Cuts loom if Mahoning County voters reject bus levy, WRTA chief says
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By Ashley Luthern
A five-year 0.25-percent sales tax renewal in Mahoning County is needed to keep the Western Reserve Transit Authority fully operational, officials say.
Without renewal, all services will be cut, said Jim Ferraro, executive director of WRTA.
WRTA collected $4.2 million in 2009, $6.9 million in 2010 and $7.5 million in 2011 in sales tax, which makes up about 70 percent of the transit authority’s funding. The remaining amount is generated by fare-box revenues and federal grants.
The 0.25-percent sales tax was first approved in 2008, and WRTA has until the fall of 2013 to get it renewed. The renewal appears as Issue 3 on the Nov. 6 ballot.
“It’s being safe,” Ferraro said of putting the renewal on the ballot early.
“... If it’s approved, we’ll spend the year preparing for changes. There are routes that we’re not really pleased with and we want to make more productive,” he said.
Ferraro said there’s been a growth in the use of EasyGO that provides door-to-door service with small buses and vans throughout the county. The service was a campaign promise when WRTA first put the sales tax on the ballot.
“We take people from Sebring to Victoria Road” in Austintown, he said. “We think we kept most of our promises, but I think we can still do better.”
Director of Transportation Tom Nugen said buses run from 5:40 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Saturday. Six routes have night service that begin at 7:15 p.m., but night service is not available on Saturday.
Nugen said riders have asked about expanded weekend service, but Ferraro pointed out that the sales-tax renewal “is not additional money.”
“It’s a struggle because we want to keep fares at a point where it’s affordable — 60 to 75 cents, $1 or a little more,” Ferraro said.
Fare for an adult is $1.25, 60 cents for seniors and 75 cents for students.
Marianne Vaughn, WRTA finance director, said the challenge is facing rising costs.
“Our budget keeps creeping up. In 2010, it was $8.5 million. Two years later, it’s $10.7 million. The cost of fuel and insurance keeps increasing, as are maintenance costs,” she said.
Ferraro said WRTA must keep large coach buses at least 12 years under federal guidelines.
“We’re trying to retire buses when it costs more to repair them than purchase new,” he said.
Like many public entities, the majority of WRTA’s budget, about 68.3 percent, goes to labor costs. The transit authority employs about 100 people, which includes about 60 bus drivers, Ferraro said.
Bus drivers have a starting wage of $11.70 an hour, taking five years to reach their full pay of $19 an hour, and receive health benefits, he said.