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Coalition to Save Ohio's Transit needs help building support at January's public hearings

Marc Lefkowitz  |  01/19/10 @ 3:00pm  |  Posted in Transit

Ohio's public transit passengers got a big lump of coal from state lawmakers again this year. Lorain's transit system was forced to completely shut down after a ballot initiative to increase sales tax support failed (and the state didn't make a move to save it). In Cleveland, the recession and pathetically low state support has forced the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA), the largest transit agency in the state, to raise fares and cut popular services like the Community Circulator.

Why is it important that Ohio change its investment strategy for transit now more than ever? For starters, RTA is currently facing an $8 million budget gap, and a deficit for 2010 estimated as high as $29 million. RTA is taking emergency measures, seeking a federal grant to get them through the end of the year. Earlier in the year, RTA increased fares, cut the Community Circulators and reduced routes and headways.

RTA is on perilous ground. In January 2010, the agency will hold a series of public hearings on more proposed service reductions targeted for April even if the state's support doesn't change.

Reducing service would have an economic impact on the region. RTA provided 56.7 million rides this year-its takes passengers, of all backgrounds, to work, seniors to the store to pick up their prescriptions, college students to class, or the disabled to the doctor. Unlike 48 states, Ohio only covers 3% of RTA's budget. The recession has placed a double whammy on RTA-with fewer people working, ridership dipped by 9% in 2009, and the 10% unemployment rate in Cuyahoga County has meant sales taxes dropped off a cliff (RTA relies on a 2% slice of the county sales tax).

It will take a $17.4 million commitment from the state for RTA to avoid cuts and erase its budget deficit for 2010. Statewide, the Ohio General Assembly needs to budget $40 million to avoid any more service cuts at its transit agencies. That's a state level increase from 3% of funding per year to 10%. RTA chief Joe Calabrese has proposed the state fund its transit agencies at $75 million or 15% of the total budget to restore service and plan for improvements in transit.

In a conference call this week, Policy Matters Ohio, which is organizing an advocacy campaign to increase Ohio's investment in transit, noted solutions are available to build a better transit system, if Ohio can find the political will.

Policy Matters and All Aboard Ohio are leading the coalition to build up transit as part of a clean economy. An initial target for local advocacy includes the current session of the Ohio General Assembly, where a budget deal has still not been negotiated. In the coming months, the non-profit groups plan to scope out the role and activities of the coalition. Jeanette Corlett, a Policy Matters volunteer and former staffer at Chicago Metropolitan Planning Council, has identified two model coalitions in the Midwest, Chicago's and Pennsylvania's.

The first order of the advocacy campaign will be to turn out supporters of better funded transit at RTA's public hearings starting January 4. The coalition expects the focus to be on communicating the stories of those impacted by the cuts and generating a massive letter writing campaign aimed at state lawmakers. In support of this effort, the Ohio Public Transit Association (OPTA) sponsored advocacy software where citizens can send letters to state and federal elected officials seeking more, reliable and flexible funding for transit, Calabrese reports. "I don't expect it will help our situation in April, but my goal is to expand service." RTA will also video record the hearings and its Citizen's Advisory Board will assist people who want to write postcards to their elected officials.

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