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Ohio is watching a "transit death spiral" unfold

Marc Lefkowitz  |  12/04/17 @ 12:00pm  |  Posted in Transit, Vibrant cities

2017 saw Cleveland transit advocates clash with Mayor Jackson over his decision to close Public Square (then re-open it) to buses. But that tempest played out in a teapot compared to what the State of Ohio is preparing to (not) do this month when a long-awaited medical service sales tax cut is expected to blow a hole in the budgets of Ohio’s 88 counties and its nine largest transit systems.

<br />RTA cut service to its suburban trains in 2016<br />Many Clevelanders will be stranded in economic islands of lost opportunity if RTA is forced to shut down 10 percent of its system in 2018<br />Ohio lavishes tens of millions of dollars on highways, like this empty highway which is being decommissioned in Akron, instead of flexing those highway funds to be used on transit.<br />The Public Square closure to buses was a distraction from the real issue facing transit - a state that has historically undervalued and underfunded it.

Unless the Ohio Senate votes before the end of its session this month to increase funding, the loss of the medical tax will strike $196 million from counties and transit agencies. Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority would lose $20 million, or 7% of its budget, year over year.

Chagrin Falls Senator, Matt Dolan (R), has introduced an amendment that would increase the franchise fees on medical providers, but Senate leadership has not budged on it. The Dolan amendment would provide $5 million back to RTA. A Band Aid on a gunshot wound.

RTA finds itself on familiar, shaky ground. As excruciating as the 1-2% service cut and fare hikes were in 2016, they pale in comparison to what RTA is about to face. At a recent meeting, an RTA executive announced that the agency is preparing for a massive service cut and another fare increase in March, 2018, lamenting, “we aren’t getting the transit system we deserve, just the one we can afford.”

A $20 million loss in state support, says RTA’s External Affairs Manager, Jose Feliciano will mean 1.8 million fewer commute trips on buses and trains, 700,000 fewer school trips and 300,000 fewer trips to the doctor next year.

“In terms of our 44 million annual customers, the impact would be even more devastating,” Feliciano says. “That’s because 60 percent of our customers use RTA to travel to work, 23 percent to travel to school and 9 percent to travel to healthcare.”

What can be done, and how will Ohio, with its large contingent of legislators from rural (read: no transit) areas respond to this crisis?

“We need immediate attention to this from philanthropic, business, and political leadership with any concern for economic development in the region, starting with those who appoint RTA's board,” says longtime transit advocate, Akshai Singh.

Singh’s response was shared by an executive with a downtown firm and daily transit rider who spoke off the record. “This is the death spiral for Greater Cleveland’s transit agency,” they both said.

They lay blame on state elected officials for a dismal track record when it comes to supporting transit: Ohio supplies the equivalent of $0.63 per person to transit agencies, stingier than 48 other states.

The executive who takes transit refers to Cleveland’s bid for Amazon’s headquarters, and blames the state’s lack of support for transit as a key factor in losing out. He also apportions blame to local leaders, especially, the silence of business leaders, who he would like to see speak publicly about the impact to their operations that taking away 10% of transit will have on the workforce of Greater Cleveland.

Cleveland already ranks last among 96 metro regions in transportation access to new jobs. This is the type of thing that could put the brakes on Cleveland’s nascent renaissance.

“It will pretty much stop any notion of 'school choice' being promoted by CMSD and the Transformation Alliance,” Singh comments. “It would mean being out of the running not just from Amazon (obviously), but potentially with downtown businesses finding even less amenities in the core, follow Eaton and flee.”

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Marc
11 days ago

Hi Vince,
I think a lot of people feel like we lost the Amazon bid before we even began -- because transit is one component that a world-class company like Amazon requires (clean energy is another). The most frequent comment I've heard is if the bid were shared with more people, such as business leaders who have a large workforce with affordable transportation + housing needs, it would be more competitive.

vince adamus
12 days ago

when did we lose the Amazon HQ bid?

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