Monday, May 19, 1997
Buses taking workers to 'burbs
need financial lift

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The ride from welfare to work needs Paul Jablonski in the driver's seat.

Metro's forward-thinking general manager wants to transport more job-hunters from the city - where jobs are scarce - to the Interstate 275 beltway, where employers need workers.

He's already made a good start with the express bus that runs along Interstate 71. But the route needs money to survive. And, the need exists for more buses and more destinations. I hope the money people, those in business and government who can make life better, won't let a good idea - one that works - run out of gas.

When it comes to planning transportation to serve the customer, Paul Jablonski thinks like a veteran bus driver. He's always looking ahead, planning his moves.

To make the connection between more job hunters in the city and Help Wanted signs in the suburbs, Mr. Jablonski envisions a fleet of 15-20 mini-buses going north, south, east and west from downtown to outlying plants. "It would be smaller groups taking quicker trips at flexible hours."

The plan's specifics - costs, destinations, riders - should be ready to present by late June. The bus company has teamed up with Hamilton County's Department of Human Services to learn how many people are finding jobs, where they live and where they're going to work.

"The time for this," Mr. Jablonski said, "is just right." Is it ever. Demand for jobs in the burbs is high. Welfare reform - long a pipe dream - is for real.

In Hamilton County, the reforms will take off public assistance 9,700 of the 12,000 heads of households on welfare. Human Services Department estimates say half the 9,700 will look for work along the beltway. When they go for a job, transportation will be the biggest stumbling block.

"Someone who's been on welfare," said Don Thomas, Human Services director, "often doesn't have what it takes to go to work, meaning a car."

So, they need to take a bus. But, if there is none, they can't take the job.

It's a vicious cycle. But Paul Jablonski's buses could help break it. They're already doing it on the I-71 express.

The No. 72 bus - from downtown to Paramount's Kings Island - is a success story on wheels. The route was designed in 1995 and funded primarily with federal dollars to take commuters out of their cars while orange barrels and construction crews stopped traffic on I-71.

Since March, the route has blossomed. After adding late-night and weekend runs, it has picked up what the bus company calls, "reverse commutes" - city residents riding to suburban jobs.

The express runs at 75 percent capacity. Two Saturdays ago, the route had a record 250 total riders. Last Wednesday, it had a record 90 reverse commutes.

"Ridership keeps growing," Paul Jablonski said. "The demand is there."

Unfortunately, the money might not be. Federal funds for the No. 72 bus run out when work ends on I-71 in November.

Paul Jablonski hopes he can keep the buses running. "My crystal ball says the odds look good. But you never know."

He knows it costs $500,000 a year to run the route. Hamilton and Warren counties chip in $25,000 each.

The counties are still interested in contributing. The state might add something to the pot. Metro will do its part. Bus fares can be raised. But that won't make up the difference. Paul Jablonski knows he needs to find more money. Or the No. 72 bus will be history. And so will the jobs of people fresh from welfare.

Ante up

Here's a chance for people with money and muscle - private businesses and local, state and federal governments - to serve the people. To make a good idea go.

Government must do its part to keep these buses rolling and put the Jablonski plan into action. Funds were always available to keep people on welfare. They should be found to keep them off.

Now that the jobs exist, the businesses that profit from them should band together with government to help attract and keep new workers.

These are people who want to go to work. Let's give them a ride.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax 768-8340.