Trumbull County Employers Seek Mass Transit Solution

WARREN, Ohio – Come September, the pilot public transportation program operated in Trumbull County by the Western Reserve Transit Authority will end operations, much to the dismay of employers.

Since March 2020, WRTA has run limited service in Trumbull with grant funding from the Ohio Department of Transportation. Before COVID restrictions reduced bus capacity, the routes saw about 2,900 trips, serving primarily the core of Warren, says Dean Harris, WRTA executive director.

“I think the 2,900 that we’re seeing for a brand-new route is actually a pretty good number,” Harris says. “And it’s still growing.”

Harris says he’s requested additional funding from the state to continue the routes. Because Trumbull County commissioners haven’t put a proposed 0.25% additional sales tax before county voters to support joining WRTA, however, it may jeopardize the chances to obtain that funding.

“I don’t know if [ODOT] will approve the request because the county doesn’t want to join the WRTA,” Harris says. “Unless the county commissioners change their mind or come up with some money, there’s going to be no service beyond the Route 28 route that we have up there.”

WRTA’s Route 28 Warren Express runs primarily along U.S. Route 422 and Mahoning Avenue, with major stops at ETI Technical College, Eastwood Mall and Kent State Trumbull.

The Trumbull County pilot program launched maybe six weeks before COVID hit, “so it didn’t even have a chance to take off,” he says.

During the pandemic, ridership systemwide dropped about 40%. Before COVID, about half of all riders used WRTA for work, he says.

The loss of a greater Trumbull County service concerns county employers, particularly those in Lordstown, where the Route 80 Lordstown Express serves distribution companies there. Route 80 will remain in service and isn’t part of the pilot program.

Perishable Shipping Solutions, an e-commerce fulfillment company, recently opened a 75,000-square-foot center in Lordstown and is hiring 15 to 20 people, from hourly “pick-pack” positions to supervisors and managers, says Danny Catullo, chief customer officer and co-founder of PSS.

“We’re trying to build up enough personnel so that we can grow our capacity,” Catullo says. “The business for us is there. E-commerce is not going away. It’s only expanding. And we have plenty of our clients who want to move into the Youngstown, Lordstown area.”

A lack of reliable public transportation will affect the ability of the company to recruit workers, particularly for the hourly positions, Catullo says. With a tight labor market, “we should be finding creative ways to ensure our community is coming back to work, not fighting against that,” he says.

Staffing at PSS’ site in Youngstown hasn’t been a problem because of the availability of public transportation, he says.

While jobs at Lordstown may work better for some of those employees, “we can’t get them there” because of transportation issues. It also reduces the pool of job applicants, Catullo says.

“Without public transportation, you’re really minimizing the area that people can get to work,” he says. “If that is one of the prohibitors for a worker to be able to make a living wage, I think that we should be doing everything in our power to take away those gates.”

For Ultium Cells LLC, part of the hiring tactics of the manufacturer of electric-vehicle batteries is to recruit and train individuals from underserved communities, says Christopher Allen, talent acquisition specialist. Transportation can be a barrier for those populations who cannot procure their own vehicles, he says.

Allen hopes something can be worked out with the WRTA. Currently, the Ultium parking lot lacks a bus turnaround, and “we’re still going to figure out how to get that done,” he says.

“Hopefully we can come up with some kind of solution through WRTA maybe,” he says. “But we still need to talk about it.”

Employers in Lordstown say reliable public transportation helps them attract and retain workers. It was a “major deciding factor” for TJX, says Sarah Boyarko.

Meanwhile, the Things Remembered fulfillment center in North Jackson is hoping to be added as a stop on WRTA’s Route 80 Lordstown Express that stops at PurFoods Mom’s Meals in North Jackson after departing the HomeGoods distribution center on Bailey Road in Lordstown.

Outside of its busy season, Things Remembered employs 120. But come the fourth quarter, “We will add between 300 to 400 people,” says HR Manager Ed Johnson.

“It’s been a challenge getting a sufficient number of folks every year,” Johnson says. “We are hopeful that getting on their route will enable people who otherwise don’t have transportation to get here and get jobs here.”

Primarily, those jobs will be on the engraving and personalization side of the operation. The North Jackson center is also the central warehouse for 160 Things Remembered stores, he says, and it houses a 65-seat call center.

Some workers at the center are from Warren and Niles. Having public transportation in Trumbull County would benefit them and allow the company to reach a wider pool of applicants.

“The easier it can be for people to get here to work for us, the better it will be for us,” Johnson says.

The same holds true to attract and retain businesses.

Workforce is “always part of the conversation” when the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber talks with potential businesses coming to the area, says Sarah Boyarko, chief operating officer and senior vice president, economic development.

The chamber works WRTA into that conversation and discusses whether an area is being served, can be served, needs a short extension or an entirely new line, she says.

“Typically, when there’s a need, we track all that information, we share it with WRTA,” Boyarko says. “There’s also another whole level of need around social services, around access to governmental entities or offices. All of that comes into play as well.”

Access to public transportation was “one of the major deciding factors” for TJX in deciding to locate its HomeGoods distribution center in Lordstown, Boyarko says. The chamber worked with TJX and WRTA to identify the best routes to serve the center, including one that runs from the city of Youngstown to Lordstown. That route is now running and has benefited other businesses along the route, she says.

“There’s opportunity for that to grow in the future as well with the potential of picking up other riders along the way,” she says. “There’s an interest in not only duplicating that process in Trumbull County, but also the remainder of the county that is looking for service as well.”

Had the proposed sales tax passed, WRTA had a five-year plan to ramp up service, Harris says.

By year three, the county service would have added more fixed routes, including another from Warren to Lordstown so its buses could run later and on Saturdays, he says. The transit service also planned microtransit zones to provide quick trips throughout the county.

“It would be pretty similar to what we have in Mahoning County,” Harris says.

But county commissioners Mauro Cantalamessa and Frank Fuda balked at the cost. In June, Fuda told The Business Journal that Trumbull County didn’t “need a $6 million system” to provide transportation services to residents.

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

WRTA will continue to offer service in Trumbull County with the Route 28 express route, Harris says. And just because the countywide service didn’t pass this time doesn’t mean that can’t change later.

“We just continue to work with the commissioners in Trumbull to see if there’s anything we can do with them,” he says.

Pictured at top: Although WRTA won’t expand Trumbull services, the Route 28 Warren Express will remain, says Dean Harris.

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.