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Passage of WRTA levy is an economic, social and moral imperative



Published: Tue, October 7, 2008 @ 12:00 a.m.

If Saturday’s compelling front-page story about the people who depend on public transportation for their daily living didn’t tug at your heartstrings, we wonder what will.

But by the grace of God go so many of us.

There are a growing number of Mahoning Valley residents who through no fault of their own need the Western Reserve Transit Authority buses to get to work, to the stores and even for such a basic entertainment option as church bingo. Unfortunately, these residents are at the mercy of taxpayers, many of whom have little understanding of the importance of public transportation.

Unlike other parts of the country, the Mahoning Valley remains automobile-centric. That is because there aren’t major employment centers that draw thousands of suburbanites, resulting in traffic jams that last hours on end. Even at rush hour, the travel time from home to work in this area is relatively short.

But, it is a mistake to view the WRTA’s proposed 0.25 percent county-wide sales tax through the prism of an individual’s driving habits.

“I want to be independent, be a productive member of society, and public transportation is an important part of me being able to do that,” 58-year-old Jim Donnan, who is blind, told Vindicator reporter Katie Seminara. “I don’t want to live off the community.”

Independence

Talk to anyone who rides the bus and the one word you’ll hear over and over is independence. Even those with relatives who own cars are reluctant to impose.

Don’t mistake their need to be self-sufficient with pride or arrogance. WRTA riders, many of whom are handicapped, know the value of doing things for themselves.

If Donnan’s testimonial doesn’t impress you, consider what 84-year-old Margaret Agoney told reporter Seminara: “I don’t drive, don’t have a car and I depend on the bus.”

Agoney already has felt the effects of service cutbacks due to the WRTA’s financial difficulties. She had to hand in her bingo cards because night and weekend service was canceled.

Remember, she’s one of the many senior citizens in our area who depend on public transportation not only to fulfill basic needs, but to add some quality to their lives.

Our support for public transportation has been unyielding. Indeed, there are times when we’ve sounded downright preachy about the need for taxpayer support for this important service.

We have used the economic development argument — there are companies in the suburbs that depend on Youngstown residents to fill low-wage jobs — and have discussed the moral imperative of the issue.

We have also couched the debate over the WRTA county-wide tax in terms of the sky high cost of gasoline and the need by many families to find a cheaper alternative,

And, we have tried to tug at residents’ heartstrings. It is true that a majority of the WRTA’s riders live in the city of Youngstown, and that only Youngstown residents now pay the two property taxes that generate $2.6 million a year for the authority.

But it is just as true that there has been a reduction in federal and state financial support, which makes the $2.6 million inadequate to fulfill the WRTA’s needs — even with reduced service.

The reality is that the city does not have a large enough tax base to support public transportation.

There are a couple of other facts that deserve consideration.

First, money from the federal government cannot be used for operations, only for rolling stock and buildings.

Second, the big buses that have been the subject of so much public derision are operationally more cost-effective than the vans that the WRTA also runs.

Finally, the WRTA is a much cheaper option than the special bus services that have been cropping up all over the county. Case in point: When the authority discontinued some service, the Mahoning County Department of Job and Family Services was forced to pick up the slack. It costs $800 a month per client for taxi or van-type transportation, compared with the cost of a monthly ticket on WRTA of $42.

That is why the county commissioners are supporting the county-wide sales tax which will appear on the November general election ballot.

Given that voters already said no to the 0.25 percent tax in the March primary — the vote was 50,570 against, 38,519 for — the prospects of passage next month aren’t good.

Not giving up

But we aren’t giving up on urging residents to think in terms of the common good, and neither should religious organizations, charitable institutions, social service agencies and businesses.

The WRTA issue is about the future.

As a graphic that accompanied Saturday’s Vindicator story detailed, the benefits to be derived from county-wide bus service are many.

To highlight one: There would be door-to-door service with small buses throughout the county.

And, the governing board, now made up of five members appointed by the city, would be expanded to seven. The commissioners would select four and the city three.


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