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.
“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 firstname.lastname@example.org