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Laura Kessel is managing editor of The News-Herald in Willoughby. She writes a weekly column and shares her thoughts here.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

So many depend on good work of Laketran

I’m worried about Laketran.

Lake County’s transportation service has a tough job on its hands as we move toward the election in November.

Laketran’s Board of Trustees fell victim to timing when it put the agency’s 0.25 percent sales tax on the ballot. The issue is a renewal, and for the fourth time aims to collect the bulk of its funding from purchases made in Lake County.

The only change this time is that the Board put the issue on the ballot as a “continuing levy,” which means that it’ll be a permanent 0.25 percent collection.

You hear a lot of talk about voter fatigue these days.

School districts and municipalities routinely go to the ballot for levy renewals, and these days asking for new money to fund various aspects of the operation. It’s easy to see this “fatigue” among voters, who are constantly being asked for more, more, more.

Laketran’s move is a direct reaction to this feeling among voters.

Of course, timing, as they say, is everything.

The recent hike in the state sales tax of 0.25 percent has left Laketran with the prospect of selling what now seems like a tax increase.

That’s a shame.

But it’s important that voters remember the truth — Laketran isn’t asking for an increase. The increase came from the state level.

It’s crucial to watch for spin when you’re discussing levies with friends or reading any mailings that might come out.

While it’s true that the sales tax you pay when purchasing goods and services is higher than it was before, it’s not Laketran’s fault.

I see it as just as important, though, that voters not punish Laketran.

Laketran offers three types of services to its riders — Commuter Express to Downtown Cleveland; fixed-route service around the county; and Dial-A-Ride.

With each each option, you’ll find buses filled with people who can’t get to work or to school or to the doctor any other way.

A few years ago, when state and federal budget cuts left the agency in a position to radically cut its service, I remember listening to bus patrons passionately sharing their needs to get around with Laketran’s management.

The words of a young woman who said the elimination of service after 7 p.m. would spell the end of her college education at Lakeland have stuck with me.

As someone who started her college education at Lakeland, I felt her pain.

If the bus can’t get you there, and you can’t find a ride from friends or any family members, you’re just out of luck.

In the three years since, Laketran has been able to add an hour back to the end of its schedule, which is a boost for those who need night classes at either Lakeland or Lake Erie.

Admittedly, Laketran does have some limitations.

No fixed routes go to TriPoint Hospital in Concord Township, and the Commuter Service doesn’t take buses past Cleveland Clinic or University Hospitals in Cleveland. Plenty of nurses or other hospital personnel would be thrilled for the chance to leave the driving to someone else.

Kevin Malecek, president of Laketran’s Board of Trustees, said while they’d love to add these services, this levy is about maintaining current services for the bus service.

One complaint we hear consistently, too, is that Laketran’s buses are empty a lot.

The answer to that one is an easy one — it depends when you’re looking.

I asked Laketran General Manager Ray Jurkowski to answer the critics during a recent meeting. He didn’t hold back.

“A transit service buys its vehicles for maximum capacity,” he said on a recent morning. “If we were to stand in Downtown Willoughby right now, you’d see most of the cars would pass you with only one passenger in the car. Are you going to stop them and say, ‘you should have four people in your car because you have four seats.’ If you go to Molinari’s at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and see most of the tables are empty, are you going to ask why they opened a restaurant? The other night, I went to the theater in Cleveland, and on the way home, I had an entire lane to myself from Cleveland to Madison. Are you going to ask why we need highways? Of course not.

“People apply a different kind of standard to the ebb and flow of business, and why they would hold public transit to that standard is beyond me.”

Laketran is fighting for its life with this levy.

And, in essence, so are those who rely on the service.

If the levy isn’t renewed ... well, I’ll let Malecek explain it.

“If this does not pass, Laketran will not exist,” he said.

This sales tax makes up 60 percent of Laketran’s budget. Most of the rest is federal and state funding that requires a local match.

If the sales tax doesn’t pass, well, you saw what Malecek said.

Voters should remember that this levy is one that’s been in existence for 25 years, since the agency first was born.

It’s not an increase.

To let it fail would drive away a public service that has helped thousands over the years.
Twitter: @Lauranh


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