The first public transportation system in Dayton operated 36 years before the first area electric light was turned on and 41 years before the first paved street was complete! The Omnibus Line, begun in 1847, took passengers between Dayton and Cincinnati for $2 and took seven hours to complete a trip.
In 1869 the Dayton Street Railway Company built its first streetcar line, marking the first local transportation option. The travel time from West Third Street at Western Avenue to East Third Street at Findlay Street took 1 hour and 20 minutes. The same service today would take around 20 minutes.
The streetcar line provided the real birth of public transportation for Dayton residents. On its first day of operation on May 2, 1870, six horse-drawn streetcars proceeded west on Third Street. The first car carried the Odd Fellows Band; the second car was filled with railway officers and members of the press. The other cars provided a thrilling ride for "ladies and gentlemen of the area." For one year, the Dayton Street Railway Company provided the only public transportation of its kind in Dayton.
In following years, the Dayton View Street Railway, the Oakwood Street Railway, the Wayne and Fifth Street Railroad Company, and the Fifth Street Railway Company began service. Additional railroad service was offered to area residents in January, 1851 when the Mad River and Lake Erie line began offering transportation between Dayton and Springfield.
Even in the age where electricity and telephones were yet unheard of in Dayton, residents began to see and utilize the advantages of public transportation in their area.
By August, 1888, the first electric line began service in Dayton. Operated by the "White Line" (People's Railway), 12 electric cars went into service on August 8 that year. The system was built by the Van DePoel Electric Railway Company of Chicago and offered free rides to area residents during the first week of operation. These early street cars had incandescent lamps in the passenger compartments and a sloping channel system running from the rear of the car to a bucket in the drivers cab for fare collection. Construction on this line was completed at night by moonlight in order to avoid mule or horse streetcar traffic in the daytime.
Shortly after operation of the new electric cars began, the working mules of the Oakwood line started "tap-dancing" on their tracks whenever a White Line car ran nearby. Witnesses reported that sparks actually shot out of the mules’ tails! After Oakwood officials hauled the White Line into court with a stop order, this freak show was resolved by electrically bonding the mule-car tracks together. This stopped the electric currents from leaking into surrounding moist earth and traveling through the mule's iron shoes into their bellies and out their tails. No more tap-dancing mules.
When the first automobile arrived in Dayton in 1900, transportation continued to play an important role in the city’s development. Because streetcars were slow and inconvenient, they were replaced with electric trolley buses with rubber tires and overhead wires in September, 1947. The first trolley coaches actually arrived in 1933. Twelve Brill T-40 models were purchased when a fire destroyed all of the cars of the Dayton Street Railway Company.
In order to provide better service, the many local transit companies began to consolidate when the City Railway Company purchased the Dayton Street Railway Company in 1941 and the People’s Railway Company in 1945. Consolidation became a primary means for increasing service and financial stability and continued through 1956 when the privately owned City Transit Company took over the last remaining independent transit companies in Dayton. In 1972 consolidation would occur one final time when the publically-owned Miami Valley Regional Transit Authority acquired City Transit.
For 17 years, City Transit enjoyed growth sparked by the low-cost need for public transportation during the war years. However, once the affordability of privately owned automobiles became real, ridership declined. By the 1970's, losses forced City Transit to increase fares twice and eliminate service after 10 p.m. and on Sunday. By 1970, fares had risen to 35 cents compared to 15 cents just 10 years earlier. Operating costs were up by more than 32 percent.
With continued revenue and service losses, the cities of Dayton, Oakwood and Kettering passed emergency ordinances to create a regional transit authority designed to supervise the existing franchise agreement between the cities and City Transit Company. It was decided that a one-mil property tax was necessary to fund the authority. Despite opposition from Kettering, state law outlined that taxing property was the only method available to transit authorities at the time. On October 1, 1971, area residents overwhelmingly approved a one-mil real estate tax for public transportation and the Miami Valley Regional Transit Authority began on November 4, 1972.
From its birth in 1972 to its new Longworth Street facility in 1978, the RTA continued to expand and develop transportation services for the community. RTA went county-wide in 1980, a big step forward for public transportation in Dayton. Because the RTA fleet had to double in size to meet the demands of the increased service area, an additional 1.75 mil tax levy was approved in 1976 and a half mil sales tax levy was approved by area voters in 1980. This vote of confidence set the stage for continued public transportation in Dayton and Montgomery County for many years to come. In 2003, RTA’s Board of Trustees voted to change the name to the Greater Dayton Regional Transit Authority.
By 2006 the authority recognized a need for a better downtown solution for transit customers and conceived and planned the Wright Stop Plaza Transit Center to occupy private property next to the existing downtown office tower on Main Street. With help from the City of Dayton, Montgomery County, Miami Valley Regional Planning Commission and from key federal representatives like U.S. Rep. Mike Turner and U.S. Sen. George Voinovich, support and much-needed dollars helped turn the former Market Street area into a state-of-the-art transit center and resolve the issues of excessive bus queuing along Main and Third Streets and pedestrian traffic flow in downtown’s core area.
The Wright Stop Plaza Transit Center was the final element of RTA’s master plan to enhance and improve the quality of transit services downtown. The project embodied a future-minded, full-service regional transit center with improved accessibility and amenities for customers as well as a welcome boost to downtown Dayton’s economic development.
In November 2022, RTA celebrated its 50th anniversary and hosted several celebratory events.