LIMA — Most people involved seem to agree on two things: The Allen County Regional Transit Authority provides a valuable service, and it faces a serious money crunch.
The county’s public bus transportation system transported 396,000 riders last year and expects even more this year, bringing many of these people to their jobs or medical appointments. And with more than 30 percent of its grant funding gone, it faces an expected budget shortfall of more than $1 million.
“We’re trying to impress upon voters that this really helps a large group of people remain self-sufficient,” said RTA Executive Director Sheila Haney.
The debate over its 10-year, 0.25 percent income tax request really focuses on just how valuable the request is. It’s expected to raise $4.2 million per year.
“The sales tax option they are putting on the ballot raises just over $4 million,” said Lima mayoral candidate Keith Cheney, an opponent of the issue. “Where’s the extra money? Who controls it? What are you going to do with it? That’s my problem with it. I support the system.”
Haney said the RTA investigated its options before settling on the sales tax. Its board, by a 4-3 vote, felt the sales tax was the fairest way to go, because it didn’t affect low-income riders’ most basic needs, such as housing, utilities and food. Also, because Lima is a shopping hub for the region, RTA estimated 80 percent of the bill would be paid by people who live outside the county.
If the levy fails, the organization will cut services that the recently expired grants covered, including Saturday routes and evening routes. Each of those would affect some of the system’s most ardent users, John Bowker, a resident at Lochhaven, said earlier this week.
“One is the working poor,” he said. “No. 2 is senior citizens who do not drive. No. 3 is disabled persons, regardless of age, and then students who use RTA to get to classes at their high schools and the colleges. Every one of those categories of citizens of this community deserves to have affordable transportation available to them, and without it, the entire community will be very negatively affected.”
Haney said she understands the nearly $3 million of extra revenue is a concern. The money can be used for any transportation issue, including sidewalks, safer ramps and building new bus shelters along the routes. She’s also interested in pursuing a bike-sharing program.
Still, opponents wonder if there is a better way to balance the RTA’s budget.
“You look at the buses as they drive by you, and they’re certainly not full,” Cheney said. “Could there be some cost-saving measures there? I believe there could be.”
Haney said most riders are on a bus for about 10 minutes, and buses are fullest between 6 and 10 a.m. and 3 and 5 p.m., as riders head to their jobs. Several routes deliver people right to the front door of their jobs, she said. She also worries that cutting down routes and the number of riders would result in reducing grant funding in the future, eventually leading to a system shutdown.
While Lima provides $95,000 a year to the RTA, the Allen County commissioners haven’t contributed to the agency since making cuts in 2008.
Thomas Mazur, executive director of the Lima-Allen County Regional Planning Commission, said RTA was an important part of the region’s economic viability. His organization hasn’t taken a stance on the RTA levy yet, but there’s no doubting the system’s value, he said.
“All too often people assume people using the transit system are too lazy or not able to willing to drive themselves,” he said. “The reality is they don’t have the finances or resources to get there otherwise.”