Advocates are urging lawmakers to invest more money into Ohio’s public transportation systems and commit to long-term support for this transit spending.
Gov. Mike DeWine presented deep cuts to public transportation in his proposed budget. The Ohio House of Representatives restored much of the funding in its transportation budget passed earlier in March.
But this “semi course correction,” as Policy Matters Ohio senior researcher Amanda Woodrum puts it, is still less than what was allocated in the last two-year transportation budget passed in 2019. And it remains a far cry from the amount transportation advocates and experts say is necessary to properly fund transportation opportunities for Ohioans.
Attention now turns to the Ohio Senate, whose members are debating the transportation budget. Legislators have a March 31 deadline for having this budget be fully approved.
Public transportation in Ohio is funded through a number of local, state and federal sources. In recent committee hearings, those representing transit systems in big cities and small told of the need for adequate state funding in their communities.
Kelly Hatas, executive director of Hocking Athens Perry Community Action, told state senators about how state funding has gone toward expanded transit service in the Southeast Ohio communities of Nelsonville (pop. 5,130) and Albany (pop. 824). Michael Schipper, deputy manager of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, spoke of how investments helped pay for new buses and replace portions of track on Cleveland’s light rail system.
A slate of other transportation officials testified that investments are needed not just to keep their local systems running, but to make improvements to keep them going for many years to come.
Public transportation is a necessary resource to a wide variety of Ohioans, the officials said. It helps elderly residents with getting to doctor’s appointments and pharmacies. It is greatly beneficial in rural and urban communities alike, ensuring residents without personal vehicles can get to their jobs and to other necessary errands such as the grocery store and laundromat.
There are broader educational and workforce development benefits to robust public transportation systems, testified Laura Koprowski, chief communications and customer experience officer with the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority (TARTA). As new jobs come to Toledo, Koprowski said TARTA is working to expand its service in certain areas.
“Now is the time to be leveraging these (economic) successes through strong public transportation,” Koprowski told legislators.
The pandemic has taken a particular toll on Ohio’s public transit systems, according to Jason Warner, director of strategic engagement for the Greater Ohio Policy Center. The state made cuts to public transportation funding last May, and some systems suspended fare collections to benefit riders at a cost of ticket revenues. Adding in the expenses of making transit vehicles safe for riders, Warner said some agencies are “reeling” as they navigate a post-pandemic landscape.
This is why proper funding is so necessary, Warner said, noting that Ohio lawmakers should not necessarily assume federal relief funding can replace the investments made at a state level.
Advocates point to two studies that show the need for greater spending on public transportation in Ohio.
They often cite a 2015 Transit Needs Study from the Ohio Department of Transportation, which reported that Ohio has the 14th highest transit ridership in the country but lags behind many other states in how much money is invested in the transportation systems. The study showcased the myriad benefits public transportation can have on society and outlined how much more money is needed to properly maintain Ohio’s present offerings.
Schipper, with the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, told lawmakers about a recent state infrastructure report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers. The organization graded Ohio’s infrastructure at a C-, with the “Transit” category receiving a D grade.
The report card recommended that Ohio dedicate a portion of its state sales tax to public transit needs.