Warren County is moving ahead with plans to begin offering loop bus service for the first time in Lebanon, after years of debate.
“This has been a hot-button issue for some time,” Warren County Commissioner Dave Young said during a work session Tuesday.
The county already provides on-demand service countywide, but the commissioners have previously resisted proposals to begin serving dedicated routes.
The Lebanon loop would be a pilot project for what could become a series of loop routes, with designated stops, also serving Mason, Franklin and other parts of the county, officials said.
The plan for the service was unveiled Tuesday by Susanne Mason, the county’s grants administrator, during a work session of the county commissioners.
Riders would also be able to flag down a bus along the loop and be taken to and from stores, jobs and appointments with county agencies, most of which are located in Lebanon.
Daniel Geroni, a county planner involved in the project, said the loop would also help identify demand for the service. Most of the current riders are coming from or heading to Lebanon, according to Geroni’s research.
County Administrator Dave Gully said the service helps the county meet requirements to provide transportation for various services provided through federal funding.
“Right now we have more people that want rides than we have the capacity to give,” Gully added.
About a quarter of the riders have mental or physical disabilities, Mason said.
“This is their sole means of transportation,” she said.
While approving a move forward with the Lebanon loop plan, the commissioners said they want fares increased closer to market rates for those riders who are not elderly, disabled or income disadvantaged.
The plan is supported by Otterbein Senior Lifestyle Choices, which operates its main retirement campus outside town and group homes around the area. Otterbein provides bus service to residents for some trips, but welcomed the proposed loop which would stop at the main campus.
“The service would offer residents more access to services in Lebanon and the surrounding area, and would provide flexibility in their trip schedule. Transportation is such a huge need for older adults, particularly for those that must give up their cars, and any effort that will expand opportunities will also enhance their independence,” Gary Horning, vice president of marketing and communications, said via email.
Elderly, disabled or income-disadvantaged riders currently pay $1.50. Others currently ride for $3.
On Thursday, Corinne Tufts used the service to carry her to and from work at the Kroger supermarket in Lebanon.
Tufts said she would use the loop service even more, because she could walk to the bus stop, rather than call and wait for pick-up.
“That would be nice. I’d be able to get places without calling the service,” Tufts said, adding she was using the service while working toward buying her own car.
The service makes about 40,000 trips a year, about 60 percent for riders paying the lower rate. Mason is planning to begin the loop service this fall.
The commissioners suggested the charge for other riders should be increased to as much as $10 or $25 - about what it costs the county, according to calculations made during the work session.
The current service, provided by a contractor, costs about $1 million a year, $600,000 from state and federal funding. The county kicks in about $400,000 in general-fund dollars.
“I don’t know that it justifies that cost,” Commissioner Tom Grossmann said during Tuesday’s discussion.
Commissioner Pat South joined Young in supporting the move forward on the Lebanon loop plan, although providing bus service has been controversial in Warren County.
Young recalled the county returning federal funding for mass transit, prompting national media attention.
In 2013, the county reached an agreement with the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) to split federal funds, rather than shift to a fixed-route system. SORTA provides transit service in Mason.
At the work session, the commissioners also discussed the role that services such as Uber could play in providing transportation to county residents.
Mason also met Tuesday with Lebanon officials who are now seeking input from Lebanon City Council on the plan.
“Based on the user numbers presented by the Warren County Transit, there appears to be a demand for this service but we would like more detailed information on how much it would cost the users and what the projected demand is for each stop location,” Deputy City Manager Scott Brunka said Wednesday via email.
Lebanon Mayor Amy Brewer said the the buses could transport workers to local businesses, including those in the city’s industrial parks.
“At times, that can be an issue for some of our residents in terms of their ability to get to work,” she said.
“I absolutely am very excited at the prospect of providing transit service through the city. I think it is much needed,” she added.