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TARTA seeks Lucas County sales tax for transportation improvements

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    TARTA buses make their rounds Thursday in Toledo.

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    James Gee, General Manager of the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority.

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    Buses lineup for an 11 am depature at the TARTA bus stop at Jackson and N. Huron streets in March.

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TARTA buses make their rounds Thursday in Toledo.

The Blade/Katie Rausch
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A revamped route map, a service mimicking ride-sharing, and even a new name are proposed in a long-range strategic plan the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority is poised to adopt, but such changes coming to fruition largely depends on successfully creating a new Lucas County sales tax.

Ultimately, TARTA could be the right agency to manage a local fleet of hired, autonomous vehicles that some believe will supplant private automobile ownership in the future, general manager James Gee and Francis Frey, president of the transit authority’s board of trustees, said.

WATCH: Bus rider hopes for TARTA improvements

But most of what’s listed in “Move Toledo: TARTA’s Vision for the Future” relies, they said, on switching the transit authority’s local funding source from the property tax now collected in seven member communities to a half-cent sales tax charged throughout Lucas County.

That change has twice failed to obtain necessary approval from all of the existing members as required by Ohio law.

The more recent attempt foundered in August when Sylvania Township trustees voted 2-1 against allowing Lucas County to become a transit authority member — a procedural step necessary before a sales tax could be placed on the county ballot.

During those proceedings, trustee Neal Mahoney said he couldn’t vote for the proposal without a concrete plan from TARTA for what it would do with increased revenue the agency would get from a sales tax.

Mr. Gee and Mr. Frey said they believe the “Move Toledo” plan addresses that and other criticism that accuses the transit authority of failing to adapt to current transit needs from its 1970s model of running full-sized buses along fixed routes radiating from downtown Toledo.

TARTA and its consultants — AECOM, a national transportation engineering firm, and Hart Inc., a local public-relations firm  — conducted individual interviews, focus groups, community meetings, and an online survey, among other things, to solicit ideas for the plan. TARTA paid about $85,000 for the work.

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James Gee, General Manager of the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority.

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“A lot of passengers were very positive. But our nonpassengers, we simply were not on their radar as a transportation choice,” Mr. Gee said. “There was a very strong sentiment of ‘We don’t want the same old TARTA.’ ”

“Some of it was painful to hear — no two ways about that,” Mr. Frey said.

Along Jackson Street on a recent afternoon, passengers waiting to board a No. 22 Bancroft Street bus delayed by a breakdown had basic ideas about what TARTA could do differently or better.

“Get their drivers to be on time, and get some newer vehicles,” said Jane McCarver of West Toledo, who was particularly unhappy with the second-hand buses TARTA picked up from other Ohio transit agencies several years ago when the Toledo Public Schools restored its student-transportation contract.

Old West End resident Eddie Stiger was one of several people who said the transit authority could do better in keeping its passengers informed about where their buses are and providing onboard services such as electrical outlets for recharging smart phones during trips.

“It’s 2018 — they need some technology better than that thing up there,” he said, pointing at an electronic sign at Jackson and Huron streets listing arriving buses.

A better smart-phone app for fare payment, trip planning, and bus tracking is among the priorities listed in “Move Toledo” and one Mr. Gee said will be pursued with or without changing TARTA’s funding arrangement.

“But it will happen faster” with the additional funds a sales tax would provide, he said, and that applies to an even greater degree to the newer vehicle fleet the transit authority would need to make wholesale changes to its service model.

“This is a great time, a great opportunity to rethink how we provide fixed-route service, and to totally rethink how we do TARTA,” Mr. Gee said.

Fixed routes can be drawn up as “a clean slate,” he said, while the transit authority has the potential to “out-Uber Uber” with a higher-end door-to-door service because it would have greater control over drivers, more consistent pricing, and dependable rides for people with disabilities.

Already in progress is the transit authority’s plan to develop a main bus station at Cherry and Huron streets to replace the 12-square-block, four-station loop it built in Toledo during the early 1980s to centralize downtown bus operations.

Property taxes collected in Toledo, Ottawa Hills, Sylvania, Sylvania Township, Maumee, Waterville, and Rossford now generate about $13 million annually, accounting for about 46 percent of the transit authority’s operating revenue.

Federal funding covers 31 percent and passenger fares provide just 19 percent of the agency’s budget, while state aid and miscellaneous revenue, such as bus advertising, provide the rest, according to TARTA.

A half-cent sales tax collected throughout Lucas County was projected last year to generate $30 million, but TARTA officials have pledged to turn one-third of such tax revenue back to local jurisdictions within the county for “transit-related” improvements that could include sidewalk construction and street repaving.

To get such a tax on the Nov. 6 general-election ballot, however, TARTA must have Lucas County approved as a transit-authority member in time for the Aug. 8 filing deadline, requiring approvals from all seven of the current members.

Mr. Gee said the strategic plan, which may be viewed online at movetoledo.com, will be formally discussed by the TARTA board of trustees when it next meets June 7.

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

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