Meeting with Greater Cleveland RTA

Larry from Organize Ohio helped to set up a meeting with Joe Calabrese of the Regional Transit Authority to talk about the difficulty homeless people have with transportation.  Calabrese was great and straight forward with the facts.  The reality is that when you live in the fifth poorest city in the United States almost everyone needs a discount on bus fare.  He laid out the facts about the fragility of the system.  Only 22% of the funds come from the fare box.  The other 78% is subsidized from the government.  After the 2007 financial crisis and the sky-rocketing cost of diesel, the agency was in trouble.  The cost of gas for the buses went up from $5 million to $19 million in one year. 

They had to increase the fares after 14 years of no increases and they had to cut services during the financial collapse when more people needed the help.   They have no Rainy Day fund.  RTA relies on a percentage of the sales taxes locally.  Sales taxes were level through the 2000s until 2007 when there was an 11% decline and then another decline in 2008.  Finally, the sales tax went back up in 2012 and they have started to restore services.  RTA only collects 93 cents per ride on average, because people ride about four rides on the all day passes.  There is no way to charge on the ability for a passenger to pay, so they have to collect as many fares as possible.  With the unstable local tax revenue and the federal government pushing cuts in almost all programs, the RTA cannot lose any money on the fares or give away discounts. 

RTA staff were interested in helping people get to jobs, but they cannot subsidize the transportation needs of the hundreds of thousands of people living in poverty, locally.  Staff need to prove to the RTA board that any subsidy would come back to pay for itself.  For example, the subsidy that they give to CWRU students does not cost the agency any money.  They add a small fee to every student's activity fee and then all those funds go to RTA.  Only a small percentage of the students will use the bus/rapid service, but all the students pay into the system.  Any discount has to guarantee that after the discount period the individual will buy a full price bus pass or like the CWRU program all the individuals will subsidize those who use the service.  We asked about a special set aside that the federal government had for municipal transit authorities.  Calabrese said that these funds had dried up and the set aside had been withdrawn. If there was a way to prove that a homeless person who got a discount bus ticket or pass then got a job and bought their own pass that is the kind of program Calabrese was willing to support.

After listening there were a few questions I had for the community:

  • Why doesn't the State of Ohio value transportation systems more--probably because our elected officials rarely if ever have taken public transportation?
  • Why don't local companies set up a similar deal that CWRU set up where all the employees contribute a small fee to RTA and then all the employees would be able to ride for free?  Why doesn't the Cleveland Clinic or University Hospital or MetroHealth have a program to get their employees on the bus?  What about County or State or Federal employees could contribute so that any of these public employees could ride for free?
  • Why doesn't the City of Cleveland require that any Community Development Block grant funded agency address how they will provide the transportation needs of clients when paying for programs with Block grant funding? 
  • The federal government should subsidize local programs that help very low income individuals get to jobs, housing, or health care.  Why can't a person who enters the shelter get a monthly bus pass to help them move into housing or a job quicker? 

Joe Calabrese is an impressive CEO, and was upfront and honest with us.  I did not understand the massive cuts that took place a couple of years back, but I have a better handle on the system after meeting with Calabrese.  I have more sympathy for the tough spot they are in, and have more confidence in the agency after the presentation.

Brian Davis

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