Jun 10, 2015

Testimony to the Senate Finance Committee
Chairman Scott Oelslager

By Joseph A. Calabrese
CEO/General Manager of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority

My name is Joseph Calabrese. I am the General Manager of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, better known as RTA. I have been in the industry for nearly 40 years and have been at my post for just over 15 years.  RTA is the largest public transportation agency in Ohio.  My employees, who reside in 16 of Ohio counties, serve approximately 50 million customers each year in Cuyahoga and several neighboring counties.

Public transit in Ohio is a $900 million industry that supports many manufacturers, suppliers and jobs. 

Public transit gets workers to work, students to school, connects important destinations, drives economic development and provides mobility to many Ohioans who have no other mobility option due to economic realities or disabilities.

I want to thank Governor Kasich and ODOT Director Wray for commissioning the Ohio Statewide Transit Needs Study in 2014.

This comprehensive, year-long study concludes that:

  • The State of Ohio significantly under invests in public transportation.
  • More public transportation is needed in Ohio to serve the needs of its residents.
  • More public transit will help Ohio compete with other states for jobs and job talent.
  • This need for more public transit services is critical in both the State’s rural and urban areas.

The report also sounded the alarm for the significant backlog with respect to public transit infrastructure. For example, more than 1/3 of the 2,700 buses in Ohio are being operated beyond their useful life. The study recommends Ohio flexing additional federal dollars to assist with this needed replacement of buses and for other related infrastructure needs.

As a result of this underinvestment, at least two issues call for attention.

  1. Significant mobility needs are not being met.
  2. Employers have, and will continue to have, increasing difficulty attracting and retaining workers due to a lack of public transit access.

In fact, although approximately 60 percent of all public transit trips are work-related, there are many Ohioans who can’t work, because they can’t get to work, due to inadequate levels of public transit service.

What is the severity of this underinvestment?

  • Between 2002 and 2015, the State’s annual General Revenue Fund (GRF) investment was reduced from $43 million to $8.3 million. As a result of these cuts in State Funding and the effect of the recession, many transit systems were forced to cut services by as much as 20 percent and raise fares as much as 50 percent.
  • While the typical state provides 20 percent of the transit needs in their state, Ohio’s investment is at 8/10 of 1 percent.
  • Not only does Ohio’s per capita contribution of 62 cents per capita fall between the levels of South Dakota and Mississippi, but it compares very poorly to the $57.71 average of our neighboring states of similar population -- Illinois, Pennsylvania and Michigan. While ODOT has tried to flex limited Federal dollars to transit infrastructure, Ohio’s constitutional restrictions on the use of state-collected gas tax funds has made it a difficult task to provide what is needed to transit.

Why should Ohio invest more in public transit?

  • If Ohioans can’t get to jobs, or to educational institutions, Ohio’s economy will move backward, and not forward.
  • The need and demand for transit is changing due to demographic changes and cultural preferences.  Millennials, for example, are much more interested in living in cities where walking, biking and public transit are viable transportation choices. If the State of Ohio does not give them the amenities that they want, they will simply move to locations that will. I contend that Ohio can’t afford to let that happen.
  • In many portions of Ohio, access to healthcare is compromised due to inadequate public transit services.  Health and human services are increasingly focused on serving people in their communities and encouraging the elderly to age in place. Implementing these programs require a corresponding investment in public transit.
  • There are 27 rural counties in Ohio that do not have any public transit services today, literally stranding thousands of rural senior citizens and those who are economically disadvantaged.
  • Public transit is playing an increasingly important role in attracting tourism and tourist dollars. In Greater Cleveland, we would not have been able to attract major tourism activities such as the Senior Games, Gay Games or the 2016 RNC without a comprehensive public transportation system – especially one that includes rail. The significant challenge today is to continue the viability of our system despite a lack of capital dollars to keep our infrastructure in a state-of-good-repair.

The Transit Needs Study calls for more transit, and more funding for transit from the State of Ohio over the next 10 years. We understand that it will likely be a marathon and not a sprint.

The study suggests that:

  • Existing ODOT resources be further directed to transit infrastructure needs.
  • A move to further regionalize transit services and enhance coordination.
  • The establishment of a Blue Ribbon Funding committee to identify and forward a plan for dedicated statewide funding for transit.

I am here today to ask that you fully support the recommendations in the Statewide Transit Needs Study and fully support the Governor and ODOT’s implementation of these recommendations.

The real question is not if the State of Ohio can afford to invest more in public transit, but if the State of Ohio can afford not to. 

There are two additional items we ask for consideration:

  1. The Senate substitute version of House Bill 64 would now permit public transit authorities to accept funds from philanthropic sources and foundations. Accepting such contributions is currently allowed for County Transit Boards, but is prohibited for Transit Authorities. Allowing the acceptance of resources from such entities will certainly not address the total funding crisis, but in certain unique circumstances, may provide some benefit. We urge you to strongly support this.
  2. An amendment has been offered to allow Veterans to ride public transit in Ohio for free. While I think this is a great idea and well deserving, the direct financial burden cannot be absorbed by the transit systems that are already significantly underfunded. 

How many veterans use public transit

What is that burden?

According to the Veterans Administration, 7.8 percent of the State’s population is comprised of veterans. In Cuyahoga County, the percentage of veterans of the current population is 7.3 percent. In a representative survey of more than 4,000 RTA customers, conducted by my agency, the percentage that are veterans is estimated to be 6.9 percent.

Using that 6.9 percent figure, with a budgeted annual passenger fare revenue of approximately $50 million, the annual loss to my agency will be $3,450,000.

Statewide, total annual revenues are estimated to be $117 million. Using the same percentage, which could be low, total revenue loss could be $8.1 million, or an amount almost equal to all the GRF funds currently directed to Public Transit.

The only way that that loss can be dealt with is to raise fares and cut needed services. That will be a disservice to all our customers, including the Veterans who rely on our buses and trains for their travel needs.

Again, I think this is a great idea, but additional funds must be allocated to allow for this to happen.

Thank you for your time and attention.