Ohio Senate plan ramps up public transit funding. Will the increase stay?

A Central Ohio Transit Authority bus in Columbus. Getty photo.

Some want to see lowering of electric vehicle fees

It’s been something of a wild ride for public transportation funding during the budget negotiation process thus far in 2021, but advocates are pleased with the direction things are headed.

Gov. Mike DeWine called for a significant decrease in spending on public transportation in his budget proposal last month.

Transit supporters were optimistic when the Ohio House of Representatives restored much of this funding  though not entirely to the level allocated in the last two-year budget. The House’s transportation budget bill passed earlier this month.

These supporters received more good news last week with Ohio Senate negotiations underway in the chamber’s Transportation Committee. Chair Stephanie Kunze, R-Hilliard, announced the Senate’s plan allocates more money to public transportation than the House plan, with the total funding coming to nearly $70 million per year — almost identical to the previous budget.

State Sen. Stephanie Kunze, R-Hilliard

This includes $37 million of state funding, or $14 million more than what the House agreed to.  The remainder would come from federal “flex funds” to the Ohio Department of Transportation that are set aside for public transportation.

Amanda Woodrum, a senior researcher with Policy Matters Ohio, views this increase as being “a solid step in the right direction.”

The amount is still much less than many advocates believe is necessary to sustain Ohio’s transit systems for the future.

“If you really want to make transit better, and not just maintain, you’ve got to invest in it,” said Stu Nicholson, executive director of All Aboard Ohio, a group working toward building support for public transportation.

The biennial back-and-forth of negotiating for public transportation funding demonstrates the need for a more stable source for this need, Nicholson said. He proposes a legislative task force look into finding a long-term, dedicated source of funding for public transportation.

In recent weeks, Ohioans representing transit systems, advocacy groups and other economic and healthcare interests have told lawmakers of the importance public transportation has on the general public. Besides helping with day-to-day errands to stores and appointments, they noted broader economic development benefits in opening a business up to a wider pool of skilled, available workers.

Dave Greenspan, a former state lawmaker who now lobbies for MetroHealth System based in Cleveland, told legislators of the important service public transportation provides in terms of healthcare.

“For many,” he said, “public transportation is the only available form of transportation, period.” 

Greenspan called public transportation a “lifeline connecting residents to jobs, shopping and health care … That means funding public transportation is not an urban issue, it’s an Ohio issue.” 

He cited figures from the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority that 20% of the local ridership is along a pair of routes that run 24/7 and connect residents to the area’s hospitals and clinics. There are also “paratransit services” meant to serve residents with disabilities.

‘It’s an investment in the future’

The next few years will be a critical time for public transit systems in Ohio. They expended a lot of money to overhaul buses and trains to make them safe for riders during the pandemic. Some stopped collecting fares to help riders who were in tough economic situations.

“Transit systems took a hit,” Nicholson said.

Besides the money allocated to public transit in the state transportation budget, there is relief money coming to Ohio as part of the American Rescue Plan. This bill, signed into law by President Joe Biden earlier in March, allocates a total of $30 billion to aid public transportation systems throughout the country. It is not yet clear how much of this will go to Ohio.

The federal funding will be a welcome boon to transit systems, Nicholson said, cautioning that it will not necessarily solve all of the state’s public transportation needs. The state and federal money will help them recoup losses from last year, he added.

At a recent committee hearing on the transportation budget, Sen. Louis Blessing III, R-Colerain Twp., questioned if it was “responsible” to approve an increase in state funding with the federal dollars coming from the American Rescue Plan.

“It’s an investment in the future,” Nicholson told lawmakers.

“We don’t really have the same arguments in many cases about highways. But when it comes to transit, we talk about whether we can afford it,” he continued. “My response would be, how can we not afford it?”

A push for lower electric vehicle fees

Another issue frequently discussed in Transportation Committee hearings involves the fees associated with electric and hybrid vehicles in Ohio.

The state requires a $200 annual fee for electric vehicles (EVs) and a $100 fee for hybrid vehicles.

Sarah Spence, the director of climate programs at the Ohio Environmental Council, noted these fees are in place because the state’s transportation infrastructure is funded by a gas tax and ensure that EV drivers “pay their fair share.”

She and other environmental advocates want to see these fees reduced.  

Spence said the high fees “send the wrong signals to the auto industry and consumers.” The Ohio Environmental Council is also pushing for a portion of the EV fees to go toward improving the state’s electric charging infrastructure.

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