July 25, 2016

Intermittent clouds

Transit change up to feds

Medina County officials and Medina Mayor Dennis Hanwell want the Ohio Department of Transportation to fix the new funding formula for the county’s transit system.

But an ODOT official said the federal government required the change and there is nothing the state can do about it.

Ohio House Speaker William Batchelder, R-Medina, said ODOT has it right.

ODOT spokesman Steve Faulkner said the change — which reclassified Medina County from a rural to an urban transportation area — was done by the U.S. Census Bureau following the 2010 census.

Based on increases in population and housing in the past decade, the Census Bureau redrew the transportation zone map to link the Medina City Urban Cluster to the Cuyahoga County Urbanized Area.

Under federal law, if a county seat becomes urban, the county as a whole is classified as urban.

The classification change will mean a loss of about $157,000 in federal transportation funding, beginning next year, Faulkner said.

Faulkner said Medina County last year received $1,007,806 in rural funding for 2013 but is only expected to get $850,738 in urban transit dollars for next year from the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency. NOACA is the metropolitan planning organization for Cuyahoga, Geauga, Lake, Lorain and Medina counties.

That loss may be reduced because Medina County is also eligible for funds from the Akron Metropolitan Area Transportation Study, which has not yet disclosed to ODOT how much it plans to provide the county next year.

Whatever the loss of federal dollars, county transit Director Michael F. Salamone said the financial damage caused by the reclassification goes deeper.

Salamone said the urban classification places new restrictions on how funds may be used. Specifically, the county won’t be able to use the federal dollars to operate routes or fuel buses.

That means most of the county’s “on-demand” routes — which allow riders to call for pickup and serves more than 1,000 county residents — will be shut down.

Fixed bus routes could be expanded in Medina, Wadsworth and Brunswick, Salamone said. “But residents in the rural townships will be left without transportation.”

According to the 2010 census, 2,237 Medina County residents do not have access to a vehicle, county officials said. While most of those live in the county’s three cities, at least 390 residents without access to vehicles are in rural villages and townships.

Almost all of those rural residents use the county’s on-demand service.

Salamone said the loss of revenue resulting from shutting down routes, coupled with reduced federal funding, means the county transit system would face a projected shortfall of as much as $1 million — or nearly half its operating budget.

Medina Mayor Dennis Hanwell wrote to area legislators last week asking them to intervene.

In addition to Batchelder, letters went to state Rep. Dave Hall, R-Millersburg, and state Sen. Larry Obhof, R-Montville Township, asking them to lobby ODOT to “modify this position and reconsider its decision.”

Batchelder sent a response Thursday to Hanwell.

“Unfortunately, because of the federal guidelines mandating this change in transit systems, it is not within the jurisdiction of the Ohio General Assembly to prevent such changes from occurring,” Batchelder wrote. “As one who helped bring the public transit system to Medina County many years ago, I am very disappointed but not surprised that the federal government has terminated the plan that was in place in Medina County for over thirty years. The arbitrary actions that underline this termination are very difficult to comprehend, but are not unusual.”

Hall and Obhof both said they are looking into it.

Hall said some states allow communities to apply for both rural and urban dollars but that Ohio is not one of them. Hall hopes to change that.

“I’m meeting with ODOT on Tuesday to see if there are federal regulations we have to follow to make that shift to access dual funding sources,” he said. “I’m working with Speaker Batchelder to see what we can do and do quickly, if maybe there’s a bill to make this happen.”

But Faulkner said the system is in place for a reason.

“As I understand it, they can’t have their cake and eat it, too. If they’re taking rural transit dollars, then that’s going to come from a rural county that needs those dollars more,” he said.

Medina, Warren and Delaware made the switch to urban, while Sandusky and Washington counties were changed from urban to rural.

In the meantime, Salamone is beating the bushes for new sources of funding.

He said that when past census changes occurred, Congress funded counties for two years to ease the transition. No such aid is coming this time.

Instead, he’s exploring two grant options that could reduce the operating deficit to around $300,000.

The two grants would bring in approximately $500,000 and Salamone said he is working with the cities of Medina and Wadsworth to contribute $40,000 to $45,000 each in required matching funds.

But securing funding from the cities isn’t a lock.

Hanwell said Medina paid its $17,500 annual contribution to the county transit system with Community Development Block Grant funds and couldn’t come up with that much more money.

“There’s no way that money would support an increase of this magnitude,” he said.

Contact reporter Dan Pompili at (330) 721-4012 or dpompili@medina-gazette.com.