RTA is being asked to do the near impossible—preserve a large transit system while state and local funding erodes and the region continues to sprawl outward. What is a transit agency to do?
A storm cloud is gathering on Greater Cleveland’s horizon—the region’s transit agency, GCRTA, a provider of 49.2 million rides in 2014, announced it has an $11 million budget gap and no option short of cuts in closing it. As a result, RTA’s board has called for a fare increase from $2.25 to $2.50 for a one-way pass and a steep $1.25 hike for paratransit riders.
Even if RTA's Board approves the fare hike, it won’t be enough to close the gap. So, it is also seeking approval to trim or completely cut 18 (or 3%) of its bus routes. While RTA has taken care to spread the damage of route stoppages evenly throughout Cuyahoga County, the pattern of cuts and losses reflects a larger, decades long pattern of waning funding and an untenable geography that keeps sprawling further from its service area.
First, the State of Ohio cut its funding to transit agencies by 17% in 2013, and then refused to budge on even a modest increase of $1 million in the 2015 budget.
At the time, RTA General Manager and CEO Joe Calabrese told GCBL: "Transit is unable to maintain, let alone expand when political leaders refuse to raise taxes that support it (from gas fill ups)."
Transit advocacy group, All Aboard Ohio, notes that RTA’s downward spiral mirrors the erosion of county sales tax receipts. They parts ways with state leaders who throw their hands in the air and blame the Global Recession. AAO calls for a restructuring of the region’s transit system, noting that Cuyahoga County’s population has dipped from 1.8 million when RTA was founded to 1.3 million people today. The “R” in RTA is a shrinking pie. But the agency has become more dependent on it—for 70% of its revenue.
The news isn’t all dire for RTA. Despite the well being run dry on funding support, RTA has learned to adapt and make due with less. With the launch of its CSU Line in 2015, a new idea emerged. For once, the transit agency was able to show what can be done with a little investment. The City of Cleveland and RTA were able to corral $20 million in federal, state and local transportation funds for a “bus-rapid transit” line—a streetscape re-do of Clifton Boulevard and 16 new 60-foot articulated buses branded for Cleveland State University. The idea has paid off, with 23% more CSU students living in apartments along Clifton—including those in Lakewood, Rocky River and Bay Village—riding the bus (using their $15 per semester university subsidized transit pass) instead of driving. An influx of new college educated Millennials who are driving less and taking transit or biking more is steadying the transit agency—it would be much worse if not for the positive (+1%) growth in Cleveland areas well served by transit.
Still, the storm is coming. The one silver lining may be, the latest fare and service cut proposal has finally raised enough awareness and ire among riders to organize resistance. A little history: RTA riders have a nominal voice through the agency’s Citizen’s Advisory Board, but the opinions of riders are rarely sought (in polls or surveys), and this has left many disenfranchised and disillusioned. The deeper service cuts of 2010 when an outpouring of anger and disbelief from riders was leveled at RTA during public hearings, may have solidified the feeling that no one with authority was listening or able to do anything to stop the slow dismantling of Ohio’s largest transit system.
This time around, a new not-for-profit, Ohio Organizing Collaborative, which has led campaigns opposing fracking and the rate case to save FirstEnergy's dirty coal plants, joined forces with the Service Employee International Union (SEIU) Local 1. Together, they polled 500 RTA riders, and have amplified the voice of advocates. The rider surveys have been particularly enlightening. They show the human side of trying to spread a transit system to its limits as the region continues its outmigration pattern. Stories of riders being asked to endure two and a half hour one way transit rides to get from Cleveland to a job in the suburbs, or having to decide if a job was worth the time penalty and extra trip on the bus to drop the kids at day care were all-too common.
RTA hasn’t taken the erosion of state funding lying down. Each time, including this week, Calabrese testified before lawmakers in Columbus insisting on more state funding for transit.
"Right now in Greater Cleveland, we are unfortunately planning for a service reduction and a fare increase,” Calabrese said. “This is the last thing we should be doing, but something we must do to achieve a balanced budget.
“These changes will isolate Ohioans from jobs, school and health care, but we can't spend money we don't have."
The dismantling of RTA has certainly been a drag on the economy. First, the Fund for Our Economic Future noted how job sprawl has placed 22% of jobs out of reach of the average 25-minute car trip or 75-minute transit ride in the region. Then the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland hit the nail again, noting that, while jobs for the well educated came closer, those in the service sector moved further away. The inequities trace the lines of Northeast Ohio’s haphazard development pattern.
What can be done? In the short term, the latest round of fare increases and service cuts have spurred the creation of a new group, Clevelanders for Public Transit, a coalition of the union, transit riders and advocates who have been meeting monthly and staying connected online. The group is trying to tell the story of those most affected by the situation at RTA. Their voices are starting to be heard. Calabrese participated in their meeting in January, and met with SEIU Local 1 again this week. In February, the RTA Board’s Finance Committee tabled its vote on the fare increase. Even though the cuts appear to be heading for public hearings, RTA spokespeople insist that input will make or break which routes fall under the axe. On March 1 at 9 a.m. at RTA’s main offices on W. 6th Street, the Board Finance Committee will again take up the discussion of the fare increase. The public can attend.