CLEVELAND — The proposed 2020 tax budget for the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA) projects a 2% decrease in total ridership next year on top of the sizable decline in ridership so far through June 2019, according to records presented to the RTA Board of Trustees Tuesday morning. RTA officials also announced that maintenance and repairs to portions of the Red Line are expected to be complete by late August.
According to last month’s ridership report, total ridership decreased 10% from June 2018. There was a 7% drop in bus ridership in that same time period and a 16% drop in rail ridership, according to the report. Ridership on the HealthLine had the biggest drop at 20% from June 2018.
Those declines follow a recent trend of falling ridership dating back to at least 2014, according to RTA records. The trend will likely continue into 2020 as the RTA’s Office of Management and Budget estimates that total ridership will decline another 2% next year. Although sales and use taxes account for nearly 75% of the RTA’s general fund revenue, passenger fares still account for more than 15%.
The proposed tax budget, which is an initial analysis of financial trends, revenue and expenditure forecasts, comes as the RTA is in the middle of a series of studies that are examining the efficiency and effectiveness of the public transit system and its operations.
“We’re in the middle of several studies and I think the first thing to be aware of is that there is a ridership challenge nationwide,” said Linda Krecic, the spokesperson for RTA. “Here in Ohio there is a funding challenge that goes with our inability to make major improvements to the transit system.”
Many researchers believe falling public transit ridership is due to low to moderate gas prices, increasing car ownership and the surging ride-hailing industry, including Uber and Lyft. Many of the country’s largest urban areas are struggling with falling public transit usage.
Krecic said the RTA has held 18 public meetings to gauge the sentiments of the riding public in hopes of getting valuable feedback on what parts of the system are and are not working.
“That’s where we really want to hear from folks. We want to hear from people who want to go from A to B and maybe right now they can’t. We want to hear from folks and we want to be able to then bring service… that serves their needs.”
The RTA has hired a consultant, Jarrett Walker and Associates, to conduct a system redesign study. Other studies, which will review efficiency, operations and fare equity, will be presented to the Board of Trustees later this year. The final recommendations will form the basis of the 10 year strategic plan.
“Jarrett Walker that has done system redesigns all over the country, all over the world. He came into Cleveland and the first thing he noticed is that there is no low hanging fruit,” Krecic said. “We have done everything we can to put as much service on the street as we can possibly do given our budget, given the framework that we have and given our aging infrastructure.”
However, Chris Stocking, a representative of the public transit advocacy group, Clevelanders for Public Transit, said the RTA’s dropping ridership levels come down to two issues: cost and quality of service.
“I ride the green and blue line light rail system frequently and I’ve had delays of over an hour twice in the past 6 months. When you have people relying on this system and you can’t make connections to your bus lines or you can’t get to work on time, we have a serious problem. I don’t see that being adequately addressed,” Stocking said. “They raised fares back in 2016 and when you do the math with the lower ridership and the fare increase, it did not generate any revenue. All it has done is decrease ridership.”
Stocking believes the RTA should roll back prices to pre-2016 levels in an effort to boost ridership if it proves to be cost neutral. Stocking worries that the increased costs of public transit will make a potential future tax levy an even harder sell to the public.
“What [the RTA] has done is destroy your voting base. Riders are avoiding it. They are avoiding taking RTA because you have less service and you’re charging more,” Stocking said. “Those are the people who would be your champions when you to the ballot to get more revenue. You have thrown them under the bus.”
As for the drastic decline in the usage of the Rapid’s Red Line, Krecic said it is likely due to the fact that certain portions of the route have been closed off since late May. RTA crews and private contractors are in the process of completing track maintenance as well as repairs to a retaining wall between West 117 Street and West Blvd.
On Tuesday, the Board of Trustees approved a resolution to fund an estimated $1.3 million stabilization of 300 feet of the retaining wall. RTA’s Deputy General Manager of Engineering Mike Schipper told the trustees that engineering staff had been monitoring the ‘S-curve’ retaining wall for nearly a year. However, earlier this year, the movement accelerated, prompting the suspension of rail service. Busses have replaced the trains until repairs are completed in late August.
Contractors will be using as many as 70 steel beams to brace the retaining wall and prevent it from bowing any further.