WOOSTER Wayne County commissioners are taking a cue from the Stark Area Regional Transit Authority (SARTA) on how best to implement a countywide public transportation system.
Commissioners on Wednesday announced a plan to survey county residents on transportation needs and explore the feasibility of extending SARTA service to Wayne.
The county is collaborating with SARTA, Community Action Wayne/Medina, the Transportation Coalition of Wayne County, and other community stakeholders to develop a plan based on the results of the survey.
“This is an important priority,” Commissioner Ron Amstutz said. “All of the communities need to figure out what works best.”
Kirt Conrad, SARTA executive director, said one of the first trips he took as CEO in 2009 was to a Transportation Coalition of Wayne County meeting to discuss their needs.
Talks have continued off and on since, he said. Increased investment in rural transportation by the Ohio Department of Transportation and funds available through last year’s state budget could bring the idea to fruition within the next year.
The transit authority will serve as a financial partner, applying for grants on behalf of the county based on its long-established relationship with the Ohio Department of Transportation.
“There’s no reason to recreate the wheel when we already have it done,” Conrad said. “ODOT is encouraging more inter-county collaboration like the one between Stark and Wayne.”
Survey goals include: gathering detailed information about the public and private transit service available to the community; determining the need for expanded or new services; gauging the interest level of existing and potential riders; and measuring support for expanded services from employers and business groups, colleges, trade schools, and other academic institutions as well as criminal justice and social service providers.
Wayne County commissioners hope to receive feedback from a wide range of existing and potential transit users such as college students, senior citizens, young professionals who are driving less, people experiencing economic hardship because of a lack of transportation access, and people who need transportation for court appearances, substance abuse treatment, or mental health services.
Community Action is focused on the county’s older adults, a demographic that is projected to grow over the next few years, according to agency President Melissa Pearce. A transit system would provide an affordable option for seniors to access services necessary for their quality of life such as doctor’s appointments and groceries.
Reliable transportation also would help young people moving into the job market. Community Action has heard from the Wayne County Schools Career Center that some of their students don’t have a driver’s license because they can’t afford to take driver’s education classes, buy a car, or pay for insurance.
The coronavirus pandemic may influence more young people to stay in rural Wayne County, Pearce figures. A transit system would allow them to access employment without the need for a car.
“We can solve part of the problem of them getting to work,” Pearce said.
Capt. Doug Hunter of the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office shared how a transit system could help those who are involved in the justice system whether it’s appearing for court, getting treatment following a drug offense, or reducing the number of people who drive with a suspended license because they have no other way to get to work.
Stark County isn’t the only example of a successful transportation model in the area. Wooster Transit provided nearly 85,000 rides in 2019, almost double from the previous year. Program membership also increased by 30% over that year, according to information provided by the city.
“The transportation system for Wooster residents has been a tremendous success, especially since partnering with (Community Action Wayne/Medina) and Wooster Transit,” said Joel Montgomery, director of administration for Wooster.
According to Montgomery, the city’s program has helped clients access social service agencies. It’s also made it easier for residents to reach medical appointments, go grocery shopping, or get to and from work.
“Expanding the system to meet a countywide need would be a great benefit to the county’s residents, including those in Wooster who travel outside the city for employment and other services,” said Montgomery, adding grant funds could defray some costs for the city.
Community Action’s Rural Mobility Solutions program strives to solve the dilemma of “no car, no job; no job, no car.”
“Most good-paying jobs are in the cities of Wooster and Orrville although 70% of the residents live elsewhere. Without a vehicle, many individuals lack the opportunity for a good job,” Pearce explained. “With the recent COVID economic impact, it will be more important now than ever to provide access to a job opportunity.”
A link to the survey will be available on the Wayne County Commissioners Facebook page, Wayne County OH Government, and on the county website, www.wayneohio.org.