With tax, WRTA looks to expand
Rider demand and a business plan would have to be studied, a Mahoning County commissioner said.
By PETER H. MILLIKEN
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Western Reserve Transit Authority would increase its fleet and expand its bus operations throughout Mahoning County if voters approve a 0.25-percent county sales tax for the public bus system.
A joint meeting of Youngstown City Council's public utilities committee, county commissioners and WRTA officials is scheduled for 5 p.m. next Monday at city hall to discuss the proposal further.
With an Aug. 24 submission deadline approaching to put issues on the November ballot, James Ferraro, WRTA executive director, wants the county commissioners and city council to approve the tax question for the November ballot this month.
Commissioner John McNally said county Administrator George Tablack and the commissioners also plan to meet with Ferraro before next Monday's session to discuss the proposal.
"We're looking into it. It's in the incubator stage, and after we look into it, I can give you an answer," Commissioner David Ludt replied when asked whether he'd support putting a new countywide WRTA sales tax on the ballot.
Ludt said rider demand for countywide bus service would have to be evaluated, and a business plan would have to be established before considering such service.
"We don't know the numbers. I wouldn't jump into something without researching it, and that's what we're in the process of doing," Ludt said.
Ferraro discussed his proposed tax in June with council's public utilities committee, whose members received it warmly. The plan, he said, would raise between $7 million and $8 million a year.
If a countywide sales tax is passed, Ferraro said the authority likely would buy eight to 10 additional 37-passenger buses to serve the more populated areas and use outside agencies to serve the more rural areas with smaller vehicles. The authority now has 49 37-passenger buses.
With the tax, Ferraro envisions expansion of service into Campbell, Struthers, Lowellville, parts of Poland and Canfield and the Market Street corridor to McClurg Road and northern Beaver Township and establishment of a suburban bus transfer point.
Federal regulations require that WRTA provide door-to-door elderly and handicapped transportation in areas served by its regular route buses during the same hours.
No recent surveys of potential riders have been done in sections of the county that WRTA does not now serve, Ferraro said. But Ferraro projected that, with countywide operation, average daily ridership would grow from the present 5,800 to 8,000 or more in the first year.
The transit authority gets 35 percent to 40 percent of its funding from three city property tax levies that raise a combined total of about $2.5 million a year. Two of them were renewed last November.
If a countywide transit sales tax is passed, it would replace all three of them, Ferraro said. Most of Ohio's major urban transit authorities are funded by a sales tax, he added.
Commissioner Anthony Traficanti, however, expressed a concern about having the county's 0.5-percent sales tax renewal on the ballot around the same time as the WRTA issue.
"People don't want to pay any more than they have to, and the sales tax is basically our lifeline to fund the county," Traficanti said.
"You just can't focus on one single thing at this particular time. You have to look at the overall picture of the health and well-being of the county," Ludt said, referring to the two tax questions.
Traficanti said commissioners will likely put the 0.5-percent sales tax, which expires Dec. 31, 2007, on the ballot for renewal in May 2007.
"We certainly don't want to do anything to jeopardize the county's future, but service levels that we're currently providing will probably be a thing of the past if we don't move toward another dedicated local [funding] base larger than the property tax in the city," Ferraro said.
Despite an increase in bus fares, which took effect June 1, WRTA needs more operating money to cope with large fuel price increases and cuts in federal and state funding, or it will have to reduce services, Ferraro said. The authority, which budgeted $500,000 for fuel this year, will actually spend more than $1 million on it, he said.
If reductions are made, bus service after 6 p.m. would be the first thing to be cut to reduce overtime costs, Ferraro said.