Alternatives to RTA Fare Increases and Service Cuts. Or what we can do until Ohio has dedicated transit funding.
Life is hard being a daily transit rider in Cleveland. Often times you have to connect to buses that only come once an hour (better hope you make that connection). You always have to have $5 cash with you to buy an All Day Pass, since most trips require a transfer which is not included in the fare. You may tire of the GED advertisements blasting in your ears. You may start to think like Margaret Thatcher, “A man who, beyond the age of twenty-six, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure.”
So, why can transit be so frustrating in Cleveland? I cannot blame RTA. Largely it is due to dreadful funding from the state of Ohio and sprawl outside of Cuyahoga County — but that doesn’t mean there are not other ways to generate funding. Yes, we have to acknowledge and participate in the struggle for state funding, but we also cannot wait for Ohio to do the right thing while RTA deteriorates. So what can be done?
Austerity is the prevailing logic these days. Raising fares and cutting routes would have disastrous consequences for RTA. Are there alternatives to austerity? I do not have the answers, however I have some suggestions in hopes of opening up space for a larger conversation of the role of transit in Northeast Ohio.
Why RTA can’t raise fares:
RTA has attempted to justify the fare increase to $2.50 but is comparing themselves with other agencies that include free transfers. Fare cost with transfer purchased on board is more comparable to other agencies (as in the chart). RTA fares are over 80% higher than NYCT when on board transfer is included. This is unacceptable. See here for details.
Why RTA can’t cut routes:
Cleveland (left below) has already cut nearly 40% of annual bus miles from 2006-2012. This is about twice as much as any other city in the country during this time. We are already running a bare bones network and any more cuts will be devastating.
How did RTA get here?
the case against the state of ohio in 3 simple graphs courtesy of odot
The state of Ohio has significantly disinvested in urban public transit over the last 15 years leaving RTA without stable funding (shown as the grey line below).
In fact, Ohio has disinvested so much recently that South Dakota spends more than us on transit! The Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) spends only $0.63 per person on transit while nearby states such as Michigan, Illinois, and Pennsylvania spend over $50 per person!
ODOT has gone as far as completing its own Ohio Statewide Transit Needs Study calling for 10% of the state transit needs funded by ODOT. To put that in perspective, that would require a total investment of $184.2 million, or an increase of 674%. The last state budget for 2016-2017 did not increase transit funding at all!
What Can we do if ohio won’t fund transit?
In a perfect world the state of Ohio would do the right thing and adequately fund transit Sadly, we know all too well that this is not the case and RTA must act to balance the budget. Unfortunately, this means raising fares and cutting service. I think there are a couple of alternatives that could generate revenue without funding from Ohio and without raising fares or cutting routes. I am also concerned about the costs of the Public Square redesign to RTA.
THE case for system redesign
One possible way to increase ridership without increasing operating costs would be to redesign the bus system so it runs more effectively, increasing ridership and revenue to RTA. For example, Houston recently redesigned their bus system from a hub and spoke system to a high frequency grid. The new frequent bus system in Houston is expected to increase ridership by 20% without increasing operating cost. RTA passenger fares generated $49,905,823 in revenue for RTA. A 20% increase in ridership would generate $9.98 million, which would be more than enough to fill the current $7 million dollar shortfall.
How did Houston do it? The bottom line was hard choices were made about expensive service to very small numbers of people. The redesigned system devotes 80% of Metro’s resources to maximizing ridership and only 20% to providing access to people living in areas more expensive to serve. Previously, Houston had only 60% of resources devoted to high ridership, with 40% of their budget devoted to coverage (lower ridership more expensive routes). I would like to hear more about RTA’s ridership-to-coverage ratio. Furthermore, with an increased focus on ridership, RTA should look at redesigning the bus system as a high-frequency grid of bus lines instead of the hub and spoke-based system RTA has had for decades. A high-frequency grid bus network that would enable anywhere to anywhere travel with a single fast connection is what Northeast Ohio needs.
Notice I said anywhere to anywhere with a single fast connection. What is a connection? This may be splitting hairs but Jarrett Walker, an international transit consultant and recent speaker at Old Stone Church, explains it best on his blog post Unhelpful Word Watch: To Transfer:
“When a third-rate bus dumps me out on a barren street corner at the end of its line, and the driver tells me to go wait at that vandalized bus shelter on the freeway off-ramp, that’s transferring, and it’s hell. But when I arrive in a lively urban place where trains/buses/ferries are leaving to any of a number of interesting destinations, a place that feels like the center of my city, a place that will provide many ways to use my waiting time if I have to wait, that’s what I call a connection. And that’s what we should be offering.” -Jarrett Walker
As you can see in the example above, connecting (or transferring as we call it) is required as part of a high-frequency transit grid that can take you “anywhere to anywhere” instead of just downtown (or other hubs like Windermere etc), as in RTA’s current hub and spoke system.
Redesigning the system could increase ridership but would force users to connect to other frequent lines. This is why we need transfers back, because any rider will vehemently oppose any change that forces a connection since riders have to pay twice without a transfer included. RTA has tried to justify the fare increase to $2.50 by comparing that rate with other agencies but all other agencies include free transfers (see below). I would like to know when RTA plans to bring back transfers and if they are looking at more efficient system redesign. If not, why?
Again, in the words of Mr. Walker charging for connections is insane so why does RTA continue to do it? Offering transfers would encourage more ridership, and allow for a future system redesign while providing a benefit to riders for increasing fares. Other cities in Ohio such as Columbus and Akron are planning to redesign their bus networks and Cleveland should too. In order to do that RTA should consider starting now by including a time-limited transfer as part of the base fare as other agencies do.
Another consideration is the bikeshare system coming to Cleveland this summer. Since the #45 bus on West 65th near my house has been cut and my partner does not feel safe walking alone from the West 65th rapid at night, she is planning to take RTA to work in the afternoon (Red Line -> #81) in Tremont and ride the bikeshare in the evening. This requires a transfer, which would be $4.50 if purchased on board. She would not need to spend $5 on a day pass since this is her only trip. Using transit as part of a greater freedom of multimodal choices is only possible for most people if you include transfers unless the only destination you travel to is a hub like downtown.
The need to expand outside of cuyahoga county
Another option to increase revenue that does not rely on Ohio funding would be to expand RTA outside of Cuyahoga County. When RTA was formed in 1975 it included dedicating funding from a 1 cent sales tax within Cuyahoga County. This county sales tax accounts for about 80% of RTA’s budget. At that time no one knew that Cuyahoga’s population had peaked in the 1970’s and would continue to decline.
As shown above, since 1970 Cuyahoga County has lost over 25% of its population while Cleveland has lost over 47%! Northeast Ohio’s top priority has to be attracting residents and preventing sprawl out of Cuyahoga County as it is killing RTA.
Due to these changes, RTA needs to think beyond Cuyahoga County but as a multi-county, regional transit agency such as SEPTA in Philadelphia. We know that 80% of RTA’s budget comes from the one cent county sales tax, now we need to look at expanding the tax and service to other counties. According to All Aboard Ohio, more than one-third of all passengers on GCRTA’s suburban park-n-ride bus services come from outside Cuyahoga County. In the short-term we should consider charging more for these costly services. In the long-term we should evaluate expanding the system (and the sales tax) outside of Cuyahoga County. Of course we will continue to push the state to do the right thing, but we can’t assume they will fund transit properly anytime soon. We must start thinking bigger locally — on our own — to expand the system and revenue sources to prevent further fare increases and cuts in service in the near future.
Of course, sprawl outside the county also makes it more costly for RTA to serve less dense employers and institutions. Many institutions are not even considering public transit when selecting their location, later asking RTA to add additional service it can’t afford to provide. Again, this presents a huge problem for the current hub and spoke system. As this recent Crain’s editorial has pointed out, transit is essential for our economy. Within the current network only 1 out of 4 available jobs is within a 90-minute transit trip. This is important as the share of jobs within downtown Cleveland has fallen from 17.5 percent to 15.4 percent 2000-2010. Furthermore, since only about 15% of jobs are located downtown, it comes as no surprise that 85% of Northeast Ohio is stuck driving despite interest in transit and biking. To increase ridership we need a transit system that takes people where they need to go, not just downtown. In fact, the Houston redesign vastly expanded the reach of frequent service so that it connected 1 million people with 1 million jobs.
A word on public square reconstruction
Lastly, I am concerned about the cost of the Public Square construction has had on RTA. I do not think it is a coincidence that the construction and the proposed fare increase and service cuts are happening at the same time. The last 3 out of 4 times I have taken the #81 bus it has been over 20 minutes late. The last time I boarded the bus the driver pulled over, apologized to all riders about the delay, stating “There will be a 10-20 minute delay on this bus line as long as there is construction on Public Square.” I am wondering what the cost of delays and overtime is to RTA?
Based on data supplied by the Traffic Consultant and reported in The Plain Dealer, the re-routing of traffic is estimated to cost RTA about $3.5 million in operating costs during the 16-month construction period and $1 million in annual operating costs for delays caused by traffic afterwards. Apparently riders are stuck paying for delays to RTA from a project that that will largely benefit downtown property owners. It’s frustrating that despite Public Square being Cleveland’s transit hub, riders were not at the table during the planning process and no officials demanded reimbursement to RTA as part of the project. As a well respected urban planner in Akron has said,
“When people are complaining on a regular basis that you are not listening to them, that they do not have a voice, and that you are just going through the motions, perhaps it is time to consider that they may be right.” -Jason Segedy
I would agree that RTA riders have felt disenfranchised for far too long. It is not a question of whether or not I’m on board with the Public Square project, but did riders have a voice in the planning process? As far as I can see no, they weren’t even asked! That’s a problem.
Also, I have noticed that RTA was able to spend $6 million on new downtown trolleys while facing the current $7 million deficit. I have been told that ODOT has supplied the funds for the trolleys. I would like to hear more about how the costs to Public Square that have contributed to RTA’s budget deficit and why the trolleys qualified for ODOT funding. I would also like to hear more about how much the trolleys cost to operate and how much sponsors pay RTA to operate them.
Some notes on the proposed route cuts
Currently, RTA is proposing service cuts that will impact less than 2% of riders according to RTA. The cuts are estimated to save RTA about $4.2 million annually, with increased fares making up the remainder of the $7 million budget deficit. I do want to acknowledge that RTA had originally planned not to cut any rail service but has recently acknowledged low ridership on the Green Line and Waterfront Line. Don’t get me wrong, I am a fan of rail transit but in order for it to be successful it needs high density anchors. Unfortunately parking lots at Shaker/Green and the Muni Lot are about the lowest density possible, leading to low ridership. Cutting evening service on these lines will lead to only 3,000 rides lost annually (mostly Green Line sports fans) but save nearly $700,000. Service on these lines could be restored with adequate state funding in the future.
The cut with the most impacted riders would be discontinuing service east of Richmond Road on the #7 (Euclid Heights/Monticello) route. Mayfield Village Mayor Brenda Bodnar is right to protest this cut as it is the only transit service in Mayfiled Village and would be a complete loss of any RTA service to over 16,500 rides annually. All these riders will lose service so RTA can save $154,000.
Another proposed cut would be weekend service on the #77F (Brecksville). Again, Independence City Councilman Bob Wagner is right to be concerned since this is the only RTA service available in Independence. Independence employs over 25,000 workers — many hospitality workers, nursing home workers and other care workers that require transit on the weekends. The loss of weekend service on the 77F will leave over 14,300 rides with no RTA access, 2nd only to the #7 cut discussed above. This would save RTA $285,000 million annually.
One of the cuts would be to discontinue the #2 (East 79th Street) bus route. This is concerning because this is the only north-south bus route between East 55th and East 105th/Woodhill on the east side. This is shameful to me that one of the objectives of the $331 million Opportunity Corridor is to “Create the infrastructure to support planned revival and redevelopment in area in and around the ‘Forgotten Triangle,’ which is bordered by Kinsman Road, Woodland Avenue and Woodhill Road.” I would argue infrastructure includes the East 79th rapid station which is less than ½ mile north of the Opportunity Corridor. The station has to be completely rebuilt costing RTA $17 million dollars, with $0 coming from Opportunity Corridor’s budget!
Also, this is the same neighborhood that the #2 bus route serves. So while 40% of households in the Opportunity Corridor area have no access to a car, RTA is strapped for cash and is proposing to completely discontinue service on East 79th Street to save only $573,000 annually. To keep the East 79th bus running would cost 0.0017% of the Opportunity Corridor budget.
To add insult to injury, Cuyahoga County has pledged $11 million to the Opportunity Corridor while RTA is forced to cut service and raise fares to fix their $7 million budget deficit. Wouldn’t a better use of county tax payer funds be to provide RTA funds to prevent the current cuts and fare increases? And don’t even get me started about the $260 million county funded hotel! Where are our priorities?
I take RTA daily. I am happy RTA exists and I want to see it grow. As riders, we have to acknowledge and participate in the struggle for state funding, but we also need to focus on changes that don’t involve state funding. I am asking RTA to include transfers in a one-trip fare as to benefit riders if fares are increased. This will also help RTA since a larger system redesign in the future could increase revenue. I am also asking RTA to consider reevaluating their long-term objectives, expanding service and adding the one cent sales tax outside of Cuyahoga County. Lastly, I would like to hear more about how the Public Square construction has affected the RTA’s budget. If it has affected the budget significantly as estimated above then funding for those costs should be found outside of raising fares and cutting service.
What can YOU do?
-Email firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts before COB April 7th.
-Follow Clevelanders for Public Transit (CPT) on facebook or twitter.
CPT is also planning to go down to Columbus on April 19th to demand more state funding. Get in touch with them if you would like to participate!
-Contact Ryan Smith, Ohio House committee Chairman who refused additional funding for transit. He can be emailed here or reached at 614-466-1366.
You can also contact your Ohio House representative. Find them here.
-Contact your Cuyahoga Council member or call Armond Budish, Cuyahoga County Executive, at or 216-443-7178.
Tell them you want your $11 million in county tax dollars to RTA, not the Opportunity Corridor.
-Contact Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson at email@example.com or 216-664-3990
-Attend the RTA board meeting on Tuesday, April 26th at 9am at RTA’s Office – 1240 W. 6th Street, Cleveland, Ohio 44113. The board will be voting on the fare increase and service proposal at this board meeting.
There are some other alternatives for transit funding outside of the state that I plan to discuss at some point so check back soon.
more info on the cost of charging for transfers
Systems with rail:
NYCT: Free transfer from local bus-to-subway, subway-to-local bus or local bus-to-local bus within two hours.
RTD: Free transfer bus routes and rail lines within 3 hours from the scheduled.
DART: Free transfer– 2 hour pass allows customers the ability to transfer between bus and rail.
MARTA: four free transfers allowed within a 3-hour period.
UT: Free transfer credits on smartcard for all transfers you make within a 2 hour window.
$2.25 and under with rail:
MDT: Free transfer from Metrobus to Metrobus, or to transfer for 60 cents from Metrobus to Metrorail or Metrorail to Metrobus.
CATS: Transfers to local buses are free, but higher when transferring to an Express Route or a higher fare service within 90 minutes.
Without rail, all fares $2 or less:
COTA: Transfer at no additional cost on all lines and are valid for two hours
CTA: **Bus fare is $2, train fare is $2.25. Can purchase a transfer for 2 rides within 2 hours for 25 cents.
RI: 2 hour transfer for 50 cents.
LakeTran: Free transfer within system or RTA! Maybe we should all just move to Lake county?
SORTA: 50 cent transfer good for 2 hours, 2 trips in any direction.