Thursday, April 2, 2009

Hearings: Fare Increases, Necessities Threatened and a Bit of Bickering

Any questions asked in this post were answered this week.

People are vexed, fuming and have had it up to here.

One woman even called Laketran’s financial recovery plan the “degradation of society.”

They’re hot because the public transportation system they partially fund through a levy wants to raise fares for the second consecutive year, and slash several services at the same time. Both sides of the battle have merit. Laketran has received a 44 percent decrease in state funding since the onset of this decade.

The agency also fights off the stigma that the $3.6 million it got from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act can be used for operating expenses. Instead, it can be spent only on capital projects, like purchasing buses, vans and other equipment.

However, the riders have valid points, too. The agency wants to cut Saturday service altogether, along with weekday service after 7 p.m. Most of Laketran’s customers seem to understand that declining state and federal aid, along with low sales tax revenue brought on by the recession, have put the system in a tough spot. Still, they believe a resolution could be met that helps Laketran fight the storm, but doesn’t completely alter their own schedules. They fear being unable to get to work on Saturdays, losing the ability to go shopping on the weekend, or even worse, getting to dialysis and other medical appointments.

“I know (Laketran) is in a jammer, there’s no doubt in my mind, but some of these people need help,” Barry Feathers, a blind Willoughby resident who takes Laketran to his concession-stand job at the Lake County Common Pleas Court in Painesville., said at the hearing Tuesday in Mentor.

“I like the job, but if you knew what I was making, you’d think I was crazy or just wasting time,” he said. “I do like the people I meet, and I know I’m not the only one, so I’m hoping something can be done ... I may be selfish, but I want to go to work.”

There were several others who spoke and had this in common with Barry: They have disabilities, so they enjoy using a transit system that’s in touch with their needs. If fares continue rising, they worry that their means of livelihood, health and recreation will be threatened.

Organizations like the Lake County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities and the Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services board were well-represented and voiced similar concerns.

As pointed out in this story, though, the Mentor hearing briefly turned ugly when commuters and disabled users of Dial-a-Ride began lobbying for Laketran to apply higher increases to services used more by the other group. That turned the event into a “we deserve it more” party. General Manager Raymond Jurkowski and Board President J. Terrell Dillard quickly tapered that talk, declaring that “we’re all in this together.”

It will be interesting to see if this continues tonight in Painesville. Since Laketran’s goals going into the hearings were to help the constituency understand the economic problem and convince them to petition legislators to better fund public transit systems, officials can’t be pleased with that type of bickering.

It’s OK and well within riders’ rights to suggest that Laketran officials might not be doing everything in its power to prevent these cuts. But trying to take service away from other segments of the agency’s ridership won’t accomplish much. Tightening up routes, staff cuts and half-day service on Saturdays, as hearing attendees have suggested, might all be better options that could save some money and not pit riders against one another.

-- Brandon C. Baker

Photo: Jeff Forman

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