Bus transportation advocates are seeking a fare deal with Lorain County commissioners in connection to an issue that our readers will help decide this fall at the polls.
Members of the nonprofit group MOVE (Mobility & Opportunity for a Vibrant Economy) want to improve Lorain County Transit service with the roughly $9 million that would come annually from passage in November of a 0.25 percent sales tax hike.
The county has a 0.75 percent sales tax with 75 percent for continuing county operations and 25 percent set aside for the Lorain County Jail.
If the money were dedicated to transit improvements, group members said it would allow for 10 bus routes, 14-hour per day service seven days a week, and a maximum 30-minute wait for buses.
Right now, Lorain County Transit has just four fixed routes — all in Elyria and Lorain — and just six buses, according to Pam Novak, LCT chief financial officer. Amherst has not had public bus service for roughly a decade and Oberlin has paid for limited connector service to Lorain and Elyria twice weekly. Wellington used to be on a loop that connected to Oberlin, but that service has long since been terminated.
LCT’s budget is about $1.2 million annually in this year’s nearly $60 million county budget.
Oberlin resident Judy Riggle was one of several public transportation supporters to speak to commissioners at a July 6 public hearing on the tax proposal. She said a lack of buses has cost a friend of hers jobs because the woman has no car. She also can’t get to classes at Lorain County Community College that would improve her job skills.
“This has big ramifications,” Riggle said of the lack of buses.
Amherst resident and former city treasurer Mark Hullman said more buses will increase employment and tax revenue. “This is the right thing to do and the right time to do it,” he said.
However, voters have stalled recent attempts to minimally improve bus service.
In 2013, 59 percent of voters rejected a 0.04-mill property tax levy that would’ve raised $246,000 annually and cost the owner of a $100,000 home an additional $1.23 yearly. In 2014, 58 percent of voters rejected a 0.065-mill levy that would’ve raised $402,804 annually and cost the owner of a $100,000 home an additional $2.28 yearly.
Nonetheless, with a big turnout expected for the presidential election, transportation advocates are optimistic.
Brian Frederick, the group’s vice chairman, said voters would support a dedicated transportation tax if educated about its benefits. He said all of the money needs to be spent on transit to make meaningful improvements.
“It would be an absolute tragedy to waste money on something that is less than adequate,” said Frederick who is also Community Foundation of Lorain County CEO and president. “Something may be better than nothing when negotiating a raise with your boss, but this isn’t the case with something as complex as transit.”
While Frederick and a few other speakers said the tax needs to be dedicated to transit, commissioners previously supported spending 25 percent — $2.25 million — for improvements if the tax passes.
Commissioners cited an approximately $5 million projected deficit in next year’s proposed $61 million budget due to a lack of tax money. The losses are due to businesses closing and a tepid recovery from the Great Recession which officially ended in 2009.
The red ink comes despite significant county workforce cuts. While the number of part-time employees has remained around 300, full-time workers have been cut significantly. Full-time workers dropped from 2,140 at the end of 2008 to 1,727 at the end of last year — about 19 percent — said budget director Lisa Hobart in an email.
The county is also borrowing a combined $4.9 million for various upgrades including Lorain County Justice Center improvements, renovation of the Lorain County Courthouse, and the purchase of a new Lorain County Veterans Services building. Up to $9 million in future borrowing is planned for various projects including a new case management system for the courts and prosecutor’s office and to complete the courthouse renovation.
Commissioner Matt Lundy stressed the necessity of the projects.
“Nobody’s spending like drunken sailors here,” he said. “We’re just trying to keep the lights on.”
Lundy and commissioner Ted Kalo said given the county’s finances, dedicating $9 million to transit improvements was untenable. However, they indicated openness to a 50-50 split.
Kalo said if the tax were to pass, the money couldn’t be immediately spent for transit upgrades. He said three to four years would be needed to seek matching federal taxpayer grant money to buy buses and map new routes.
He cautioned against creating “unreachable” expectations for residents.
County administrator Jim Cordes said in the early 2000s buses were underused due to a “fundamentally flawed” routing process. He said software is now available that would allow for more efficient routing and better tracking of ridership.
A goal would be to get bus service back to Oberlin and Wellington and resume routes from Oberlin College to Cleveland Hopkins Airport and downtown Cleveland.
Cordes said a partnership with the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority is needed to limit the amount of buses riders would need to take per trip.
William Harper, the group’s chairman, said he was open to a 50-50 split if it could meaningfully improve transportation. “We really do believe that this will contribute significantly to a revitalization of our county, particularly our downtown’s and our neighborhoods that are suffering,” he said.
Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @GoodenowNews onTwitter.