdrawal by Sylvania Township would have far greater consequences.

According to TARTA estimates, 96,000 people rode buses to, from, or within Sylvania Township last year, including 24,000 Toledo Area Regional Paratransit Service passengers, whereas ridership in Spencer Township was just 12,000, including 2,200 TARPS riders.

Withdrawal from Sylvania Township would cut off service to an extensive commercial district on Central Avenue west of Corey Road; ProMedica’s Wildwood Orthopedic and Spine Hospital on Reynolds Road, and stretches of Monroe Street and Alexis Road between the city limits of Sylvania and Toledo.

Buses will still run through parts of the township to maintain service to Sylvania city, but would not be allowed to make stops in the unincorporated area. Some routes might be shifted to use I-475 and U.S. 23 to link Sylvania city with Toledo, Mr. Gee said.

Barely contiguous with the rest of TARTA’s service area, Spencer lacks such employment or commercial destinations, but Mr. Gee noted that it has a senior center, community center, and public housing that generate transit trips.

“There are people there that need transportation,” he said.

Though decidedly rural compared to other transit authority members, Spencer Township was included when TARTA was created in 1970 because of development proposals there. Citing low ridership, township trustees voted in 1991 and 1994 to withdraw from the transit authority, but both times the township’s petition was vetoed by other TARTA members.

While Mr. Gee said the transit authority spends more to serve Spencer Township — $173,000 — than it receives in taxes, township leaders say the service they get isn’t worth the expense.

“The residents have been complaining for years,” said Curtis Lancaster, a township trustee. “Half the residents, the bus doesn’t even go by their house. We just feel it’s way too much.”

Debate over Sylvania Township’s continued transit-authority membership is relatively young, but has had a similar theme: the “big, empty buses” circulating through township streets are a waste of the $1.82 million TARTA spends annually on its service there.

John Jennewine, the township trustees’ chairman, said he felt an obligation to put TARTA membership to a township vote while the opportunity to do so exists. After Election Day 2013, the procedure reverts to requiring other member communities’ consent.

“The position of the majority of the board is to let this be decided by the residents and voters of this community,” Mr. Jennewine said, adding that a presidential election year should yield the highest turnout.

The transit authority “does have support out here — most of the levies have passed, but there has been a lot of clamor for a vote,” he said.

TARTA should be working toward “providing more service, making it more valuable,” because “if you had a service people used, of course people would vote for it,” Mr. Jennewine said in a separate interview.

While Sylvania Township trustee Kevin Haddad has been even more critical of TARTA than his colleagues — he contends the transit authority is mismanaged and wasteful, Mr. Gee should be fired, and the transit authority’s board elected instead of appointed — he abstained from the vote to put the opt-out question on the ballot because a plan for substitute service was absent.

“I believe the whole county needs public transportation.... A good community only survives with good public transit,” Mr. Haddad said.

But when the Lucas County Commissioners proposed county-wide service, at TARTA’s urging, in 2010, the Sylvania Township trustees and Maumee city council both voted against admitting the county to the transit authority on the grounds that a half-cent sales tax that would have replaced the transit authority’s property taxes would have been burdensome to Lucas County merchants.

Contact David Patch at: dpatch@theblade.com or 419-724-6094.


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