YOUNGSTOWN — Nearly $600,000 in competitive federal funding has been approved to keep transportation services for Trumbull County’s senior and disabled residents running through next year.
But without a dedicated revenue stream — such as the new sales tax to fund an expansion of Western Reserve Transit Authority, which county commissioners opted not to bring before voters in the region — and with less federal funding expected next year, county officials will likely have to go back to the well to keep the wheels turning.
Trustees for the Western Reserve Transit Authority — which, following the recent dissolution of the Trumbull Transit Board, is now the only designated recipient of Federal Transit Administration funding for those services — on Thursday approved a $590,121 federal allocation for the county.
The FTA’s competitive grant fund had $1.6 million available for transit projects in the region this funding cycle, but that amount also includes funds held back in the last three cycles, said Dean Harris, WRTA executive director. The next cycle’s pool is expected to be much shallower, officials said.
Trumbull transit officials asked for $1.07 million from that pot. But under the rules of the FTA program, only 55 percent of available funding can go toward “traditional” projects like Trumbull’s senior transit system. WRTA, the program’s local administrator, also bid for funding for a vehicle, and so competed with Trumbull for the same funds this year.
Though the county’s proposed system aims for about 60,000 rides in a year for the county’s senior and disabled residents — who make up about a third of the population, officials estimate — the partial funding means the county may need to scale back its offering, said county transit director Mike Salamone.
Without this year’s FTA award, officials expected to have to cut senior transportation by two-thirds as early as next year, reads the county’s funding proposal. Senior transportation in the county is currently funded by senior levy revenues, which totaled $450,000 this year. But the program’s budget is “unsustainable,” and it expects to burn through its surplus next year, reads the proposal.
“Once we figure out how much we’re going to need and how much we have, then we’re going to start going out next year and start looking for other funding,” Salamone said.
He said he expects the new FTA-funded services to start in November.
A 2019 report on Trumbull’s senior levy-funded transit noted “more federal or state funding is needed to continue.” That year, the program cost $574,000, which was $124,000 over budget, according to an annual summary provided by Diane Siskowic-Jurkovic, Trumbull’s senior levy funds administrator. But it provided 23,300 trips in just its first six months, more than the previous program did the whole year prior.
In 2020, the senior levy-funded program went $285,000 over budget to offer 30,000 rides. As of May of this year, 10,600 rides were offered, and the program stayed well within its budget for the first half of the year, a report shows.
The previous system, overseen by the former Trumbull Transit Board, averaged 53,700 rides per year between 2012 and 2018. That’s the mark Salamone said he’s looking to hit.
WRTA recently pitched a $6 million expansion of fixed-route services into Trumbull County to better serve the general public. Commissioners ultimately passed on the proposal for being too oversized. Had county officials decided to join WRTA, voters in Mahoning and Trumbull counties would have decided whether to create a new, quarter-percent sales tax to fund the new services. But the ballot initiative never saw a vote from the commissioners board.
A state grant-funded program offering new fixed routes in Warren is expected to end Sept. 1, leaving non-senior and non-disabled riders at the curb. However, WRTA’s countywide, on-demand service in Trumbull County is expected to continue through the end of the year, Harris has said.
WRTA provided an estimated more than 15,000 rides on those Warren routes — not including its intercounty Warren Express route — in the first six months of this year.
In May alone, Trumbull’s transit services gave 1,174 rides for 76 non-senior clients, according to figures provided by Salamone. Only a dozen of those surveyed by providers said they weren’t disabled. Most said they were using the service to get to work or access medical services.
Though Commissioner Niki Frenchko worked in favor of the WRTA expansion, opposing commissioners Frank Fuda and Mauro Cantalamessa said they felt an expansion of general public transit would have served too few people at too great a cost, and pledged an alternative focusing on the senior and disabled populations.
Elsewhere in Trumbull County, officials expressed disappointment in the commissioners’ decision, including Lordstown Mayor Arno Hill, who said more public transit routes would be a boon for employers coming to the village.
However, public sentiment toward the proposed WRTA sales tax for new Trumbull fixed routes was widely negative on Mahoning Matters’ Facebook page.
“I am taxed enough for things I don't use or get to vote on,” said Jeff Popowich of Howland Center. “Probably should throw some tea in the Mahoning."
Only a handful of people who responded to a Mahoning Matters poll in June said they use public transit on a regular basis. Of the 130 respondents, 88 percent said they “never” use public transit. Another 12 percent either said they use it at least a few times per week or a few times per year.
“No new taxes,” said Mike Flaugher. “That said: It beats the alternative of raising my property tax."
WRTA trustees during the Thursday meeting suggested they haven’t given up on expanding services to Trumbull County.
Twenty-six of the more than 60 transit systems across the state, including WRTA, have some source of dedicated funding, be it sales or property taxes or county general funds, according to a 2020 report from the Ohio Department of Transportation.
Seven of those systems have a dedicated sales tax, including those based in Cleveland, Akron, Painesville and elsewhere. Mahoning County customers pay 25 cents on every $100 spent in the county for WRTA.
Voters in the Cincinnati area in May 2020 narrowly approved a new 0.8-percent sales tax to provide dedicated funding for Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority. The vote margin was less than three-quarters of a percent. The measure replaced the system’s previous 0.3-percent earnings tax.
The service then announced improvements and expansions over the coming years, including more crosstown routes, 24-hour service in several routes, expanded weekend service, new service to “emerging job centers” and more.
“This is the beginning of something big for our region,” Kreg Keesee, SORTA chairman, said in a statement. "And despite the uncertainty and concerns brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is clear that Hamilton County residents understand the importance of public transportation to our region’s economic development, job growth and healthcare access. We’ve had great support from our region’s elected officials; business, education, faith and union leaders; as well as our many advocates and customers.”
SORTA had a total operating budget of $89.4 million and revenues totaling $97.5 million in 2018, according to the 2020 ODOT report, compared with WRTA’s $9.5 million budget and $10 million in revenues that year.