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While state funding will help RTA, study shows major changes needed for it to survive

Posted at 5:48 PM, Oct 29, 2019
and last updated 2019-10-29 18:22:08-04

CLEVELAND — While the state’s recent allocation of $15.3 million in grants for the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority marks an increase over past allocations, the public transit agency faces significant financial and logistical challenges in the years ahead, according to a new study.

As the agency prepares for the future, the RTA is neck deep in a comprehensive review on its operations, infrastructure, policies and economic impact on the Greater Cleveland area. To assist in getting a handle on the agency’s financial condition and outlook, the Greater Cleveland Partnership, the local chamber of commerce group, commissioned WSP, a Canadian professional services company. The financial analysis outlined significant changes RTA will need to make in order to survive, especially when it comes to its rail service.

One of the most pressing challenges that RTA faces concerns its aging fleet of rail cars. The fiscal analysis study determined replacing the rail cars would cost $240 million, which amounts to more than $3 million per rail car.

As part of the recently passed state transportation budget, ODOT granted RTA $15.3 million as part of $70 million in new money allocated for public transit agencies around the state. According to an RTA spokeswoman, $5 million will be designated for the rail car replacement program. With that money, along with local grants and reserve funds, RTA has $57.2 million committed to rail car replacement. When factoring other sources, the agency has roughly half of the $240 million needed to replace the rail cars.

"RTA is grateful for ODOT's investment in public transit. We'll make use of every dollar, and we look forward to investing in the improvements needed to achieve a state of good repair,” RTA CEO and General Manager India Birdsong said in a statement. “With this ODOT grant, we're one step closer to ensuring continuous improvement in RTA's infrastructure and services.”

The rest of the recently allocated state money will be used to purchase three new smaller buses for the Park-N-Rides; five new 40-foot buses that are used on regular routes; $6 million in preventative maintenance and $660,000 to acquire property along the Red Line for an expansion of the E 79th Street station.

“[The state] doubled the amount of commitment or contribution that they had to public transit, which is big for GCRTA,” said Marty McGann, the senior vice president for advocacy and strategic initiatives at Greater Cleveland Partnership. “It’s a start. It’s important to note those milestones. We think it’s really good momentum for us as a region.”

The fiscal analysis determined replacing the rail cars won’t be the silver bullet for the RTA. The report found the investment would only help sustain the system as it currently is, which would lead to only a minor increase in ridership, certainly not enough to offset the 30% decline in ridership over the past decade.

Complicating matters further are factors like urban sprawl, job losses and the surge in popularity of ridesharing services like Lyft and Uber. McGann said it is pivotal for the public and private sectors to focus on transit-oriented development.

“Public transit is huge for our members. We hear it all the time. We’ve been deeply engaged with RTA dating back several years… and to have conversations with our members about how to solve some of these challenges in connecting people to these jobs,” McGann said. “We seem to have a mismatch in our community, further highlighted by our study.”

McGann said the RTA will simply not be able to throw money at the problem. Instead, the RTA will have to focus on shedding some administrative costs while also becoming more efficient. Other possibilities include privatizing paratransit services.

“Putting more money at that is not really a solution in and of itself. More money may be needed – our report indicated it’s probably needed – but we need to think more broadly around what [RTA] is connected to,” McGann said. “How do we start people and jobs into some of these corridors in a way that makes it a net plus for our region?”