The state of public transit is nothing to celebrate
Posted on 07/01/16 in Transit
Hundreds of thousands of people who trekked downtown for the spirited Cavaliers NBA Championship celebration last week were encouraged to take the RTA. Many did, and the public transit system was quickly overwhelmed. Lines to catch the Rapid Transit stretched the length of eight football fields. When the celebration ended, RTA users struggled to get home. At Tower City, people waited for hours for a train (see photo). A line of buses stretched a half-mile on Veteran’s Memorial Bridge.
While our transit system is not designed to handle such a crush of people in a short period of time, the problems highlight shortcomings of our grossly underfunded public transit system.
Ohio is the seventh most populous state with the 14th highest public transit ridership rates, yet we rank 47th in public transportation funding. About 96 percent of public transportation spending funnels into urban cores, which is a good thing. But public transit represents less than 1 percent of Ohio’s entire transportation budget. The most recent Ohio transit study conducted by the Ohio Department of Transportation concluded that Cleveland needs to enhance its public transit system to the same level as Portland, Oregon, and the rest of Ohio’s mid-sized cities need to make their systems equivalent to Cleveland’s current system. With Ohio choosing to spend only 63 cents per person on transit per year while neighboring states spend an average of $24 to $85 per person, the necessary public transit expansion is impossible with the current budget.
This is problematic as Ohio, specifically Cleveland, attempts to attract millennials to a downtown that is showing signs of a viable renaissance. Research from the National Association of Realtors shows millennials own fewer cars and drive less than their predecessors. “…[They] show a stronger preference than other generations for expanding public transportation and providing transportation alternatives to driving… ,” according to the 2015 National Community and Transportation Preference Survey. If the system were fully funded, the city would have 135 new buses to replace those that are past their useful life; new fiber optics to help the RTA control the rail system more efficiently; a new communication system, and a greater span of service that runs frequently during weekends and nights, RTA chief Joe Calabrese said in a phone interview with Policy Matters Ohio. Because Cleveland cannot offer this, it is unlikely that the city will be able to attract millennials long-term.
Even more important, we have long-time residents who don’t own cars and struggle to commute without them. Cleveland recently ranked worst in the country in a report about the decline in proximity to jobs for urban residents.
It is unfortunate, then, that instead of addressing the intense need for public transportation, a significant chunk of money has been dedicated to building another highway. The Opportunity Corridor will transport people from Cleveland’s outer-ring suburbs to University Circle. The Ohio Department of Transportation says this highway will create opportunity for “potential new economic development, new jobs and a new identity for the community.”
However, it will not increase access to public transportation for the low-income neighborhoods it cuts through. More than 8 percent of Ohio households have no access to a car, while one in five African American households do not have access. What would happen if the money devoted to the Opportunity Corridor had instead been directed toward a streetcar in the same area?
There is already a $555.3 million gap between the current public transportation budget and what is needed, according to The Ohio Statewide Transit Needs Study — this gap will grow to $904 million by 2025. In order to at least preserve Ohio’s number of buses, a third of them need to be replaced now or will start costing more to maintain. At the moment, there is no plan for replacement. Research says public transit is the future for cities if they want to thrive. Why don’t state leaders act on that knowledge?
If Cleveland had a fully funded public transportation system, the Cavs victory celebration would have still been a lot for it to handle. But, as the RTA Tweeted (@GCRTA) to an upset traveler: “We apologize for your delay. We know u are upset with us. We are over capacity & underfunded. We are working with what we have.” If only it had more to work with.
— Grace Billiter
Grace is a Policy Matters research intern.