When Joe Calabrese left Central New York RTA to take the helm at Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority 16 years ago, 1.392 million people lived in Cuyahoga County, where they provide 1 cent on every purchase to support RTA operations. The sales tax contribution covers more than 70% of RTA’s operating budget, but has been sliding since 11 separate transit companies merged under the regional banner in 1978 when 1.539 million county residents contributed.
A one-two punch of job losses and sprawl has dominated Calabrese’s tenure as CEO and general manager, the longest of any major, U.S. transit system boss, according to his introduction at today’s Hope for the City: Mobility Matters series at the Old Stone Church in downtown Cleveland.
By 2010, another 100,000 people had left Cuyahoga County and wouldn’t be supporting RTA with its purchase power. When the U.S. Census came out, RTA would also have to contend with the federal government trimming $3 million (based on population size) from its budget.
Reeling from the recession, RTA faced possibly its worst year of revenues. Meanwhile, Ohio lawmakers had an opportunity to ride in and preserve RTA, the largest transit system in the state and in the Top 20 in the country. Ohio refused Calabrese’s modest proposal to increase its funding support 3% per year, and RTA was forced to make deep cuts.
When he arrived, Calabrese notes, Ohio was contributing $43 million to be divided among all of the state's transit agencies. Today, it’s $7 million or $0.63 per person. The steady decline in funding once again led RTA late last year to propose raising fares and cutting service, Calabrese said.
“People ask why we’re doing this,” he said. “We have a (state) partner asleep at the wheel. On the highway, by the way.”
“We don’t want to lose customers,” Calabrese continued. “We’ve done a lot to control costs internally.”
He hinted that the latest round of service cuts will likely affect 1.5% of RTA customers. Ten percent of those will lose all service; the rest of the cuts will come where “the least amount of people are being served, and where those have options.”
Sixty percent of RTA’s riders have “other choices” such as driving a car, Calabrese noted.
Calabrese asserts that Ohio lawmakers should be very alert to the role transit plays in business attractiveness. Instead, they seem to be ignoring trends like growth in Millennials moving to Ohio metros and driving less.
“College grads want to live where transit is good,” Calabrese says, “I harp on state legislators that employers want to be where the talent is.”
It’s a sentiment echoed during questions today. A recent transplant from San Francisco shared with Calabrese, “When I moved here, I asked a real estate agent to find me a home within five minutes of transit to downtown. He acted surprised, and told me, ‘no one takes transit.’ I think you have a perception problem.”
How can RTA take a more proactive role in promoting denser land use to support transit, asked Bruce Donnelly, who participated in a Clevelanders for Transit Oriented Development group for many years.
“We try to encourage employers to locate where we can best serve them,” Calabrese said, adding that the 59 communities in Cuyahoga County can help with transit supportive zoning, like Cleveland adopted recently on W. 25th Street.