EDITOR'S NOTE: This marks the third in a four-day series of stories that examine the issues surrounding public transportation in Richland County.
MANSFIELD -- Jean Taddie has a public transit "north star" she hopes can be reached during a strategic planning session that begins in 2022.
"In my dream world, the 'north star' is where everybody in the community gets it. They understand the value of public transit, whether they are using it themselves or whether they're sponsoring it for the workforce ... they see the value," she said.
"It's got lots of thriving people on the bus. They're going to have a good quality of life because they can get to their appointments. They can get to a good-paying job. They can go to school. They can get home from all of these places because of the bus.
"The stakeholders, the medical establishment, the business establishment, the government entities and the community agencies all see a piece of (public transit) for themselves, that they are a part of the conversation for the plan and will see all of their interests addressed collaboratively," Taddie said.
Taddie, who became the Richland County Regional Planning Commission transit development manager in 2020, revealed this fall the agency has received a grant to do its first in-depth transit development plan in more than a decade.
The Ohio Department of Transportation awarded $165,779 through the Ohio Transit Partnership Program to fund RCT's planning efforts.
"With ridership dipping during the pandemic, now is the time to re-evaluate how to maximize the use of RCT's federal, state and local funding in order to benefit the most people. The transit development plan will help us assess how to sustainably deliver services that provide the most impact," she said.
"We have (a plan that is reviewed), but this is going to take a deep dive into all of the partners being served and how we can maximize our federal dollars to serve more," Taddie said in October, the same day RCT unveiled three new 28-passenger buses for its fleet.
As she and the Richland County Transit Board prepare to seek a consultant to help guide the planning process, Taddie said last week she has high hopes for the effort.
"I have said it before and I will say it again. If you have enough people in the room, anything can happen. If everybody is on board, we can make it work. We can collaborate to achieve our goals more efficiently.
"So when I reach out to a mayor or an agency person, they say 'yes, this is important to my people,'" Taddie said.
The Richland County Transit Board, chaired by Clint Knight, hopes to send out a request for proposals in January, seeking a consulting firm with expertise in the planning process.
The seven-member board, appointed by Richland County commissioners, will see two members in January when Scott Heimann from Park National Bank and Nicole Williams from the Ohio District 5 Area Agency on Aging, Inc., join Knight, Aurelio Diaz, Leona Smith, Carl Neutzling and Ed Pickens.
"It will affect everything we do," Taddie said during the board's final meeting of the year on Dec. 16. "We hope to have a consultant hired by the middle of summer."
She told board members the planning process could take up to 14 months and deliver a plan with a 10-year window for implementation.
"We want it to be sustainable. We don't want to put things out there that will only last for a year or two," Taddie said.
During the recent board meeting, members talked about potential long-term benefits of the plan, including increased ridership, countywide utilization, workforce development, building relationships with community partners, evening services and regional cooperation with perhaps Ashland and Crawford counties.
It all begins in the board knowing what it wants before it selects a consultant, according to Lee Nichols of The Goodman Group, who has done this kind of work for more than two decades.
"There are a lot of capable consultants out there who do this type of work," he told Richland Source. "The important this is, when you do your request for proposals, to have a solid direction for what you want to accomplish with the project.
"Have a defined sketch of the work you want to get done. But be prepared -- sometimes a consultant will offer some tough love. He may say, 'You're doing this well, but you need to fix this.'
"Get a good structure for your plan, a good steering committee, multiple stakeholders involved, a good public engagement plan," said Nichols, who helped lead a recent similar effort in Licking County.
Knight, who 11 months ago accepted an appointment to the Richland County Transit Board, knows the value of the service in his role as director of workforce development for Richland Area Chamber & Economic Development.
His goals for the project?
"Using the resources we have to efficiently serve the four primary users of public transportation -- going to food centers, health care appointments, social service appointments or work.
"Transit service for leisure is potentially down the road, but I don't see that as high usage for us right now. If we are using the operating funds and capital resources that we have to efficiently serve those four primary needs ... that's my 'north star,' " Knight said.
"Every rider has a different need and we have to understand what that is and structure the system to meet those needs. If we do that, we're succeeding," Knight said.
The transit development plan is crucial for changes and improvements, according to Taddie, who said an assets plan is part of the project.
"If we say we want to change the mix of fixed routes and demand response, it may require a different mix of buses. So we need an asset plan that will maintain the assets we have now and secure future assets," she said.
"There will be a lot of funding available for zero-emission type buses. If that's in our plan, but not in our assets plan, how are we ever going to get those buses?" she asked.
Taddie and Knight, as well as Nichols, believe community involvement is key to the effort.
"In Newark, we rode the buses. We did passenger surveys. We interviewed the drivers and the agency employees, who deal with the clientele every day," Nichols said.
"We got their input on how to improve the service and identified issues and concerns of employees that will help us hire and retain drivers."
Taddie said input from passengers, stakeholders and community leaders is a must for the process, which will include public meetings, mailed surveys, online information seeking and more.
"It's so valuable to talk to people and hear their personal stories and how minor changes can and will affect them, positively and negatively. We want to hear how we can improve. That's the whole goal of the planning process is to meet peoples' needs more efficiently," she said.
(Coming Thursday: We will ask Mansfield and Richland County leaders their thoughts on the state of public transit and what ideas they have for improved funding and services. We will also tell you about an out-of-the-box transportation hub being pondered in Johnstown, Ohio, a plan that could impact Knox County. We will finish with a look at some successful public transit efforts around the United States.)