Public transit: Broke and broken?
In mid-August, the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA) cut bus service and hiked fares again. If you use public transit, you are spending more time and more money getting where you need to go. Those who have a choice are less likely to choose RTA when it is inconvenient, expensive, and doesn't take them right to their destination. But, if you depend on public transportation, you probably already have greater difficulty getting to work, medical care, school and grocery stores.
The cost of a single bus or rapid transit ride has risen from $2.25 to $2.50, and will go up again, to $2.75, in 2018. Transfers are no longer available. A monthly pass went from $85 to $95, and in 2018 it will cost $105.
In Cleveland Heights and University Heights, RTA has shortened four bus routes:
- The Monticello bus route (No. 7) now terminates at Richmond Town Square, instead of continuing east via Alpha and Beta drives and south on SOM Center Road.
- On the Cedar route (No. 32), RTA has eliminated the Lander Road segment between Brainard Road and Ursuline College.
- No. 37, which starts at E. 185th Street and runs along Taylor Road, now ends at Severance Town Center, instead of continuing via Fairmount Boulevard to Lee Road and Shaker Town Center at Chagrin Boulevard—eliminating service to University Heights on this route entirely.
- Green Road (No. 34) ends at the Green Road-Shaker Blvd. rapid station, no longer continuing to Northfield and Emery roads.
According to Christopher Stocking of Clevelanders for Public Transit, "Before the latest increase, 57 percent of riders found fares unaffordable." Nevertheless, as with every mass transit system, fares account for a minor share of revenue—17 percent in RTA's case.
Since 1975, Cuyahoga County has levied a 1 percent sales tax to support RTA. The share of RTA's budget met by these taxes has fallen from 70 percent in 2000 to 67 percent today.
While some states support as much as 20 percent of urban transit costs, Ohio doles out just 1 percent. Our state now ranks 47th in funding mass transit, yet has the 14th highest transit use rate.
RTA also receives federal funds for "rail system enhancements." Before 1997, those funds supported both operations and capital improvements. Since then, the U.S. Department of Transportation has provided only capital funding (and 80 percent of federal transportation dollars go to highways).
After RTA announced its latest cuts and fare increases, another shoe dropped. According to the Plain Dealer, the federal government has informed Ohio it can no longer charge sales and use taxes to Medicaid managed-care organizations. Without that funding, RTA "stands to lose as much as $18 million annually in revenue starting in July 2017."
In June, one member of RTA's Board of Trustees—Trevor Elkins, mayor of Newburgh Heights—voted against the service cuts and fare increases, so we interviewed him. Elkins told us, "I met with [Cleveland Heights Mayor] Cheryl Stephens. She advocated very well on behalf of the people of Cleveland Heights. In part because of her advocacy, I voted against the service cuts and fare increases.
“RTA has known these cuts were coming for at least three years, and there has not been a serious conversation about funding. You don't run an organization the size of RTA based on if-comes."
Considering the utter lack of support from Columbus, what's the solution?
Elkins proposes a 1/4 percent county sales tax increase: "[It would provide] a robust, sustainable revenue stream of $62 million per year, allowing us to restore all service cuts, expand and increase the number of routes, sunset the recently announced fare increases and replace the Medicaid sales tax we're going to lose."
Sensitive to the charge that sales taxes are regressive, Elkins pointed out that he opposed the 1/4 percent increase that funded the Medical Mart project. "I know sales taxes are regressive when they subsidize projects benefitting the already well-off; I completely agree. But a 1/4 percent tax to support public transit—it benefits everyone and the entire regional economy, including our citizens who have the least. I think it is not regressive in the same sense at all."
We concur. It's time to find solutions that will fix public transit in Greater Cleveland. As part of the bargain, maybe we could get buses running regularly to where residents of Cleveland Heights and University Heights need to go.
Carla Rautenberg and Deborah Van Kleef
Carla Rautenberg is an activist and a lifelong Cleveland Heights resident. Deborah Van Kleef is a musician and writer, who grew up in Cleveland Heights, and has lived here as an adult for over 30 years. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.