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Transit in the balance: Two competing views of the future take shape

Marc Lefkowitz  |  05/28/19 @ 1:00pm  |  Posted in Transit

For the last decade, Ohio has dropped transit funding by double digits, ignoring the national trend of driving-less young adults moving to cities and valuing freedom of mobility above ownership. The results have gone exactly as predicted. Fewer people can afford to ride transit and buses don’t come as often because RTA was asked to effectively operate in the red for all of those years. Meanwhile, jobs moved further from population centers. Northeast Ohio has been lead down a path where, notably, it outpaced all other metros in an index that the Fund for Our Economic Future calls the Mobility Paradox—no car, no job—transit cannot serve them effectively.

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Since that time, transit riders organized under the Clevelanders for Public Transit banner, and the region’s chamber of commerce and philanthropists like the Fund stepped in. For the first time in recent memory, a real effort has formed to improve transit in Cuyahoga County.

Enter the system redesign study that RTA is pursuing with renowned transit expert Jarrett Walker. Public meetings this month—the last one this Tuesday, May 28 at Independence (OH) Library—are set to lead GCRTA in a new direction. Rather than the slow death by a thousand cuts, people are being asked to choose between two bold but competing futures. The first round of ideas, based on RTA’s budget today (which is at an historic low) is on display. Later this summer, Walker will unveil two alternative futures based on a hypothetical increase in funding; an increase that, a Cuyahoga County Council transit committee agreed, will need a local source, such as a countywide levy or surcharge on parking.

A moment in transit

The Coverage Alternative, liked by 41.5% in an RTA survey, would restore some of the cuts RTA made in 2015, but not ones to every major suburban employer like NASA and Progressive Insurance. It would add service, in most cases infrequently, to places not served today like Chagrin Falls, Olmsted Falls, Tri-C West, the casino at Northfield, and between suburbs like Parma and North Royalton. Coverage would connect some emerging job centers in the suburbs and appease critics who complain that the 1% of county sales tax that supports RTA should connect more people and jobs with transit. The Coverage option would add 25,600 more people (+3%) and 18,000 more jobs (+8%) nearer to transit.

“The Coverage Alternative spreads out service across the county,” Walker writes, “but spreading it out means spreading it thin.”

Option 2 is the High Frequency route, chosen by 42% in the RTA survey. It would super charge transit in dense, walkable locations, making buses so frequent—every 15 minutes all day and all weekend—that 250,000 more people (+250%) could always count on transit to be there close to their home. The other benefit: 94,000 more jobs (+151%) would be connected to high frequency service. To move in this direction, some service would be cut, like, no more downtown trolleys, Waterfront Line, Park-N-Rides, nor Green Line trains east of Shaker Square after rush hour.

“The network tries to get to the biggest suburban job and education centers,” Walker writes. “But to get high ridership, we would focus on job centers that are big, not too far from the core, and easy to walk to from a bus stop. Without those things, a network designed for ridership can’t justify going there.”

Other costs to consider

Playing in the background, RTA has to consider the conclusions to a concurrent study on the cost to maintain its rail system. The heavy rail Red Line cars are decades old and at the end of their life. $102 million is needed to buy new cars. The light rail Blue and Green have a few more years—they had a significant upgrade about a decade ago—but the next RTA boss will have to find funding to replace them.

Also, the loss of a key revenue stream—a tax on medical devices—struck $20 million from RTA’s budget this year. To staunch the flow of red ink, Ohio agreed to raise the statewide gas tax and to peel off a small amount for transit agencies like RTA, which should see about $30 million. RTA, ever asked to tread water, delayed another fare increase in 2019, but without serious state support or a local levy (like the Health and Human Services, Parks, Library, etc. ballots), a fare increase is inevitable. With a large system, including rail, RTA already has higher operating costs compared to its peers. Only 16% of its costs are recovered at the fare box, so keeping transit fares low is a really important equity decision.

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