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Transit in Ohio: You gotta be tough

Marc Lefkowitz  |  02/09/15 @ 1:15pm

Moving in<br />A mixed-income housing unit is some of the private capital attracted to Euclid Avenue from the BRT line.

Ohio’s proposed $1 million annual (2016) increase in funding for transit is “piddling,” says transit advocacy group, All Aboard Ohio.

The Buckeye State’s continued snubbing of transit flies in the face of sound judgement, adds a civil engineer with AECOM, the largest engineering firm in the United States.

“Sadly, ODOT ignored its own study that it commissioned last year,” All Aboard Ohio writes about The Statewide Transit Needs Study conducted by NelsonNygaard. It concluded that Ohio needs to raise the transit apportionment of its transportation budget by $64 million to meet growth projections.

When state legislators pressed him about this during recent budget hearings, ODOT’s director Jerry Wray said that Ohio as a home rule state makes transit funding a local issue. He suggested that MPOs pay for increases.

All Aboard Ohio counters that ODOT “spent much more on transit in the past—$42 million per year in 2001—which apparently wasn’t in violation of home rule.”

The shortsightedness will ultimately do damage to the business climate in Ohio. The group notes that 1 million Ohioans are without cars. They cite a Brookings Institution study that found the typical job in Ohio is accessible to only 27% of the metropolitan workforce by transit in 90 minutes or less.

Four consecutive years of cuts in state contributions to transit tends to cloud the picture that Ohio was once a supportive partner in building transit oriented developments. In 2008, the state invested $50 million of the $168 million needed to rebuild 6.7 miles of Euclid Avenue as a complete street. The spin off economic impact has been estimated at $4.3 billion. That helps not only the City of Cleveland, but the state of Ohio, says Ken Sislak, Associate Vice President–Senior Project Manager at the Cleveland office of AECOM Technology Corporation.

“The state contribution toward the Euclid Corridor was generous,” he says. “Look at the benefit that the investment has generated. What has been brought in to the state coffers through sales, property and income tax. To say that transit problems are local in nature ignores the spill over that happens (favoring) the state.”

The shift toward primarily funding highways with local taxes is inequitable to the metropolitan regions which contribute the most but gain the least from highways built over rural areas, Sislak adds.

“Highways don’t generate enough gas tax anymore to pay for their upkeep,” Sislak says, citing a recent study done by the Center for American Progress.

Ohio’s lack of diversification in its transportation portfolio is bound to hurt the private sector.

“The pipeline is emptying out,” Sislak says. “There is nothing on the horizon that is shovel ready.”

For instance, AECOM was contracted by RTA to study extending its Red Line Rapid east. Sislak says the project would compete for half a billion in Federal Transit Administration New Starts money, but the state doesn’t do local shares of transit projects anymore. “(RTA General Manager) Joe Calabrese said, ‘where am I going to come up with half a billion dollars?' Meanwhile, this would be a great economic engine.”

The way forward, says All Aboard’s Executive Director Ken Prendergast, is for ODOT to rethink its role. It should be moving people, not cars.

“In his testimony, Wray said ODOT will promote more seamless connectivity among transportation modes to find the most cost-effective, timely and reliable services, routes and facilities to move freight in and through Ohio,” Prendergast said. “Replace that word ‘freight’ with ‘passengers’ and Ohio would gain a policy foundation upon which a truly multi-modal transportation system can be built to mobilize more people to fully participate in Ohio’s economy.”

To illustrate the stark nature of the funding situation in Ohio, Sislak says that the City of Pittsburgh received more support for transit from the State of Pennsylvania than all of the metropolitan areas in Ohio combined. Meanwhile, Ohio is one of the few states where the majority of the population lives in cities—our density is similar to that of France.

“Back in that day, RTA only had to put a dime in for every dollar spent on rail cars. Today the federal government gives a certain amount for state of good repair. And the state gives them nothing.”

“What we want is equity. If we in the cities are funding all the rural highways then they shouldn’t complain when we want a few nickels to replace buses.”

Sislak and others hope that the rising tide of transit users and urbanites will form a coalition that “regularly peppers elected officials with questions.”

He’s even thought of a name for it: the Transit Users Federation or TUF.

“Because, you gotta be tough to use transit in Ohio.”

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John
2 years ago

I like it... TUF, transit users federation. That's pretty much what we are. We don't always want the so-called convenience of a car; we don't even really register our action against the car paradigm, even though a good number of us own cars. We are not afraid to walk; actually we enjoy it. Knowing the backlash against us, we speak out, boldly 'peppering our politicians with questions,' as you say. We pay our portion of the tax load and want to see a reasonable portion of that money spent on developing high-quality inner and intra-city transit. We have many ambivalent transit-using friends, and we speak up in their behalf. Yeah, all in all, it's pretty tough, and we like it that way.

Post-It
2 years ago

I don't understand, the home-rule law prohibits Ohio from spending more on transit?

I Bike to Work
2 years ago

I agree that Ohio, or at least Northeast Ohio, needs a transit advocacy group. Which group will fill that void?

By the way, it's interesting to note that Senator Brown recently circulated a petition regarding transportation that didn't say a peep about public transit.

angie schmitt
2 years ago

I despise Jerry Wray. Why don't "home rule" communities pay for their own road widenings? What a dinosaur!

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