by Chuck Hoven
(Plain Press, July 2018) Organizers of a Community Roundtable on Transit said they hope to create a new vision for the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority and stop the cycle of service cuts, fare increases and ridership loss.
In an effort to bring about their vision of a better, safer and more affordable public transit system, several community groups, Clevelanders for Public Transit, Linking Employment Abilities and Potential (LEAP), Northern Ohioans for Budget Legislation Equality (NOBLE) and Policy Matters Ohio, joined in a collaborative partnership to hold the Community Roundtable on Transit on June 21. Seventy-five people gathered at the Old Stone Church on Public Square to participate in the roundtable.
Before breaking into small discussion groups, some speakers addressed the group as a whole.
Skshai Singh of Clevelanders for Public Transit shared some information about the past successes of the organization founded in 2015. Singh spoke about a successful effort to stop fare increases from taking place this year; the reopening of Public Square to bus service and the completion of a survey of public transit users. Singh noted that the three primary concerns of Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA or RTA) riders were cost, service and safety.
Singh criticized the poor record of the State of Ohio in funding public transit. He said that Ohio was one of the lowest state funders of public transit in the nation.
Chairman of the Clevelanders for Public Transit Fair Fares Committee, Marvin Ranaldson, shared some measures his committee has explored to help make RTA more affordable for riders. Ranaldson urged that RTA bring back transfers. He called for a fair fare pass amount that would allow single trip or daily pass riders to build up to the amount of a monthly pass and then ride for free the remainder of the month after they had reached that level. This, he said, would help riders that could not come up with enough for a monthly pass up-front.
He noted the escalation of the cost of a single trip fare has increased from $1.25 in 2006 to $2.50 today. This, he says, along with a thirty percent cut in service has resulted in a death spiral for RTA which is now at an all-time low in ridership. Ranaldson also called for more local and state funding for public transit to help increase service to assure that “people can get to where they need to go in a timely manner.”
A Midtown employer spoke, stressing the importance of public transit in making life affordable for potential employees. He said that a study by the Fund for our Economic Future found that the average Cleveland family was spending forty-one percent of their household income on housing and transportation. He said the cost of having a car is about $9,300 per year and noted you could save that amount by giving up a car and taking public transit. He called fair funding of public transit “one of the biggest economic development projects we can have.”
Gloria Aron of Northern Ohioans for Budget Legislation Equality urged those present to work for “a safe, affordable transit system that meets the needs of all of us.” She said RTA is a public transit system and it is “our responsibility to hold RTA accountable and make sure it is working for us.”
Aron called for an increase in the county sales tax that would be dedicated to the RTA. She also shared her history of using the bus, as she used it as a way to go to work during the 1990s. She now uses the bus to go shopping or take her grandchildren on trips to the Great Lakes Science Center. But she warned that if RTA rates go any higher, it would be cheaper to go by Uber.
Aron talked about cuts in service. She said that a cousin was unable to take a job located on Rockside Road because no bus would take him there.
Aron also called for the restoration of the Madison/Bridge bus, saying that residents along those corridors have to go to Lorain or Detroit Avenue’s to catch the bus.
In addition, she called for bringing back the Zoo bus, which took riders directly to the entrance of the zoo. As the bus now drops off at the top of the hill leading down to the zoo, she mentioned the challenges of taking a toddler down the steep hill and then back up it.
Aron finished by saying she felt RTA should be running promotional ads on their buses aimed at parents and grandparents, urging them to take their children or grandchildren to destinations such as the Science Center or Zoo via the bus.
Lynn Solomon of Clevelanders for Public Transit said that when she first arrived in Cleveland in 1976, she loved the bus system. She could get anywhere and got very familiar with Cleveland by taking the bus. She said that often, she would explore new areas of the city by taking a different bus to her destination.
After 20 years as a bus rider, Solomon said, her mother convinced her to get a car. She was married and had children, so the car made her more assessable if the children had an emergency. Solomon said after her children were grown, her car continually broke down, and she decided to go back to riding the bus. But when she returned to the RTA system, she noticed a big difference from before. Routes had been cut out, it cost a lot more, and it took longer to get to where she wanted to go. Solomon said, “I thought RTA was dying.”
Zach Schiller of Policy Matters Ohio said the Ohio Department of Transportation did a study which said the state should be spending $120 million per year on public transit. Instead, the state allocates only $40 million to public transit, and most of that is from the federal government, he said.
When Medicaid Managed Care Organizations (MCO) that used to pay sales tax were removed from the tax base, RTA lost about $20 million a year in local sales tax revenue, said Schiller. The state legislature tried to design a fix with a franchise fee to make up the loss; however Governor John Kasich vetoed the fix.
Schiller talked about some sources of revenue that could be used to help fund public transit. He said the State Legislature passed a law saying cities cannot tax companies like Uber and Lyft. Schiller urged citizens to contact the legislature and let them know that they do not think this is a good idea.
He then spoke of two unexpected developments that could be sources of revenue. Schiller said the State of Ohio has a $400 million surplus this year. He said the state could efficiently use the surplus to make up for the MCO sales tax cuts to RTA for at least one year. “They have the money, they should do it,” he said.
The morning of the roundtable discussion, Schiller said the U.S. Supreme Court announced that states for the first time can now require online retailers to collect sales tax even if they do not have a physical presence in the state. Schiller said, with just a few changes in state law, online companies could begin paying sales taxes in Ohio. He estimated that statewide, this would bring in anywhere from $280 million to $450 million per year. Some of that would go directly to RTA via the local sales tax, he said.
Schiller again urged citizens to call their state representatives and senators to urge them to take actions on both the budget surplus and the online sales tax.
Transit riders attending the meeting had many additional suggestions as well as complaints about RTA. One resident complained that the No. 8 bus on Cedar that once ran every 20 minutes, now runs once per hour. Akshai Singh, in response to the rider’s concern, noted that when bus service s reduced to less than two or three buses per hour, ridership declines.
A rider suggested that RTA could do a better job in Public Relations and Marketing. She said many church groups like to go places, and RTA should market which buses would take the groups to various sites in Cleveland.
Singh suggested that instead of playing loud, obnoxious commercials for other companies, RTA could be promoting itself on its buses and rapid lines.
Singh also suggested that those with smartphones download the Transit App. The app, he said, will find your location and tell you where the nearest bus or rapid line is, as well as the next scheduled arrival.
Newly elected RTA Board President, Dennis Clough, said, “it all comes down to funding” when referring to implementing some of the suggestions made. “We don’t want a temporary fix,” he said. “We want something that is going to be lasting. All ideas need to be explored.”
Ward 5 City Council Representative and Chair of City Council Transportation Committee, Phyllis Cleveland, called public transit a social justice issue. Her ward, which includes Central, Kinsman and North Broadway, is the most deprived council ward in Cleveland. She said many of the residents in Ward 5 either don’t have cars or access to cars. “People in my community largely depend on public transit.”
Cleveland said while she agrees with Clough’s statement that a long-term solution is needed, she also feels the public is facing a critical situation soon due to the loss of the Medicaid tax. She said RTA’s budget has to be balanced and if there is not enough revenue, service gets cut. Those cuts will affect both riders and RTA employees. “A real short-term crisis has to be dealt with-we have to come up with a solution, for now, that is viable.”
Furthermore, Cleveland speculated about how the scandals at RTA would play out politically and if they would hinder the passage of a sales tax. Her suggestion was to possibly create a body like the Bond Accountability Commission that was created to monitor spending of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s Bond issue to fund its Facilities Plan.
As well, she suggested outlining specifically what more RTA would have to do if the levy were to pass. In promoting the levy, RTA could say: “this is what your additional dollars would pay for,” she said.
William Nix, President of Local 268 of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), talked about union members being laid off during budget cuts at RTA. He said the workforce on the rail line has been reduced from 100 employees to 40, and the rail system does have state of the art equipment.
Nix was also critical of RTA Chief Executive Officer Joe Calabrese for not pushing for a tax increase to stabilize the transit system. Noting that long-time Board President George Dixon got away with not paying health insurance premiums for decades, Nix said union members have to swipe their cards to make sure their premiums are up to date before they can come back to their jobs after being laid off for six months. The union member suggested new management at RTA from the top down would help to restore trust in the system.
Following comments from speakers and attendees, those present at the roundtable broke into discussion groups to discuss topics related to RTA service and affordability. Topics included: service hours, service frequency, coverage area regarding the bus getting someone where they want to go, accessibility and availability of ticket machines and lastly, affordability.
Many of those in attendance signed a letter to RTA Board of Trustees members and elected county officials urging the placement of a levy on the November ballot. The letter, composed by Clevelanders for Public Transit, closed by saying, “I am calling on you to put a levy on the ballot this November to raise the necessary revenue to restore GCRTA to a level of service that meets all the needs of our great community.”
Clevelanders for Public Transit plan to hold a rally on July 23 to urge RTA’s Board to put transit funding on the November ballot. The group hopes to attract transit riders to that rally. Those interested in attending should meet at the RTA’s headquarters located at 1240 W. 6th St. at 5 p.m. The rally will take place on the south side of Public Square starting at 5:30 p.m. For more information about Clevelanders for Public Transit, upcoming events and their Fair Fares Plan visit http://www.clefortransit.org or @CLEforTransit on Facebook or Twitter.