Editorial: SARTA continues to evolve

Stark Area Regional Transit Authority’s mission statement is simple enough and decidedly straightforward: to provide safe, responsive and efficient transportation for all citizens of Stark County.

Whether CEO Kirt Conrad actually changes it, he opined Wednesday it could be time for an update.

“It should say we are ‘managers of mobility.’ We’re no longer simply a bus service,” Conrad said in a meeting with members of the Editorial Board, during which he outlined some of his vision for the transit agency in advance of a public meeting Monday afternoon on many of the same topics.

Spend any time with Conrad and he quickly will leap months or years into the future, sharing ideas for ways SARTA can grow and evolve while continuing as a national leader in delivering service with cutting-edge technology.

SARTA already boasts one of the nation’s largest fleets of hydrogen-cell buses, with several cities taking up Conrad on his offer for a loaner in their community so they can see first-hand the advantages of going diesel-free for public transportation — a place Stark County could find itself completely in only a few more years.

Amid futuristic words that might not mean much (yet) to many Stark residents — “TransLoc,” “microtransit” and “biodigester,” for example — are plenty of present-day ideas to keep SARTA relevant not only to the thousands of riders who rely on service each day, but also to all county residents, the people who help sustain the agency financially.

Among the topics to be discussed Monday are the long-term future of SARTA’s Proline, a point-to-point service that has gone relatively unchanged since its roll-out a quarter-century ago. Routes (where and how often), Sunday service and coverage in the county’s more rural areas also will be discussed.

SARTA is basing some preliminary ideas on 1,100 surveys with riders, other correspondence and about 30 interviews with chambers of commerce and elected officials from across the county, Conrad said.

 “We are one of the few agencies in the state without Sunday service. We were spending a lot to transport not a lot of people,” Conrad said. That doesn’t mean, however, there isn’t some demand for Sunday (and holiday) rides.
 How can SARTA meet that demand in a financially responsible manner? One possibility: incorporating some of the attributes of ride-providing services, like Uber and Lyft, and customizing others for mass transit.

Also on the horizon are autonomous vehicles, with SARTA already working with DriveOhio, an initiative within the Ohio Department of Transportation to develop “smart vehicles” and other alternatives to our present modes of travel.

So why should people who never have set foot on a bus (and maybe never will) care about SARTA’s future?

Many reasons, but mainly because the agency fills a vital spot in the county’s transportation network, providing close to 10,000 rides per day. About half of those are for people traveling to and/or from work. Roughly one-fifth are medical patients going to receive care. Students make up a sizable number as well.

Conrad put it this way: “If we want a strong community, we need to do as much as we can from 1600 Gateway Blvd. — for the county and the state.”

We encourage anyone interested in the future of SARTA to join Conrad at 2 p.m. Monday at the Main Branch of the Stark County District Library, 715 Market Ave. N in Canton, to learn more.