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Transit systems look to team up

WARREN — The two organizations providing public transportation in Trumbull and Mahoning counties are joining forces in hopes of securing some of the $44 million in state money set aside for public transportation.

And if the application is awarded to the Western Reserve Transit Authority, Trumbull County will have for the first time in recent history a fixed-route transportation service.

The WRTA mini buses would hit routes in the city of Warren for people without private transportation and connect new neighborhoods to shopping, hospitals, jobs and other services too far to walk to.

WRTA is applying for approximately $1.6 million set aside in the state’s transportation budget to create a fixed-route service in Trumbull County that would hub around the city’s Courthouse Square. The five or six routes include one that would branch out to the Walmart shopping area off Elm Road in Bazetta, the hospitals off East Market Street, the industrialized area known as the Golden Triangle, residential areas off Niles Road in the Draper Street area and routes that travel the area’s southwest side and Parkman Road, said Dean Harris, executive director of WRTA. Riders also could board a WRTA Warren Express bus and travel U.S. Route 422 from Warren into Youngstown and other destinations in Mahoning County, Harris said.

Because the services would be provided under WRTA, day passes would cover travel on any number of different routes at a one-time daily fare cost. An adult day pass is $3, discounted at $1.50 for seniors and people with disabilities.

The grant money would fund operating costs. Existing WRTA mini buses, and perhaps a few new ones, would operate the hourly service.

The exact routes are not finalized, and the public will have the chance to influence the selected routes if WRTA is granted the money.

The state is expected to announce the awards Oct. 7, Harris said. Money wouldn’t start flowing until next year, but if the area gets the money, public meetings would be held in the winter and services could begin in March.

The identified routes would connect people to three grocery stores, corner stores that have added fresh fruits and vegetables to their racks and put a dent in the city’s food desert problem, said Matt Martin, director of Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership, a Warren nonprofit that studied the problem and is working on solutions.

“We are encouraged at the prospect of WRTA offering multiple fixed routes in Warren that will help increase our residents’ access to jobs, mitigate the impact of food deserts by providing access to fresh food and generally improve the quality of life in Warren,” Martin said.

Trumbull County commissioners Wednesday approved a letter to the Ohio Department of Transportation supporting the application for the new, joint venture.

In addition to establishing a fixed-route service, the commissioners’ letter also “supports the opportunity to create a regional transit authority serving both Mahoning and Trumbull counties.”

This could mean the Mahoning Valley would no longer host two transit entities, WRTA and the Trumbull County Transit Board, said Harris and Mike Salamone, Trumbull County transit administrator.

“There could be one transit authority, instead of two,” Harris said.

In the future, WRTA could continue to seek funds on behalf of both counties and cut costs by sharing administrative and operating resources, Harris said, if that is the direction Trumbull County officials want to take public transportation.

ODOT favors funding regional projects, Harris and Salamone said, and that may give their application more gravity in the selection process.

“ODOT wants regionalization and stability, and I think our plan shows both,” Salamone said.

The service would be funded for 15 months if the application is approved. And once it is started, it will open the door to apply for more state and federal funds. The state money could leverage more federal dollars for the area if it is used as local matching funds. Trumbull Transit cannot apply for federal funds at this time, as they are out of compliance with Federal Transportation Administration standards and labeled “unfundable.”

By working together, WRTA and Salamone can shore up transportation doubts in Trumbull County and prevent a potential gap in services if Trumbull Transit doesn’t have the funds to continue operating.

A second application submitted before the Wednesday deadline asks for about $800,000 for WRTA to provide “paratransit” services in Trumbull County, too, meaning people could call for a ride 24 hours in advance to go from place to place in Trumbull County, off the fixed-route service, Harris said. That is largely what Trumbull Transit does now, but WRTA would take some of the burden if the state money is allocated. Trumbull Transit had to cut its service hours in half earlier this year as local funding sources dried up.

“Ultimately, this will go a long way in reducing wait times for rides for our transit system and help meet an ever growing need of senior trips,” Trumbull County Commissioner Mauro Cantalemessa said.

In the future, WRTA and Trumbull County could further develop relationships to provide more transportation options to other groups, too, Harris said.

rfox@tribtoday.com