First, the good news: The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Agency (GCRTA) reported this week that—polar vortexes aside—2014 saw positive growth in transit riders, totalling 49.25 million. RTA has charted four straight years of growth in a tough economic climate, with the largest increase, a big 6.7%, coming in Paratransit riders who, because of their disabilities, are unable to independently travel on the public transit system and are eligible for this special service. After trending up, train ridership fell 3.6% in 2014. RTA blamed construction of the Innerbelt Bridge and rail stations like Cedar-University that led to Red Line shut downs for large stretches last summer.
Construction of Public Square, which will close off bus traffic through Ontario Avenue in the heart of downtown Cleveland, is expected to add to headaches for the agency who will contend with construction of the second Innerbelt Bridge likely starting in the next year or two.
But, that’s not all of the bad news. RTA is feeling the pinch of a chronic shortage of state support. While Ohio’s and the nation’s economy has recovered, that state has continued to cut funding, by 17% in the last two years, to its transit agencies, continuing a pattern of decline in place since 2008. As a result, RTA will announce more service cuts soon, including direct service from 12 suburban locations to downtown Cleveland. For example, RTA will cut the last six direct routes downtown for the #9 (Mayfield Road) bus. Starting March 1, the remaining three am and three pm downtown rush hour buses will end (or start) their run at Euclid Avenue in University Circle and at the University-Cedar Rapid Station. Riders who want to continue on to downtown will have to pick up the HealthLine or the Red Line Rapid.
In 2010, RTA, facing a massive shortfall of local sales tax revenue and lower state funds, was forced to make large service cuts including the decision to terminate 12 suburban bus lines at Rapid stations. As a concession, RTA kept running a skeleton direct-to-downtown service for these suburban bus lines during rush hour. While this round of service cuts will be much smaller, it will complete the cuts made in 2010—it means that many of Greater Cleveland’s suburban bus riders can expect a 2-seat ride to and from downtown Cleveland.
Again, this is the impact of having an asset that is chronically underfunded by the state (Ohio ranks 47th in per capita spending on transit). The state, to its credit, concluded that it does, in fact, underfund transit in its Statewide Transit Needs Study released at the end of 2014. The study, paid for by ODOT and conducted by national firm Nelson-Nygaard, concluded that Ohio needs to invest 82% more in transit systems to make them functional, competitive and positioned to meet the rising demand in ridership.