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Cleveland transit advocates take aim at state leaders and Waterfront Line

Marc Lefkowitz  |  03/21/16 @ 4:00pm  |  Posted in Transit

As Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority opened a two week schedule of public hearings on its proposed 3% cut to service and a fare hike, a group of transit riders rallied peacefully but with emotions on display outside its downtown office, calling on the agency to re-consider their decision.

Peaceful but pointed <br />A big turnout of protesters to service cuts and fare increase at RTA include Reverend Pamela Pinkney Butts who said that riders will not have their voices silenced by state leaders.<br /><br />Riders on the RTA HealthLine, a success story showing how transit can be at the center of revitalization when investments are made.

“Taking it from the working people is not the answer,” said Sandra Ellington, a member of the Service Employees Union International (SEIU) Local 1 and a regular customer of the Red Line Rapid which she rides to work at Cleveland Hopkins Airport.

SEIU Local 1 and a coalition of transit customers under the banner Clevelanders for Public Transit are calling on RTA to avoid cuts and fare increases and instead adopt a Transit Riders Bill of Rights similar to one in Pittsburgh.

Among the coalition's requests are: Appoint two transit riders to the RTA Board of Trustees, for RTA to avoid cuts and work with them on identifying funding, and to restore transfers, which the agency cut more than a decade ago (and has, thus far, shown little interest in bringing back).

"Something has to give," said another coalition member, "or we'll be here again in three years. Don't put this on the people who don't make a lot."

RTA last raised fares in 2007, and last cut service in 2009. In 2010, it narrowly avoided more cuts when it struck a deal with the region’s transportation agency, NOACA, to tap into a state fund reserved for Congestion Mitigation Air Quality (CMAQ).

RTA's CEO Joe Calabrese opened the hearing by noting that Ohio has one of the smallest state contributions to transit. He shifted the blame to the state’s GOP majority who have steered a decade long decline in transit funding. He compared Ohio which funds less than 1/10th of 1% of its transit agencies with Pennsylvania which provides 20%.

The comparison is complicated since Cuyahoga County pays a 1-cent sales tax to support RTA while Allegheny County doesn’t supply a sales tax to support Pittsburgh’s transit system. But, RTA’s finances reveal that the county sales tax has recovered to pre-Recession levels. Meaning, the state cut to transit and the outmigration of Cleveland’s and Cuyahoga County population has impacted RTA more.

State leaders don’t hear enough from their constituents about the role transit has in the local economy, said Ohio Representatives Janine Boyd (D-9) and Stephanie Howse (D-10).

Howse testified that Cleveland businesses benefit from RTA and should be speaking up on its behalf.

“We have to ask for our fair share,” Howse insists.

Boyd called for advocacy aimed at the Ohio House, particularly, its Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chaired by Rep. Ryan Smith who promised a study commission after ODOT’s Statewide Transit Needs Study found $10 million in needs.

“(Ryan) said he doesn’t understand what the needs are for transit,” Boyd said.

Should the anger and incredulity of RTA customers move Ryan and his colleagues to act, it would be in supplying $7 million to close their budget gap. As the state, city and county invest millions building a road called Opportunity Corridor, calls for the relatively small amount of funding for transit rang out today.

“We have the #8 bus being cut,” transit advocate, Akshai Singh, said of the route serving Cedar Road on Cleveland’s east side, “when the Cleveland Clinic is about to get its three hundred and thirty million dollar driveway. Opportunity for whom, Mr. Mayor? Mr. Governor?”

Some called for the lightly used Waterfront Line to bear the brunt of the cuts.

Long term, RTA needs to be recast at the center of how to build a sustainable region. Investing in transit will help Ohio compete against those neighboring states as people choose to live in its cities. We can do our part by choosing to live close to transit and using it often.

To make your voice heard about RTA's proposed cuts and fare hike, email public-comment@gcrta.org

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Droid
1 year ago

Your conservative friend is wise to suggest a closer look at RTA operating and extraordinary expenses. It does seem that transit advocates have given RTA a free pass on the management of system and resources. BTW, what difference does her political leaning make?

Max
1 year ago

It's clear what the priorities of the county and city is when $275 million is spent on a hotel but there is not enough to maintain let alone expand the region's public transit.

The region keeps trying to find a golden project to turn itself around while failing to take care of the basics.

Himself
1 year ago

You caution against pitting rail against bus and then do so in the very next sentence?

Marc
1 year ago

While I agree that the State of Ohio's funding for transit has fallen off a fiscal cliff in the last ten years, it is instructive to hear the perspective of a Conservative colleague working in the transportation space. From her perspective:

-RTA stated at the public hearing that its expenses are exceeding its revenues. If RTA were more transparent about why this is, what was driving its increase in expenses, there would be a more productive discussion of how to control those costs. For example, why was RTA asked by the City of Cleveland and why did it agree to purchase and operate more downtown trolleys for the RNC Convention to the tune of $11 million?

-The Year 2000 state contribution of $43 million to transit agencies -- was it an anomaly and the $7 million is closer to the norm of what the state GOP leaders understand transit needs, given the state law that has a local sales tax to support transit?

-Does RTA have a plan to continue operating its rail given its deferred maintenance or is the Green Line cut signaling a future of no rail and funneling riders to the bus?

I don't hold with her theory that the state under the Strickland Administration was lavishing funds on transit with $43 million split between its dozen transit agencies. Even though the sales tax revenues have been on the rise, does that mean the state's 40% drop of funding in the last decade is the norm compared to Ohio's neighboring states, even the ones that don't allow local sales tax to pay for transit?

I do agree that RTA needs to be more transparent about its rise in expenses to foster a more complete conversation about what can be done to forestall cuts and fare increases now and in the future.

I cautioned my colleague to consider her "binary" thinking as Jarrett Walker mentioned in his Cleveland address that pits rail versus the bus. Clearly, there is a bias among rail riders in Northeast Ohio who will likely choose to drive before riding a bus. Their view of the bus-rapid transit is also pretty dim.

Himself
1 year ago

Does the waterfront line now become fodder for anti-transit advocates whenever an expansion to RTA's meager rail system is proposed.

Tim
1 year ago

I think it's wholly appropriate to place the blame squarely on the feet of our legislators in Columbus. Sen. Gayle Manning, the Republican Chair of the Senate Transportation, Commerce and Labor Committee, tried to get an additional $2.5 million in funding tacked onto the last biennial budget, but it died before even making it out of committee. Clearly that would not have been sufficient to plug a $7 million budget gap - a deficit that would still not be fully closed even if Ohio allocated every dollar of its transit funding to GCRTA - but it would at least be a step in the right direction.

That said, we should also consider the direct effects of Northeast Ohio's development trajectory on RTA's funding base. More than 440,000 people have moved out of Cuyahoga County since RTA was created and given a 1 cent sales tax set aside. If those people still lived in the County, RTA could expect to see roughly $68 million in additional revenues this year, enough to not only avoid fare hikes and service cuts but to help cover its unfunded liabilities and perhaps even increase service. Not to mention that our sprawling region inherently undercuts the ability of RTA to create an efficient public transit system.

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