Invest in public transportation, and help revitalize Ohio
Posted March 25, 2009 in Op-Eds
Public transportation is not a priority in Ohio’s $7.6 billion transportation budget. Habitually, we spend less than 1 percent of our state transportation dollars on public transit, giving us the low ranking of 40th in the nation for our relative commitment to transit. Per person, Indiana spends 3.6 times more, Michigan nearly 10 times more and Pennsylvania 33 times more than Ohio on public transit.
Transportation spending should better reflect the positive role public transit can play in creating a more equitable, vibrant and sustainable Ohio.
In this recession, investing in mass transit can be one part of a much-needed economic infusion for Ohio. Public transportation is not only more energy-efficient than passenger vehicle transportation, it also spurs economic development, employs people, assists firms and workers with transportation needs by providing a low-cost commuting option, reduces urban sprawl and congestion, increases urban vitality, and is far less harmful to the environment than having every commuter drive a car.
The Surface Transportation Policy Project estimates that investments in public transportation create nearly 19 percent more jobs than new roads or bridge projects create. Plus, Ohioans are currently sending at least $8 billion out of our state’s economy each year to import fuel for highway travel, and Ohio ranks an unfortunate fourth in the nation for the amount of carbon we emit.
Approximately 83 percent of Ohioans drive in their car alone to commute to work. Last year’s high summer gas prices tipped family budget scales and lured many Ohio drivers to mass transit in order to lower their cost of commuting. At the same time ridership was increasing, however, rising fuel prices and declining state investment were forcing cuts to our already inadequate level of public transit services in Ohio.
Currently, our regional transit systems receive only 4 percent of their support from the state, forcing local authorities to levy property and sales tax measures to support transit. These levies are difficult to pass and unreliable in a flagging economy.
In order for public transportation to become a viable option for Ohioans — to commute to work, to make trips to the doctor, or to pick up groceries — riders need to feel confident they can rely on transit to get where they need to go, when they need to get there. Our survey of local transit directors revealed just how essential these services are to riders throughout the state.
To create an adequate funding source for a reliable public transportation system in Ohio, we should amend the provision in Ohio’s constitution that prohibits our gas tax revenues from going toward nonhighway purposes, and allow 20 percent of the state motor fuel tax to go into a Transit Trust Fund dedicated to supporting mass transit in Ohio.
We should also use federal transportation dollars more wisely, directing them toward mass transit whenever it makes sense to do so; fund the Clean and Green Initiative, a five-year plan to purchase 500 electric or biofuel propulsion buses; retrofit existing buses with emissions-reducing equipment; and demand that businesses seeking public economic development incentives locate near job centers where our work force can access them by public transit.
Recent discussions of big new investments in trains to connect some of our large cities are exciting. Maintenance and expansion of buses and regional transit lines within our communities are essential. Ohio needs a 21st century transportation system for a 21st century work force, and a commitment from our leaders to move us in that direction.