Sales-tax hike could expand public transit options in county

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New fixed-route bus lines heading to Glouster and Coolville as well as new door-to-door transit options could be coming to Athens County over the next few years if a proposed 0.25 percent county-wide sales tax is approved by voters in November.

That sales tax pitch – to fund expanded transportation services to better serve county citizens – has been emphasized in a dozen-plus informational meetings and other presentations so far this month by Jessie Schmitzer, the Athens mobility coordinator with the Hocking-Athens-Perry Community Action Agency (HAPCAP).

The Athens County Commissioners still need to make the final decision on whether to place the transportation sales tax on the ballot on Nov. 5. Schmitzer said in a presentation at the Athens Public Library Monday that she’ll likely present her findings from the public meetings to the Commissioners next Tuesday or the Tuesday after, and at that time ask for the sales-tax increase to be placed on the ballot.

Athens County currently has a 7 percent sales tax on most goods, which would be increased to 7.25 percent if the tax increase is approved. A total of 1.25 percent of the current 7 percent sales tax goes to Athens County; the other 5.75 percent goes to the state. Currently, every county that borders Athens County and basically every other southeast Ohio county has an overall 7.25 percent sales-tax rate.

Schmitzer explained that the additional 0.25 percent would go to fund transportation system-related expenses only, and the county Commissioners would decide how that money is spent.

She provided an example of common purchases someone might make in Athens County – toilet paper, a multi-pack of toothpaste and socks, for a total cost of $30.82 cents, with $2.02 of that cost coming from the current 7 percent Ohio and Athens County combined sales taxes. The cost of those products would increase by between 7 and 8 cents, up to $30.90 ($2.09 in sales tax total) if the 0.25 percent sales tax were implemented.

Schmitzer explained during her presentation to Athens City Council during its June 10 meeting that one of the big recommendations that came out of surveys that she and her agency created for a 2018 update to Athens County’s “coordinated transportation plan” was that people want public transit buses in Athens County to serve communities such as Glouster, Nelsonville, Albany and Coolville.

“What we really saw from this… was a (desire for) an expansion of fixed-route (bus) services to get Athens Public Transit out to the villages,” Schmitzer said.

Currently, most of the Athens Public Transit bus routes run on circuits inside Athens city limits, although one route runs from Athens city to The Plains, up to Chauncey and then back to Athens.

Schmitzer said her desire as the person in charge of coordinating all of Athens County’s transportation programs is to expand those bus routes, and expand the current door-to-door transportation service (called Athens On Demand Transit). That service provides $2 one-way trips to seniors, people with disabilities and low-income residents to any location in Athens County.

Schmitzer said that because that service is at capacity for its demand, it had to turn away around 670 people’s requests for rides last year, which included 113 people in wheelchairs. Several other agencies exist locally that provide door-to-door transportation (mostly for medical needs), including Athens County Job and Family Services, but those services are also at capacity for the level of demand.

Schmitzer added that Athens Public Transit has been able to collect enough funding ($90,000) to run a six-month pilot program to run an hourly fixed-route bus line from Albany to Athens to Nelsonville (which will begin sometime in August). However, at this point, she said, HAPCAP doesn’t have enough funding to keep that bus line running permanently, and the sales-tax increase could help make that a reality.

Schmitzer displayed a map during her presentation that she called her “dream map.” It showed multiple other bus routes to villages located on the edges of the county, including:

• A bus route from Athens to Coolville and back.

• A bus loop connecting Athens to Chauncey through Ohio Rt. 13 to Jacksonville, Trimble and Glouster, down to Buchtel, then to Nelsonville, then back to Athens.

• A bus route from Athens to Hocking College in Nelsonville, looping down to New Marshfield through Kimberly and Five Points on Ohio Rt. 691, and then back to Athens on Ohio Rt. 56.

• A bus route traveling from Athens down U.S. Rt. 50, passing by Canaanville and through Guysville, up Ohio Rt. 329 through Stewart and Kilvert, looping through Amesville, then back to U.S. Rt. 50 Athens through Ohio Rt. 690.

SCHMITZER SAID DURING the presentation at the Athens Public Library that it would take some time for the sales-tax-increase revenue to start flowing to the county in 2020 if voters approve the increase in November 2019. However, she said that she would likely recommend that the Albany-to-Athens-to-Nelsonville bus route become permanent as the first big improvement that will go into place (that would cost about $190,000 a year, with a hoped-for 50% match from the Ohio Department of Transportation). The Athens Public Transit system alone currently costs about $1.5 million to operate per year, with around half of that coming from matching ODOT funds, Schmitzer said.