Public Transportation Is Vital to Mahoning Valley Business

First in a three-part series

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Every holiday season, the Things Remembered fulfillment center along South Bailey Road in North Jackson bursts at the seams with workers. Hundreds of temporary employees are hired to handle the high volume of orders for the personalized gift retailer.

Some of these seasonal employees have found it hard to make it to work because of problems with transportation. Some might not own a vehicle or can’t drive.

Others might not have a driver’s license, while others might be physically incapable of operating a vehicle.

Regardless, they want to work and Things Remembered needs them.

“We’re looking to hire something on the order of 450 people for seasonal work, starting Oct. 11 through Christmas and a little beyond,” says its human resource manager, Ed Johnson, “We do encounter those who have transportation issues.”

This holiday season, however, temporary employees who rely on others to transport them to and from work have another option. Beginning Sept. 13, the Western Reserve Transit System added Things Remembered as a stop on its Lordstown Express bus route. 

The route takes riders west along Interstate 76, then turns north onto Bailey Road toward Lordstown, where the new TJX HomeGoods distribution center recently opened. Then the route moves south along Bailey Road to North Jackson, where major employers such as Mom’s Meals, the Macy’s fulfillment center and Things Remembered are based.

“I think it’s going to help,” Johnson says. “If [WRTA] provides one more way to get them to work and back home, then it can’t be anything but good.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, annual ridership along WRTA’s 27 bus routes stood at 1.5 million users, says WRTA Executive Director Dean Harris. “About half of them were going to work,” he says. “You can see the connection between transportation, business and the economy.”

Harris says the most traveled route is the 8 Market, which begins downtown and extends south along Market Street to the Southern Park Mall in Boardman and returns the same way (See stories pages 6 and 7). Business activity along the route has prompted WRTA to embark on what’s called a Transit Oriented Development, or TOD, study to gauge the economic impact of the Market Street corridor. 

“It’s designed to show us how to develop districts along that route to promote residential and commercial development,” Harris says.

The long-term objective would be to use the information to apply for additional funding for services such as a Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, program. “It would let us build larger shelter areas and link communities together with faster routes,” he says.

Other heavily traveled routes include the 5 South, which is plotted along South Avenue from Youngstown into Boardman, before heading west along U.S. Route 224 toward the mall.

“There are a lot of jobs in the Boardman area,” Harris says.

“Mahoning Avenue has large ridership numbers, too.”

These routes are popular because there is a concentration of major retailers such as Walmart, as well as health-care offices, Harris says. “So, many use the service for shopping or working in retail occupations.”

Perhaps the best opportunity to expand the service is the growing North Jackson-Lordstown corridor, Harris says, where billions of dollars in new development are slated to create thousands of jobs. 

“That’s the hot area for jobs right now,” he says. The Lordstown Express service, for example, makes five runs a day, Monday through Friday, beginning at 5:10 a.m. Subsequent bus departures from Federal Station in downtown Youngstown are scheduled at 6:10 a.m., 2:10 p.m., 4:10 p.m., and 6:10 p.m.

Companies such Mom’s Meals, a prepared-meals delivery company owned by PurFoods, has undergone a series of expansions at its North Jackson site and is consistently appealing for workers. 

Harris says Mom’s Meals thought it a good idea to extend WRTA bus service to its plant and distribution operation on Bailey Road.

“They were experiencing a high absenteeism rate,” he says. “A lot of that was due to a lot of employees that were carpooling.”

Thus, if the carpool driver couldn’t make it to work because of illness, “They would lose a couple other employees at the same time,” Harris says. Providing WRTA service to the area helps to alleviate absenteeism.

An ongoing survey will identify new routes and service expansions for WRTA.

TJX HomeGoods presents another opportunity to establish a direct connection between business and the need for public transportation. The distribution center in Lordstown is expected to employ more than 1,000 workers once it is fully operational.

“We worked with the business community and did a survey of who needed transportation,” Harris says.  “When TJX was coming to the area, the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber was instrumental in providing a route there.”

WRTA and the chamber have initiated a survey of businesses and residents to determine demand for future transportation routes and service expansions throughout Mahoning and Trumbull counties, especially as private development accelerates in outlying areas such as Lordstown.

The TJX route is new and has yet to establish strong ridership because COVID delayed hiring at the distribution center, Harris says. “It was supposed to start last year but didn’t start until around June of this year,” he says. “The ridership has increased but it’s still small in number.”

Beginning in December, WRTA will extend a route to another major employer in Lordstown, Harris says. 

Ultium Cells LLC, a joint venture between General Motors and LG Energy Solutions, is in the process of building a $2.3 billion electric-vehicle-battery manufacturing plant just off state Route 45 in the village. Key to the project is providing transportation to the massive plant, which projects employing more than 1,100 people when it’s fully commissioned. 

A direct pipeline into Ultium allows those living in distressed areas the opportunity to improve their status, underscoring the broader socio-economic importance of public transportation, he says.

“Ultium has been very vocal about it,” Harris says. “They want to encourage employees from urban areas such as Warren and Youngstown.”  

WRTA maintains its Warren Express route but four other routes into Trumbull County were discontinued at the end of mid-September after funding expired. However, those routes plus a fifth route that extends into Lordstown and the Ultium Cells plant will restart in December and continue for one year.

The new service is funded through an Ohio Department of Transportation grant of $560,000.

WRTA had hoped to place a quarter-percent sales tax before voters in November to fund long-term fixed route service, but it failed to get majority support from the Trumbull County commissioners.

“For our riders, it’s the need of getting to work or doctors’ appointments,” adds Judy Rodriguez, director of transportation at WRTA. “It’s their livelihood.”

WRTA has waived all ridership fares since the COVID pandemic, a policy the transit company is considering keeping in place permanently.  The trustees of the agency are to consider the measure in October.

“Free fares really help,” Rodriguez says. “It helps our riders economically – they don’t have to worry about having a dollar in their pocket.”

Previously, WRTA charged $1.25 for a regular fare, 50 cents for seniors and those with disabilities, $3 for an all-day pass, and $52 for a monthly pass, Rodriguez says.

Harris says it makes sense to do away with fees since they contribute between 2% and 4% of WRTA’s total revenue. Costs associated with collection equipment and other operations  are high.

“It costs us about 50 cents of every dollar we collect,” Harris says.

Plus, he continues, it provides a needed free service to those who may have low-wage jobs, are elderly, and wholly rely on the bus system.

Most of WRTA’s operations are funded through federal, state and local sources. In 2008, voters in Mahoning County approved a quarter-percent sales tax to support local service.

Mary Mihalopoulos, supervisor of adult education at Mahoning County Career and Technical Center in Canfield, says the transit system helps adult students with transportation needs as they pursue an education toward new careers.

“We probably have eight to 10 students that use the bus,” she says. That number is likely to increase as WRTA launches an initiative to extend service later in the evening, when adult classes dismiss.

“Students would need to call WRTA beforehand and arrange transportation,” she says. “This could really help.”

Overall, ridership is gradually returning to pre-pandemic levels, Harris says. The health-care crisis precipitated a 40% drop in use, less than most transit systems nationwide. 

“Most lost between 60% and 80%,” according to Harris. Since the summer, ridership has improved about 6%, he reports.

“Ridership before COVID was growing,” Rodriguez says. “I remember about seven years ago we were running just four or five routes every two hours.”

WRTA was established 50 years ago by the city of Youngstown and the Mahoning County Board of Commissioners as a means to deliver countywide public transportation. The system plans a series of events in October to commemorate its golden anniversary.

Over the last five decades, the transit system has grown to a fleet of 81 vehicles – 59 motorbuses and 22 demand-response buses. The system has also kept pace with the fast-paced changes in technology.

Transit riders today can download a trip-planning app on their smartphones that enables them to access information such as departure times, bus stops, the bus number – even
how many riders are on that particular bus.

“It even has reminders,” Rodriguez says. “It will send you a text reminding you that your bus is on its way.”

Pictured at top: Pre-pandemic, WRTA served 1.5 million riders, half of whom used the service to get to work, say Judy Rodriguez and Dean Harris.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.