WARREN, Ohio – Nia Benson never needed to ride the bus before. But when her co-worker at Boscov’s had to call off work because her kids were sick, Benson found herself without a ride.
On this late September day, riding the Western Reserve Transit Authority Route 28 Warren Express for the first time saved Benson from missing work.
“I probably would have called off work, and I wasn’t trying to miss work at all,” Benson said. “I’m working at Boscov’s and it’s just now opening and I’m just starting. So I don’t want to miss any days already. I’ve only been there a month.”
Benson’s mother, who lives in Trumbull County, rides the bus daily to work in Youngstown. Until she suggested her daughter take the bus that morning, Benson said she didn’t realize the bus was a possibility, or that it was free.
The stop for the Warren Express is a three-minute walk from her Warren home.
“So it was very, very convenient,” Benson said.“I’m appreciative. I’m happy that it’s convenient for people because they really use this every day to get to work.”
The Warren Express runs 30 trips weekdays and 22 on Saturdays, leaving from Federal Station in downtown Youngstown and making its way along U.S. Route 422.
Each trip runs 18.12 miles outbound and 16.47 inbound, traveling through Girard and Niles before making two short loops around Courthouse Square in Warren and the Highland Terrace apartment complex – part of Trumbull Metropolitan Housing Authority – then circling back to Federal Station.
In August, WRTA recorded 6,232 riders on the Warren Express, down from the 6,624 it recorded in July.
In 2020, the pandemic ate into the route’s total ridership. Last year, fixed-route transportation did not run from April 5 through May 18. Thus, the Warren Express only recorded 53,143 passengers in all of 2020, down from the 91,167 in 2019.
On this day, the 8:40 a.m. bus for the Warren Express had some 20 riders throughout the entirety of the trip before returning to Federal Station just before 10:30 a.m.
The bus initially had seven riders at Federal Station and picked up another shortly thereafter before departing downtown Youngstown.
Most of the riders heading to work are employed in or around the Eastwood Mall, one of two major employers along the route – the other being ETI Technical College.
Jordan Elliott has been working at Kay Jewelers for about two months, and only started riding the bus a few weeks ago, he said. Until then, the 24-year-old had been taking an Uber to and from work, which cost him about $22 each trip.
Elliott is saving to get his own car.
But for now, he has to rely on the Warren Express for an affordable way to get to work. Otherwise, Elliott would be spending about $200 weekly in Uber rides from his home on Youngstown’s south side, he said.
“I’d have to pretty much sell my ass off just to have the money that I need to be able to make it back and forth to work and support myself,” he said. “Right now, this is my main transport.”
The same goes for Sonika Shrestha, who works at the Cricket Wireless store near the Eastwood Mall. Shrestha hasn’t gotten a car or driver’s license since emigrating to the United States two years ago from Nepal, she said.
Having WRTA available to get her from her apartment near Youngstown State University to work is important, she said, because it’s always on time.
“I have been riding the bus for two years now,” she said. “The bus helps me a lot.”
Cafaro Co. which owns and operates the Eastwood Mall, hasn’t conducted a study on how many mall employees use the bus to get to work, but recognizes that “an important part of keeping the economy running is to have public transportation available to bring people to a major commercial center,” said Joe Bell, spokesman for Cafaro.
“For as long as the mall’s been here, it’s been a regular thing for both employees and shoppers to take whatever bus service is available,” Bell said.
For now, the stop along 422 in front of the mall is the only stop that serves the Eastwood complex. There were conversations some years ago about putting a stop in front of the food court entrance, Bell said. But too many commercial vehicles driving over that portion of the parking lot were damaging the pavement.
None of the mall employees or shoppers have brought up having a stop closer to the mall in a number of years. “It’s certainly something to talk about,” he noted.
Throughout the trip, riders departed or got on the bus by ones and twos.
Most of the initial group got off at the mall, but a group of about four or five got on the bus from Highland Terrace.
Not all of the riders on this morning trip were riding for work.
Many relied on the bus to get from home to other commercial sectors along the route, including downtown Warren.
Others depended on the bus for timely transport to medical appointments.
Sam Jones, a Youngstown resident, has been riding the bus for a few years to get to his doctor appointments, he said. Without the bus, his only alternative would be to use a door-to-door transportation service, which he said isn’t as reliable.
“I like the bus better than calling the door-to-door rides because this is more dependable, and it’s cheaper on the taxpayer,” Jones said.
Pictured at top: Without WRTA, Nia Benson would have to miss work at her new job after her carpool ride fell through.