Where the jobs are: Laketran now takes Cleveland workers to Mentor industrial hub

CLEVELAND, Ohio–Bri’anna Cooper and Michael Dudley stand under a downtown streetlight every weekday before dawn and wait for the 6:20 a.m. to Mentor.

Why Mentor, 26 miles from Cleveland? Because that’s where the jobs are.

Cooper and Dudley were placed by temporary agencies a couple months ago in factories in a flourishing Mentor, which has more than 59,000 workers and just 47,000 residents. About the same time, on Jan. 28, Lake County’s Laketran agency started direct bus service between downtown Cleveland and Mentor’s industrial hub along Tyler Boulevard and Heisley Road.

The two commuters praise the service. Dudley mostly relaxes during the 45-minute ride. Cooper sits up front and chats with the drivers.

“I love them,” says Cooper. “They’re very kind.”

“They make this convenient,” says Dudley.

Greater Cleveland’s population isn’t growing, but its workers and workplaces keep spreading farther and farther apart. A study by the Fund for the Economic Future showed that the number of jobs within an average resident’s commuting distance fell from 2000 to 2012 by 26 percent, faster than anywhere else in the nation. And 25 percent of locals have no access to a car.

So Laketran’s helping to narrow the gap. At no extra cost to the agency. its longtime No. 10 and No. 12 commuter buses now detour 12 times a day to Tyler and Heisley.

“As downtown Cleveland increases in population, it becomes more and more important for suburban employers to have access to that labor pool,” said Ben Capelle, Laketran’s chief executive officer.

Kevin Malecek, Mentor’s economic development director, called the new route “a tremendous opportunity for our employers, …who have gone to the nth degree to fill their positions. We have a very low unemployment rate in Lake County and Mentor particularly. We’ve got to look for people from outside.”

The new service keeps Dudley and Cooper from needing costly rides from paid drivers or tedious connections between local buses in Cuyahoga and Lake counties. The service costs $3.75 one way and can be covered with $135 for a 31-day Laketran pass.

Dudley lives downtown, and Cooper in Shaker Square. She catches a 5:34 a.m. Regional Transit Authority rapid for a free transfer to Laketran downtown. Neither worker has a car or wants to move to spacious Mentor, where they say they’d need one all the more.

Dudley could catch a daily ride to Mentor with his brother, but would have to be dropped off an hour before his shift starts. And Cooper’s tired of amateur drivers. She’s had three recent accidents in other people’s cars. “The doctor said, ‘We’re going to get you a plane.’”

Dudley operates a press at Fab Form metals and Cooper helps make industrial brushes at Mill-Rose. Jill Grauel in Mill-Rose’s human relations department said the new bus service should help the company keep workers, who often quit when they lose access to a car.

In the route’s first month, nearly 600 riders climbed on board. Spokeswoman Julia Schick says Laketran’s just beginning to promote the service to employers, staffing agencies and the public. She says it typically takes 18 to 24 months for ridership to plateau on new routes.

Capelle said he hopes eventually to expand the service if funds can be found.