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In-Depth: In the mountain of state transportation funding, public transit again remains but a molehill

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Posted at 5:14 PM, Mar 31, 2021

CLEVELAND — Ohio Governor Mike DeWine announced Wednesday that he has signed the state's $8.3 billion transportation budget, which includes $5.6 billion in highway construction, road maintenance and safety improvements over the next two years. However, in continuation of a longtime state trend, state public transportation funding is but a mere 2.56% of total highway spending in that time frame.

According to the Legislative Service Commission, the state's biennial transportation budget contains more than $144 million in public transit funding for fiscal years 2022 and 2023, amounting to just over $70 million per year. Highway spending, on the other hand, will amount to $5.6 billion over the next two years. Although the newly-passed transportation budget doesn't contain massive increases in public transit funding compared to the previous transportation budget, it doesn't come with drastic funding cuts either.

In February, Gov. DeWine's budget proposal called for drastic cuts to public transit funding to just $7.3 million per year, amounting to a 90% reduction. However, as the proposed budget weaved through the Ohio House and Senate, public transit funding was restored to previous levels.

India Birdsong, the CEO and General Manager of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA), thanked Gov. DeWine for signing the transportation budget into law.

"The bill contains significant funding for public transit and acknowledges the unique role that our rail system plays in the region," Birdsong said in a statement.

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Similar to other industries, public transportation has been negatively impacted by the ongoing pandemic, which has limited ridership and, in turn, limited revenues. That revenue, paired with state funding and federal funding passed through the state, goes toward capital expenses, including buses, shelters and other long-term expenses.

However, unlike other states, Ohio has historically ranked near the bottom in public transit spending per capita. The newly-signed biennial budget likely won't change that.

"It's extremely frustrating I think because of a lot of reasons, but one thing that is particularly frustrating is that it doesn't have to be that way," said Natalie Ziegler, an organizer for local public transit advocacy group, Clevelanders for Public Transit. "There is no way that it has to be an either/or; good roads and good buses are things that we can and should have and ask for."

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Without an increase in state investment, Ziegler believes public transit agencies will continue to face financial challenges, leading to either decreased services or increased fares. An increase to fares will likely lead to fewer riders and less revenue, ultimately resulting in a so-called death spiral, Ziegler said.

"There is no need to necessarily innovate and reinvent the wheel. We already have public transit and it has been underfunded. It doesn't have to be that way," Ziegler said. "It can be reallocated to support the public transit that we already have."

Navy veteran and frequent RTA user Sharon Johnson said she couldn't imagine not having access to public transit. Frequently she has to travel from the West Side to doctor's appointments at the VA, a trip that routinely takes two hours, one way. Since 2008, RTA bus services have dropped precipitously and Johnson has certainly noticed it.

"Every time I look around, the [prices] are going up but the bus service seems to get worse. The more the RTA goes up, the worse it gets," Johnson said. "If I miss the bus at the VA, I have to stay there a whole hour because [Bus] 38 don't come but once every hour. There are a lot of us vets that do take the buses."

In addition to using public transit to get to appointments at the VA, Johnson said she regularly uses it to go grocery shopping, visit with friends and visit area parks. Quite simply, she uses it for everything.

"Public transportation is very important," Johnson said. "I don't drive because I don't have a car. I have to rely on public transportation."

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Not only does public transportation serve as a vital link for people to the community around them, studies have also shown it serves as an economic engine as well. A 2019 study by Cleveland State University researchers found access to public transit leads to significant decreases in poverty along with increases to employment and higher property values.

According to the study, the impact of public transit on Cuyahoga County property values is $2.2 billion with an estimated annual economic impact of $322 million. RTA’s direct spending in the county accounts for $182 million of the total economic return to the county. An additional $35 million is a result of local businesses selling goods and services to RTA. More than $104 million of economic impact comes from goods and services purchased by RTA and employees of RTA suppliers who live in the county.

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