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County still not set on transit solution

WARREN — In order to leave enough time for the process to be completed, Trumbull County commissioners have two weeks to decide on whether or not the county is joining WRTA, transit officials said.

“Commissioners really need to make a decision in the next two weeks,” Mike Salamone, Trumbull County transit administrator, said.

If commissioners vote to join, Mahoning County commissioners and Youngstown City Council have to vote on the measure first as the existing members of the Western Reserve Transit Authority, Dean Harris, director of WRTA, said. And then, if approved by all three entities, the WRTA board needs to vote on the matter by the end of July, Harris said.

The timeline is so WRTA can meet an Aug. 4 deadline to put a WRTA sales tax increase of 0.25 percent on the November ballot for voters in Trumbull and Mahoning counties to approve to pay for Trumbull County services. The tax increase, which equals an extra quarter on a $100 purchase, would raise about $6 million for equipment, drivers, vehicles and a new transit hub in Warren.

Salamone recommended commissioners take the action. Harris said he hopes the commissioners do, too.

“Of course, I hope it passes, I think our area needs it to make the connection between these two major urban areas and in Lordstown, where there are new jobs starting out there. Trumbull County is one of the largest urban areas out there that doesn’t have a permanent and sustainable public transit system out there,” Harris said.

Harris and Salamone stressed the economic impact developing the system will have on the area, which has suffered some of the highest unemployment and lowest median income in the state.

Each $1 invested in a public transit generates $5 in economic return, Salamone said, citing data from the American Public Transportation Association.

Every $10 million spent on public transportation capital projects yields $30 million in increased business sales, according to the APTA. And, every $10 million in operating investment leads to $32 million in increased business sales, the organization states.

And, in areas with public transportation, homes values increase by 24 percent when compared to areas with it, according to APTA.

While many who have vehicles may not consider a need for public transit, the average household would save about $10,000 a year by using public transportation to replace a second car, according to APTA.

“Transportation barriers impact residents’ ability to travel to work, to school, to medical appointments, or to grocery stores. Continuing to invest in and support transit has the potential to improve tens of thousands of lives and bottom lines,” states Sarah Lowry, director of Healthy Community Partnership Mahoning Valley, in a letter of support for the move. “In order for our region and our economy to rebound we must commit to investing even more in public transportation, which continues to play a critical role in our recovery by providing the means for patients to get to health centers, vaccination clinics, and, of course, work.”

If commissioners don’t make the move, the only option left is a continuation of offering “bandages” on an incomplete and uncertain transit system, Salamone said.

“Eventually, we are going to run out of bandages, and the only transit that will be able to provide in Trumbull County will be for seniors and the funding support for this will be $450,000,” he said.

The county should not “keep kicking the can down the road,” Salamone said.

In a comparison of 2018 transit services, Salamone found Trumbull County provided just 58,638 trips at a cost of $2.341 million, while WRTA in Mahoning County generated 1.455 million trips at a cost of $11.335 million.

Harris said he is already treating Trumbull County like a member of the WRTA family, applying for funds from the state to fund transit services in the county while commissioners debate whether or not to join. Because a state-funded pilot program to operate WRTA in Trumbull County runs out this month, Harris worked with the state to move money around from different grants to extend the program through September. And, he put in a request to the state to keep funding the six fixed routes in Trumbull County from September to June 2022.

“We do treat Trumbull County like a member of the WRTA family because the need for transit has been really high there. And, we are being received well,” Harris said.

One Trumbull County woman has started sending in $5 per month to help the service she depends on, Harris said. The letter, requested and received by the Tribune Chronicle, was written by Michelle Lee Miller of Warren, who described a medical problem that prevents her from driving. Under other transit programs, she could only take 15 rides a year, though she needs to see doctors several times a month. And, WRTA allows her to visit other places, too, she states in the letter.

The issue is not on a draft version of the Trumbull County commissioners’ agenda for the workshop today or the meeting Wednesday.

Clerk Paulette Godfrey said Commissioner Niki Frenchko wanted to see the issue on the agenda, but needed a second commissioner to add the item to the agenda.

Last week, Frenchko brought a motion to the floor, asking Fuda or Cantalamessa to second it. Neither did.

Fuda said he needs more time to review the options. Commissioners are still waiting to see if they can use COVID-19 relief funds to temporarily fund the services to contract with WRTA instead of joining the transit authority. They are also considering raising the tax themselves and then contracting with WRTA services instead of joining.

Frenchko said the public deserves the right to vote on the tax and encouraged the other two to move forward by joining WRTA.

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