Prospects Dim for WRTA Trumbull Expansion

WARREN, Ohio — Trumbull County will likely not place a 0.25% sales tax addition before county voters to support joining the Western Reserve Transit Authority, Commissioner Frank Fuda said.

The prospect of Trumbull County joining WRTA, which already provides limited services in the county, has been under discussion for several months. The county Board of Commissioners voted in August to authorize legal teams representing the commissioners and WRTA to collect information and determine necessary steps for the county to become a full member of the transportation entity.

A resolution to place the proposed sales tax before county voters was not going to be on the agenda for the commissioners Thursday meeting, Fuda said. During a phone interview Wednesday afternoon, Fuda said Trumbull County did not “need a $6 million system” to provide transportation services to county residents.

“We feel that we can get transportation that can meet our needs for less than that,” he said. Some of the services the county now offers WRTA doesn’t expect to be able to offer until two or three years down the road, he said.

In addition to balking at the cost, Fuda cited negative reaction from county residents.

“The calls coming in have been horrendous,” he reported. Residents of townships like Mesopotamia, at the upper northwest corner of the county, and even closer communities like the city of Girard, said they didn’t see where they would be getting the services they need.

Dean Harris, WRTA’s executive director, said Wednesday afternoon it seemed “pretty clear” that Trumbull commissioners had decided not to pursue membership in the system, based on his communications with Michael Salmone, Trumbull County’s transportation administrator

Based in Mahoning County, WRTA now provides limited countywide service in Trumbull County with grant funding from the Ohio Department of Transportation and a separately funded Warren Express route, Harris said. WRTA is seeking additional ODOT funds to extend the countywide Trumbull service through May, but if it is unsuccessful it likely will have to cut it in September, he said. The Warren Express service will remain operating.

Among those lamenting the expected loss of the Trumbull routes is Sarah Lowry, director of Healthy Community Partnership-Mahoning Valley, a collaborative supported by the Community Foundation of the Mahoning Valley that advocates on health-related issues.

The organization issued a news release following Trumbull commissioners’ Wednesday morning workshop session that urged commissioners not to “let this transformational opportunity pass.” The release was sent on behalf of several individuals and organizations, including the Raymond John Wean Foundation, Policy Matters Ohio, Trumbull County’s boards of developmental disabilities and mental health and recovery, Lake-to River Food Cooperative, YWCA Mahoning Valley and WRTA.

“It is both disappointing and disheartening to hear that’s their chosen course of action,” Lowry said during a phone interview following the news release.

“WRTA has been able to provide much-needed and sought-after services to residents of Warren and Trumbull County and continued to move forward, providing a level of service that Trumbull County residents deserve,” she continued. “There should be a longer-term solution and move away from a year-to-year, grant-funded situation.”

Lowry acknowledged the concerns about cost and that asking residents of a community that has experienced economic hardship – not just because of the COVID-19 pandemic but also because of longer-term issues – to increase the county sales tax was a “big” and “difficult decision. However, there are residents, social service organizations and businesses that have identified transportation as a need that must be addressed.

“We know commerce and opportunity don’t stop at the county line,” she said. The absence of “that opportunity for mobility and connectivity” presents additional barriers to be overcome “as opposed to providing more opportunities to be taken advantage of,” she emphasized.

The major segments that Trumbull County needs to provide services for are seniors and people with disabilities, Fuda said. The county hopes to address the needs of people who need rides to work through another program the county could offer.

“We like some of the stuff WRTA does,” he said. “We’re hoping to fund a program that will meet all of our needs with seniors and the handicapped and work something out with WRTA to take care of the other people.”

WRTA “would definitely help in any way we can if they’re willing to fund some routes,” Harris said. He acknowledged there might be cheaper alternatives Trumbull County could explore, but they wouldn’t be coordinated with WRTA’s service in the county.

“That is the downside of going with a separate vendor,” he said.

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.