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Published: Saturday, 4/12/2014 - Updated: 6 months ago

TOLEDO AREA

Summit focuses on transit’s role in growth

Successful systems sparking revitalization

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

When planners in Phoenix first proposed a countywide sales tax to pay for an expanded expressway system and enhanced public transit 29 years ago, officials were so cautious about voters’ preference for highways that they reserved two-thirds of the revenue for the road construction.

But Maricopa County’s enhanced bus service and light rail have been so popular — and such a boon for development — that a new question soon may be put to voters seeking permission to flip that revenue split, a transit consultant who once headed the light-rail operation told a Toledo transportation conference Friday morning.

And with both Millennials and senior citizens now favoring transit-friendly lifestyles, “ ‘density’ is no longer a necessary word, in my opinion, to achieve transit success,” Richard J. Simonetta, a senior manager at the Burns Group of Philadelphia, told more than 150 people at the Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments’ Transportation Summit.

Mr. Simonetta’s presentation wrapped up a six-hour program at the Pinnacle in Maumee that focused on transportation’s potential role in guiding regional revitalization.

Mr. Simonetta, whose career includes stints as head of the Columbus and Ann Arbor transit systems, cited Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids, Mich., along with Phoenix as examples of public transit success.

He outlined how Ann Arbor has developed multiple brands for late-night service, express buses to Detroit Metropolitan-Wayne County Airport, and other specialty rides, while Grand Rapids is about to roll out “bus rapid transit” on a key route and is considering a modern streetcar line for the future.

Both economics and changing priorities are pushing Baby Boomers and Millennials back into cities from sprawling suburbs, Mr. Simonetta said.

The former, he said, because they no longer have use for “two or three automobiles … or a back yard with a pool” while today’s young adults are more likely to meet friends on the Internet than to strut in cars on “cruising” streets.

Phoenix’s light-rail ridership rose in five years to the level forecast for 20 years out, he said, and mixed-use neighborhoods of three-story and four-story buildings with ground level businesses and upper floor apartments and condominiums developed quickly as soon as rails were laid.

In Grand Rapids, public transit has helped the downtown become “a very dynamic place … a haven for Millennials,” Mr. Simonetta said.

Voters there approved new transit taxes in 2000, 2003, and 2007, before turning one down in 2009 and then narrowly passing a renewal and expansion of the existing levies in 2011, he said.

Public transportation presents an opportunity “to create rebirth in the urban core,” the consultant said. “You’ll be successful if you can reinvigorate and reinvent your downtown area.”

In recent years, the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority has proposed both a switch from its current property-tax subsidies to a half-cent sales tax and development of a downtown bus terminal at Jackson and Superior streets to replace the existing bus loop.

But merchants in some suburban communities — notably Maumee, whose City Council rejected a procedural step necessary for the tax change — said a higher sales tax would cost them customers, while the Valentine Theatre and neighboring downtown businesses protested the potential loss of a surface parking lot where the bus terminal would go.

Mr. Simonetta supported the idea of a sales tax for transit systems, remarking that it spreads the tax burden among a broader population than just landowners, but noted that the Michigan transit systems don’t have that option.

TARTA is the last major Ohio transit system to collect a property tax — actually a combination of two levies — instead of a sales tax.

Earlier in the conference, attendees participated in a live survey — using electronic answer clickers — about what TMACOG should prioritize in its ongoing development of a new 30-year transportation plan for Lucas and Wood counties and Monroe County’s Erie, Bedford, and Whiteford townships.

While expanding public transit got a middling response from the gathering of transportation-agency officials, elected leaders, construction-industry representatives, and others, highway-related areas got much more favorable responses.

Those included relieving traffic congestion, roadway safety improvements, and repairing infrastructure — perhaps not surprising, survey moderator James Bagdonas said, in light of potholes and water-main breaks that have plagued the Toledo area during and after a severe winter.

Of six issues they were offered from which to choose a “top concern” for the region, 68 percent of conference-goers selected “aging infrastructure,” while 13 percent said development of more public transit options was most critical.

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



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