YOUNGSTOWN — Western Reserve Transit Authority is bringing back temporary fixed route service in Warren with a newly awarded state grant — but it’ll be slightly different than the temporary state-funded routes that ended two weeks ago.
The Ohio Department of Transportation awarded the authority $560,000 to establish four routes which are slated to begin the first week of December and run through November 2022, said Dean Harris, WRTA executive director.
The authority previously received $1.2 million through the same ODOT grant program to establish six routes serving Warren, but that service ended Sept. 10 for lack of continued funding. At the time, transit officials pitched Trumbull County commissioners on joining WRTA — which could have meant a ballot issue to impose quarter-percent sales tax to fund WRTA’s $6 million expansion into the county — but two of the three commissioners rejected the idea.
Of the temporary routes previously offered, routes along Elm Road, Mahoning Avenue and Parkman Avenue are expected to return, Harris said.
The grant will also fund a new fixed route from Youngstown to Lordstown, specifically intended to bring service to the village’s Ultium Cells LLC battery manufacturing facility and TJX HomeGoods Distribution Center — a service requested by Ultium Cells executives, who are looking to hire more workers from Youngstown and Warren, Harris said.
Warren City councilperson Cheryl Saffold also requested a Lordstown route, he said.
“We know it’s a growing area so it’d be a good time to try it out and see if it works,” Harris said.
The hope is the Lordstown Express will connect to another route out of Warren, he added.
WRTA officials expect the routes could run as often as five times a day, but the details are still being worked out. Harris expects WRTA will announce more information in the coming weeks.
The six Warren-area routes offered under the previous grant were later scaled down to four, Harris said. Those four routes averaged about 3,000 trips a month.
In talking about demand for fixed routes in Warren, Harris said he’s heard criticisms from residents who often see WRTA buses carrying little to no riders. Harris said he thinks residents should consider public transit in much the same way as the roads they run on.
“Sometimes they’re really busy. Sometimes they’re not. But you need them all the time because people travel at different times. People tend to go to work at the same time and travel on the same schedule,” he said.
“I definitely look at it differently. When you know who our passengers are and the needs they have; the bulk of our ridership — they don’t have a car or have a low-paying job,” Harris continued. “This is their lifeline to jobs or food.
“A lot of people are so used to driving, people don’t realize how dependent others are on [public] transportation.”
WRTA’s on-demand countywide service in Trumbull County is expected to continue through the end of the year. The authority's Warren Express, which runs from Youngstown to Warren, is already a part of its permanent routes.
WRTA’s board of trustees is expected to decide next month on whether to make rides permanently free, starting Jan. 1. The authority conducted two brief virtual hearings on its zero-fare proposal earlier this week.
Under the proposals, WRTA fares — $1.25 for adults, 60 cents for reduced fare riders, and 75 cents for students — would go be wiped, along with the system’s day- and month-long passes. Paratransit and on-demand countywide service — the latter of which is $3.50 and $2.50 for seniors — would also be free.
WRTA pays to print bus tickets and have contractors collect, count and deposit its cash, so the authority actually sees only about half of its fare revenue, Harris said. In a pre-pandemic year, WRTA could expect to generate about $1 million from fares, but the costs to collect could run as high as $500,000, he told hearing attendees on Tuesday.
WRTA temporarily instituted free fares last year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and has since extended them through the end of this year.
“Our budget can handle not collecting the fares. It’s a small percentage of our revenue and we have a pretty strong revenue base in the [Mahoning County] sales tax that supports us more than the fare box does,” Harris said Tuesday.
That’s a 25-cent tax on every $100 spent in the county, proceeds from which go directly to WRTA.
No fares could also mean more riders, which in turn could boost the federal funding the transit system receives by as much as 50 percent — though that likely wouldn’t fully account for the lost fare revenue, Harris noted.
The move could help make public transit more accessible and address social inequities, Harris has said. The average WRTA rider makes between $12,000 and $20,000 a year.
“If you look at that as paying $1.25 for one way or $3 for an all-day pass, they’re paying a large chunk of their finances for transportation,” he said Tuesday. “Hopefully this will encourage those who don’t currently ride the bus to ride the bus.”
None of the Tuesday hearing attendees offered any opposition to the proposal. Harris said he expects trustees will pass the measure next month.
To Harris’ knowledge, WRTA would become the first transit authority in the state to permanently offer free rides, and one of only a small handful nationwide.That thinking encourages riders to spend their fare money elsewhere, contributing to local development, Harris told Mahoning Matters last month. Improving the buses’ destinations makes the trips better anyway.
“We feel that the cost to us … doesn’t offset the benefits for providing better service to our residents of Mahoning County,” Harris said Tuesday.