Still rolling

First Posted: 4/10/2015

LIMA — They roam the streets, 30-foot-long behemoths often adorned with colorful ads for various schools or organizations. However, these Allen County Regional Transit Authority buses largely remain unnoticed, according to the agency’s executive director, Sheila Schmitt.

“I just moved here about a year ago,” she said, “and I was surprised how people didn’t realize that we have a public transit system, and we’ve been here since 1878 when it was horse-drawn.”

The public transportation industry in Lima has taken on many forms through the years, from horses to electric streetcars and railways to buses. Despite facing perpetual financial difficulties, today’s RTA incorporates a variety of transportation methods, from its eight fixed routes to its “paratransit” program for disabled riders unable to make it to a fixed route and the “demand response” program, providing door-to-door service for riders who pay per mile.

Many riders, many stories

These three programs transported a combined 330,992 riders in 2014, with rider totals increasing yearly by 4 percent to 5 percent in recent years.

“It’s pretty apparent that the area needs public transportation, just looking at the numbers,” Schmitt said.

A 2014 survey by the Lima-Allen County Regional Planning Commission found that this number encompasses a diverse group of people, with an almost even split of black and white riders and many different age groups. A majority of riders (almost 42 percent) had a high school diploma or GED diploma, with 27 percent having less than a 12th grade education and 22 percent having some college.

One of those riders is Joyce Sheffield, a Georgia native who has lived in Lima for the past 10 years. While she had a vehicle at one point, for the past seven years she has relied on the RTA and bicycles to get around. For her, having access to public transit is a necessity, especially because she just started her new job.

“I just got this new job at UMADAOP last week, and I know a lot of people there,” she said. “I’m recovering [from addiction] and I have two sponsees. I’m at the point now where I want to help other people.”

Sheffield has also taken advantage of the bus to get to doctor’s appointments and to go to the grocery store. One unexpected benefit of being a frequent rider, however, has been the relationships she has made through the years.

“Some people I’ve known from here over the years,” she said. “People say, ‘How are you doing today?’ here. I don’t know some of the names, but I know the faces.”

Juan Wynn, a Lima native, takes the bus frequently to his job at the P&G distribution center on Cool Road. He is grateful for the service, with one exception.

“It’s been great except that it doesn’t go on Sundays,” he said.

Danny Miller, a senior citizen, frequently takes the bus because his vehicle is broken down.

“It would cost me $1,000 just to get my car fixed,” he said. He had just boarded the bus at Allen County Pallet after filling out a job application. “I tell you what, this means a lot if you ain’t got no car.”

All three of these riders were on the No. 7 South Metcalf route Tuesday, driven by longtime bus driver Larry Cowan.

“I love what I’m doing here today,” he said. “Out of the 10 years I’ve worked here, I’ve missed maybe two days.”

Cowan loves the diversity of people with whom he interacts on a daily basis. While that can bring both bad and good with it, he still would not change anything.

“Every day is different,” he said.

Work is not the only reason why people ride, according to Schmitt.

“We have a combination of people with low income along with the elderly and disabled who are trying to get to medical appointments and don’t have a driver’s license,” she said. “We also transport quite a few students. Then you have what we call ‘choice riders,’ who have a car. But why spend the money when the transit system’s so accessible?”

A bumpy ride

Schmitt and the RTA have continued their efforts to meet the needs of riders through the addition of the No. 7 line in January, reaching such destinations as Ohio Means Jobs, the Heart Center, Orthopaedic Institute of Ohio and Precision Thermoplastic. However, the agency still faces massive financial struggles, facing yearly expenses of as much as $3.5 million.

“We have no designated tax to assist us in operating,” she said. “It’s a struggle from one year to the next as to whether we’re going to make it.”

While the county does not provide financial assistance, according to Schmitt, the city of Lima does provide $75,000 to aid in operational costs. The bulk of funding comes at the federal level, mainly earmarked for capital. For the rest, the RTA often has to get creative.

“They go to Sam’s Club and get Honey Buns and snacks and sell them out of the lobby,” she said. “Believe it or not, we make money doing that. We have Greyhound that comes through here, and we get 15 percent of any Greyhound ticket that we sell out of Lima.”

Despite these struggles, the RTA insists that it is committed to remaining on the road for years to come.

“It’s been around for many years, and we’re not going anywhere anytime soon,” operations manager James Hunsaker said.

With bus fare at $1 and riders able to transfer to another bus for free, there is no better way to get around town, Cowan said.

“You can’t even buy candy for $1,” he said with a laugh.

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