ounty makes key investment in transit

ounty makes key investment in transit

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“Transportation is a crucial part of infrastructure, and at any point in your life, you could need transportation assistance, particularly for seniors and people with disabilities,” said Leslie Baus, who until recently was the mobility coordinator for Community Action Wayne/Medina.

Baus now continues to work with CAW/M as an independent consultant.

Many people do not think about public transportation until suddenly something happens and there is a need for more transportation options. Perhaps it is a teenager who cannot afford driver’s ed, getting a license, car and insurance. That teen turns 18 and is looking for a job and needs transportation to get to work.

“And then there is the silver tsunami — people are aging,” Baus said. “Interestingly, there are a lot of 62 and older who are still working, and they still need that transportation. Workforce access is a top need. It is the hardest thing in the world to take the keys away from someone who has spent the last 50 years of their life driving. It marks a transition in their life and loss of independence.”

According to Melissa Pearce, executive director of CAW/M, the initial interest in public transportation came from the community-needs assessment CAW/M completes every few years. In Wayne County access to transportation has already ranked high.

In 2016 after discussions between the two entities, CAW/M formalized their role in public transportation by starting a partnership with the City of Wooster around Wooster Transit. CAW/M began managing the city’s subsidized transportation program, which had seen a decrease in use and service by transportation providers.

“We opened the city transit for those who needed workplace access, and (the city) subsidized the program for those with low income, veterans or those with a disability,” Pearce said. “It’s helped improve the quality of life for residents and is serving people who are under-resourced. You can’t even apply for a better job if you don’t have the resources to get there.”

From there CAW/M partnered with Ohio State University to figure out how to bring expanded workplace access to Wayne County. “We got access to OSU grant writers and research folks, and they helped us to a deep dive in demographics, traffic patterns and the need for investment,” Pearce said.

It was thanks to significant planning, research and due diligence that in late 2019 CAW/M received a $100,000 Paradox Prize grant from Fund for Our Economic Future. CAW/M was one of only eight pilots to receive funding out of 150 applicants.

“Transportation is not just an urban issue; it is an urban, suburban and rural challenge that affects workers across all 18 counties of Northeast Ohio — a reality that was reinforced through our sourcing of Paradox Prize pilots,” said Bethia Burke, Fund for Our Economic Future president. “We saw demand for affordable, efficient and accessible transportation solutions from all corners of the region.

“In Wayne County, where there was previously no formal public transportation system, we were pleased to partner with Melissa Pearce and her team at Community Action Wayne/Medina, early champions of improved worker mobility in the county.”

The initial pilot that launched in December 2019 involved collaboration with about a dozen Wooster large employers and their HR departments. Unfortunately, with the pandemic in March 2020, ridership decreased dramatically during the shutdown. The program continued to provide rides following CDC distancing protocols, which was an issue because the program model had been based upon providing a certain density of ridership.

“To be self-sustainable, we needed to pack those transit vans to get the economies of scale needed,” Pearce said.

But being in a rural county and with the impacts of the pandemic, they were not able to get the numbers they needed to be cost-effective.

“The pandemic caused us to address things in the system that were always there, but the pandemic exacerbated those problems,” Baus said.

A different approach would be needed. “We recognized that Stark Area Regional Transit Authority has great expertise. They have a lot of great energy and do a lot of innovation. We talked to them and asked if there was a way to partner,” Pearce said.

A $1.4 million grant from the Ohio Department of Transportation in partnership with SARTA was what was needed to be able to roll out the current Wayne County Transit.

In March 2021 the WCT began providing work rides, and in October of that year, WCT expanded into other types of rides across Wayne County.

“The (grant) allows for a ride anywhere in the county for anyone. The cool thing about what we have to offer is this is curb-to-curb service, which is almost unheard of,” Pearce said.

The launch of WCT does not mean public transportation issues in Wayne County are now solved. It’s just the first step.

The issue is complex and needs significant additional investment and resources. Next steps are identified in the Locally Coordinated Transportation for Wayne County Plan, which was completed in November 2021 under the leadership of the Wayne County Transportation Coalition.

“It is hard to design public transportation that would help younger people and older people. There are two populations — some who are needing to get to work at 6 a.m. or getting off from work at 1 a.m., then a different population whose prime travel time is 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.,” Baus said.