Route to nowhere: Dedicated public bus tax nixed

By Evan Goodenow -

Getting a dedicated public transit tax on the November ballot in Lorain County has hit a dead end.

The nonprofit group Mobility & Opportunity for a Vibrant Economy failed to convince county commissioners to spend the roughly $9 million raised annually from a proposed 0.25 percent sales tax hike on improving bus service.

Lorain County has a 1.75 percent sales tax. Group members want 10 bus routes — including to Oberlin and Wellington — with 14-hour per day service, seven days a week, and a maximum 30-minute waits.

They said upgrades will improve the economy by allowing more people without cars to get to jobs as well as helping the elderly get to appointments and run errands. “Anything less than a dedicated quarter percent sales tax will fail to provide the level of convenience and utility needed for most people to select (public) transit as a travel choice,” Bill Harper, group chairman and United Way of Greater Lorain County executive director, said at a public hearing.

Lorain County Transit has just four routes, all in Elyria and Lorain, and just six buses. Commissioners conceded that’s inadequate. However, with a projected $1 million deficit and decreasing revenue, commissioners want half of the money from the increase for the general fund.

“We’re looking at significant shortfalls,” commissioner Ted Kalo said. “Costs are increasing. Revenues aren’t keeping up.”

The county, which has a nearly $60 million budget, hasn’t fully recovered from the Great Recession. Shrinking tax revenue and decreasing federal and state taxpayer aid has led to full-time county workers being cut from 2,140 at the end of 2008 to 1,727 at the end of last year, a 19 percent drop.

Commissioners are expected to approve the 50-50 split later this month. If approved in November, they said LCT would receive the money for five years and it would significantly improve bus service in its first year. Using projections made in less than a week from the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency — an environmental and transportation planning group that funnels federal money communities — they said LCT could add 10 routes with 16-hour per day service, seven days per week.

The improvements would be partially paid with $4.8 million in Federal Transit Administration grant money, which commissioners said the county would become eligible for by increasing local spending. LCT would add 17 buses and its annual budget would increase from about $1.2 million to $9.3 million. “We’re meeting those needs splitting it 50-50,” commissioner Lori Kokoski told Harper.

However, Kenneth Sislak, a transportation expert who compiled MOVE’s plan, said in an email that commissioners were being overly optimistic about the amount of federal money the county would receive.

“The mood in Washington among the majority (Republican) party in Congress is transit is a local issue,” said Sislak, a vice president of business and development for AECOM, an international engineering and planning firm.

Harper, whose group was formed about 18 months ago, was also skeptical about the NOACA numbers. He told commissioners his group spent months compiling its plan.

“We’ve reviewed the heck out of it. We didn’t pull dollar signs from the sky,” Harper said. “So it’s very difficult to see a plan that says the same thing could be done for half the amount.”

Harper said polling done for the group said voters would be more likely to support a dedicated transit tax than a blended one. However, voters have been reluctant to support minimal transportation taxes in recent years.

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, group members hope that with a a large turnout likely for the presidential election, voters may support improving transit.

While unwilling to support a blended tax, Harper said his group wants to work with the county on planning improvements with a $100,000 grant the county recently received from the FTA. “Working together will help to show the public and the voters that providing transportation to connect Lorain County is critical to the future of our communities,” he said.

Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @GoodenowNews on Twitter.

By Evan Goodenow