In 2013, The Ohio Legislature was asked to consider if its $7 million contribution to keep 61 transit systems and 115 million bus and train rides going every year was fair?
The House asked ODOT to look at doing more. San Francisco firm Nelson Nygaard was brought in to study how and where the state could close the gap.
Yesterday at Greater Cleveland RTA, a standing-room-only crowd of transit riders, local elected officials and those who could take the time for a 2 p.m. meeting offered their support and feedback on Ohio's Transit Needs Study.
Nelson Nygaard’s Bethany Whitaker divulged that Ohio needs about $1.1 billion more to operate and $2.8 billion in capital to build a modern, efficient transit system.
“Ohio’s support is pretty low and going in the wrong direction,” she said. “It has been decreasing while other states tend to spend more (than 63 cents) per capita.”
Whitaker suggests a focused investment where dense populations rely on and choose to take transit, adding that choice equals convenience.
She also bottom lined a survey of 2,000 transit customers who want greater frequency, expanded hours, and more places that are linked by transit.
Much of the onus is on the state closing the funding gap. But, Northeast Ohio also needs to come up with proposals. Whitaker cited the vaunted bus-rapid transit line on Euclid Avenue as an example of transit with broad appeal.
Cleveland Councilman Brian Cummings, one of five city councilmen in attendance, commented that the city is willing to provide local match dollars for transit. “But state funding is so little, that it’s not getting done. Transportation enhancements is really just a sprinkle. It’s nothing compared to what we need.”
The demographic snapshot of Ohio—aging, getting poorer, becoming more diverse and also shrinking its household size—should set up well for transit.
“The exciting news is we have a lot of people who want different lifestyles,” Whitaker said. “An urban lifestyle is becoming more appealing to Millennials but also Baby Boomers. Their preference is for smaller homes. Transit can help manage and influence some of those trends.”
One of the many Millennial participants in the room asked if the Transit Needs Study modeled the impact of the state spending a proposed $4 billion?
“It’s more complicated than that,” Whitaker said when asked if a ‘build it and they will come’ scenario works. “But, we do see places not (investing in transit) losing population. People really are looking for transit amenities.”
The study recommends that Cleveland set its sights on “aspirational cities” like Pittsburgh, Denver and Portland where transit has grown. Greater Cleveland will have to play catch up since the Recession and state cuts in funding led RTA to cut service in 2010. As a result, trips dropped from 140 million in 2008 to 118 million in 2012.
“We want (RTA) to be up to 153 million trips in 2015 and up to 255 million trips in 2025,” said Whitaker.
Policy Matters Executive Director Amy Hanauer expressed frustration with the state’s funding shortfall.
“We want to see more than incremental change,” she said. “Less than 1% of the (state’s transportation) budget goes to transit. We have had to cut (transit service) drastically. We have federal money that can be spent. We’re frustrated that this is an incremental discussion.”
ODOT representative Chuck Dyer responded, “Personally, I agree with investments in transit and elevating the conversation. ODOT does not decide how tax is spent. We are doing our best to put together the work within the political realm.”
Grace Gallucci, Executive Director of NOACA, Northeast Ohio’s transportation agency, echoed calls for ODOT to modernize its thinking on transit funding.
“Being able to flex highway funding for transit is a decision that doesn’t have to go to the legislature,” she noted. “As we move through these strategies, I think it’s important that we do not punish this area that has invested local dollars for decades and reward those that need to get up to Cleveland’s level. I would like to see an urban-level comparison.”
Whitaker suggested that if ODOT moves ahead with a funding increase, it can be tracked with performance measures.
GreenCityBlueLake Executive Director David Beach noted that, if the state is looking at performance metrics, then climate change mitigation strategies should demand greater attention. “We should factor in the impact of climate change on future transit needs.”
Lakewood Councilman Tom Bullock said that a high concentration of seniors in poverty should help sway the legislature. He also suggested that Ohio’s Constitutional ban on spending gas tax for transit might need to be reconsidered.
“Have you calculated how much of gas tax comes to Northeast Ohio?" He asked. "Cities are subsidizing the rest of the state.”
Gallucci replied that NOACA has analyzed the gas tax distribution. “And you’re correct (Northeast Ohio) pays more than we get.”
In wrapping up the Cleveland session, Whitaker suggested that those interested in improving transit:
- Use it
- Shop in downtowns and visit places where it can encourage more transit use
- Talk to a state legislator or email firstname.lastname@example.org with your comment about where ODOT’s budget priorities should be for transit