WINTERSVILLE - Village resident Bob Sutton says life as he's known it the past three years is over now that Steel Valley Regional Transit Authority is pulling the plug on bus service, although officials hope the change is only temporary.
"Being able to get the bus has been a blessing to me, and I know to many other people," said Sutton, who is legally blind. "My dad died in '02, my mom died five years ago. I live by myself, so if I wanted to go to the mall, to the gym, to physical therapy - if I wanted to go to a diner for lunch or if wanted to get home, I took the bus. That's how I was able to get around. It's going to make me a shut-in, not having buses out here."
SVRTA plans to suspend services to Wintersville effective Aug. 31, when the grant that's underwritten the routes since 2010 expires. Village Council was unable to cover the cost of service in its budget and unwilling to allow residents to be taxed without letting them decide if buses are something they need and want. Mayor Bob Gale said they worked with SVRTA to get a levy on the November ballot but were told by the state it's not doable because of a little known, short-lived law banning renewals from going on the ballot more than 18 months before an existing transportation levy expires. He said that law, which apparently benefits some larger communities in Ohio, is only in effect for 2013.
"It's too soon for (SVRTA) to put it back on the ballot," he said. "They already have a levy (on the books) in Steubenville and Mingo Junction. Unfortunately, that new law passed by the Legislature really handcuffed us. It was put into effect in 2012, but it didn't rear its head until we tried to get our levy on the ballot."
Since the village couldn't pay for the service out of pocket and no one on council is willing to force residents to pick up the tab, Gale said they chose to withdraw from SVRTA "until we can get it on the ballot."
"It was a very tough call, very difficult," Gale said. "We were very sad we couldn't get it done. We wanted to, we had intentions to but the 2012 legislation came through - it's only good for one year, it expires this year. It benefits larger communities with transportation services; unfortunately, it hampers smaller communities - it doesn't allow us to put it on the ballot."
The best-case scenario, he said, would be to have a levy request on the May primary ballot.
"We'll see if we can get support from our residents," he said. "If we can get support, we'll be able to get back with SVRTA, but it will be for the residents to decide. We'll work with SVRTA and those who use the bus service to try and get it passed."
Gale said they "thought we had everything going our way, had everything done," until the state nixed the November referendum.
"Ridership has risen, the bus service is doing very well and people were very happy," he said. "The bus authority and the village wanted to continue it, but to continue it we need to put it on the ballot. Forcing it on the residents (without a vote) was not a direction we or SVRTA wanted to go.
"Everybody's upset, everybody's concerned and disappointed," he added. "But it's not for not trying. We've been handcuffed by the state. We see a need and we see a value for it. We just need residents to see the need and value for it and approve it when we can, by state law, put it on the ballot."
Repeated efforts to contact SVRTA Director Frank Bovina were not successful.