A countywide quarter-percent sales tax could help WRTA’s economic woes, officials said.
By ANGIE SCHMITT
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN — Local and state leaders are scrambling to find a solution to the Western Reserve Transit Authority’s financial troubles.
The authority announced last week the elimination of several routes and Saturday service.
Officials representing the Ohio senate, the regional council of governments, the cities of Niles and Warren and other agencies met Friday to discuss possible answers to the agency’s problems.
State Sen. Capri Cafaro of Liberty, D-32nd, is working to introduce legislation that would increase state support for local public transportation providers.
Meanwhile, local government officials are taking a long hard look at the possibility of regionalization of transportation in Mahoning and Trumbull counties.
“It seems like [local transportation agencies] are up against each other for the resources that come to our area,” said State Sen. John Boccieri of New Middletown, D-33rd.
James Ferarro, WRTA’s executive director, explained that a loss in federal grant dollars combined with rising expenses forced the agency to announce service cutbacks Aug. 27. The transit authority ceased Saturday service the following weekend.
“With tough times come the situation that we’re in,” said Ferraro. “We tried to continue to provide the level of service that we have provided. It got to the point that we actually jeopardized our existence.”
The latest round of cutbacks is expected to save WRTA $350,00 by year’s end. But at least $2 million is needed to correct the agency’s negative balance, said treasurer Marianne Vaughn.
Since the Shenango Valley Shuttle in Mercer County and Niles-Trumbull Transit System came into existence, WRTA has been forced to split several government grants it once benefited from solely, Ferraro explained.
Grant dollars allowed WRTA to establish night and weekend service. Now, that people have come to rely on the routes, the funding is no longer there, he said.
“In the last three years we have seen continuous ridership growth,” Ferarro said. “When [service is] not funded, there’s only one thing you can do in the public sector and that’s pull back.”
The Eastgate Regional Council of Governments already has begun developing a plan to regionalize local transportation service, said John Getchey, executive director. State and local leaders developed a task force Friday to pursue that end.
Ferarro said regional cooperation, particularly assistance from Mahoning County, could help relieve WRTA’s financial woes.
“It’s staggering the number of vehicles that are crossing each other’s paths in this city,” he said. “Duplication is a horrible thing.”
Boccieri said he plans order an audit of Mahoning County’s transportation budget to see if it could provide assistance to WRTA.
“We’re one of the only transit authorities in the state that doesn’t receive much support from the county,” he said.
Mahoning receives more than $5 million annually for transportation, Boccieri said. The majority of that money is paid to private transportation providers, Ferarro explained.
“We haven’t gotten a penny [from the county] since our incorporation in 1991,” Ferraro said.
Ferraro also suggested a countywide quarter-percent sales tax could revive the eliminated routes and return the agency to solvency.
“For a quarter-percent sales tax, we could travel anywhere in the county,” he said. “We want to move this from the property tax in the city [Youngstown] to a sales tax in the county.”