Portage County leaders say public transportation is falling short, lacking drivers and routes

Image of a man sitting behind the will of a public bus that has been designed to look like a 19th century streetcar
PARTA senior bus operator Dave Brown sits behind the wheel of "Polly the Trolley." Jeremy Brown/The Portager

What to do if you represent a largely rural county that has such problems with public transportation that no one person can see the big picture, much less solve it?

If you are state Rep. Gail Pavliga, you gather Portage County’s government and school leaders, public transportation officials, and heads of numerous county agencies and nonprofits into one room, and let them have at it.

On Monday, Sept. 11, a gathering at Reed Memorial Library included about 30 of Portage County’s movers and shakers, including Ravenna Police Chief Jeff Wallis, Portage County commissioners Mike Tinlin and Sabrina Christian-Bennett, and Portage County Job & Family Services Director Kellijo Jeffries.

PARTA — the Portage Area Regional Transit Authority — has significant limitations, and more so the farther would-be customers get from Kent State’s campus. PARTA operates 15 fixed-route service lines Monday through Saturday, though weekend service is limited. The bus service also offers Dial-A-Ride, an on-demand service available weekdays and Saturdays.

PARTA, though, is in need of 50 additional drivers just for its campus and city routes, let alone its on-demand service, said Operations and Facilities Director Brian Trautman. The transportation authority is currently able to offer less than half the on-demand trips it did prior to the pandemic.

“We can do something for a lot of people, but not everything for everyone,” Trautman said, noting that PARTA focuses on wide rather than deep service.

There is no service at all — or sidewalks — on Infirmary Road. That puts people released from the jail without rides in physical danger as they try to hike over two miles from the Portage County Justice Center to the intersection of Infirmary Road and Lovers Lane, where they can catch the nearest bus.

Further complicating logistics for those leaving the jail on foot, PARTA buses only make it to that intersection five times a day, and never on Saturday or Sunday.

Nor can many of those who are newly or recently released get to court for their hearings, meet with their probation officers, or make any of the numerous other appointments necessary for successful reentry into society, said Patricia Smith, a Portage County Common Pleas court judge who oversees probate and juvenile cases.

When Smith asked PARTA officials for service to and from the county jail and juvenile detention center, Trautman asked for data to indicate when the service would most be needed. That left her frustrated: to ask for a guaranteed customer base beforehand is untenable, she said, adding that if service would be available, people would use it.

Smith noted that attempting to use PARTA is so confusing that her team of college-educated probation experts simply couldn’t figure it out. The bus schedule provides times at a few stops, but would-be riders are left to guess at most of them. Guess wrong, and miss your ride.

Unable to offer competitive wages because they are working with taxpayer dollars, and unable to find candidates who can pass drug tests, school districts find themselves poaching qualified bus drivers from each other. And Christian-Bennett noted that the nation’s immigration crackdown also continues to impact the workforce: employees just aren’t there.

Emerald Transportation employee Tara Root, who also is a school bus driver, said having administrators who would back the drivers instead of the students would help.

Security personnel on buses would let the drivers do their primary jobs, but Portage Development Board President Brad Ehrhart noted that adding employees would only exacerbate an already dire employment situation.

Even holding job fairs aimed directly at would-be drivers hasn’t worked: it turns out retirees who dropped off the driver rolls during Covid haven’t returned, and much of the younger generation insists on more of a work-life balance than their predecessors did, Christian-Bennett said. Further complicating that balance is the simple fact that buses do not run on a 9-5 schedule.

Without drivers, senior citizens can’t get to their medical appointments, and even certain kinds of Medicaid transportation reimbursement drops off after 10 or 15 rides. There are zero transportation options to NEOMED’s free clinic, offered each Saturday in Rootstown.

“We’re not getting people who do need drivers where they need to go. Without the drivers, we can’t fill that need,” Jeffries said.

Though Job & Family Services is working on a comprehensive transportation guide, it doesn’t exist yet.

Lacking independent transportation or a reliable friend or relative, Uber, Lyft, and other ride services are an option, but are so expensive that workers quickly realize they are working several hours each day just to afford the rides.

They drop out of the workforce, frustrating their own and their caseworkers’ dreams of an independent, self-sufficient life. The “pockets of poverty” Ehrhart identified remain isolated from potential resources that could mean a world of difference.

Pavliga guided meeting participants in narrowing down a multitude of public transportation issues to four: the lack of school bus drivers, driver recruitment difficulties, a truly comprehensive transportation guide, and transportation for seniors. The group will reconvene in a month after reviewing meeting notes Pavliga will distribute.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.