Wednesday, April 6, 2016

City Hall Dispatch: Council Frets Over RTA Service Cuts, Fare Hike

Posted By on Wed, Apr 6, 2016 at 5:29 PM

click to enlarge rta.jpg
Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority CEO Joe Calabrese presented plans for fare hikes and service cuts to Cleveland City Council Wednesday morning.

RTA, if you haven't heard, has the unpleasant task of filling a $7 million budget hole by the end of the year and has proposed an estimated three percent reduction in service and a $0.25 increase in one-way fares to make up for the shortfall. As a series of public meetings winds down — N.B. Final comments are due Thursday by 5 p.m. — and as Mr. Calabrese prepares to make his official recommendation to the agency's board of trustees, City Council got a chance to weigh in. 

And boy, did they ever. 

Predictably, council members were distraught by proposed service cuts in their wards. Most tended to prefer fare increases over even minor adjustments to routes. The #81 route's Lakeview Terrace Loop, in particular, was the subject of heated opposition. It's one of many partial route adjustments that RTA argues will save crucial minutes and reduce the necessary number of buses per day, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.

But both brand-new councilman Kerry McCormack, in his first committee meeting, and Councilman Jeff Johnson, took aim at that proposed cut to Route #81, which would excise the stop at Lakeview Tower in Ohio City. The councilmen argued that the quarter-mile uphill walk to what would be the nearest stop presented a near-impossible challenge for many of Lakeview's residents.   

Brian Cummins, armed with statistics (per usual), questioned why RTA was presenting maps that showed most of the county highlighted in blue, connoting that even with proposed service cuts, residents in those areas would be within 0.75 miles of an RTA stop. Cummins suggested that the map didn't paint the situation of service cuts as dramatically as it needed to. 

"Literally I looked this up before I walked in," Cummins said, citing a manual published by the Transportation Research Board,"At 400 meters (1/4 mile) about a 25 percent usage rate is occurring. It drops below 10 percent at 1/2. The fact that we're using 3/4 mile service zones? I don't think it's really applicable. It's basically off the chart. Please change that as quickly as you possibly can."

Cummins also took issue with the fact that, per the Consumer Price Index, low-wage earners are now at a 51-year low in terms of their purchasing power relative to the minimum wage. (60 percent of RTA riders are low-income, Calabrese said). 

"It's a double whammy, frankly" Cummins said, "in the sense that the state is also cutting funding to help transit." The Ward 14 councilman also echoed concerns of many riders when he asked RTA to explain its plan regarding transfers.  

Calabrese, who anticipated a flogging by council at the outset, but was treated fairly gently — council members acknowledged that times have been hard and they directed most of their ire at the state — seemed a bit frustrated about transfers. 

"I've heard more about transfers in the past two weeks than I have in my 17 years in Cleveland," he said.  "We do offer transfers and discounts, like most people, to our best customers. The only place we don't offer transfers is on the single-ride cash fare, which, in our way of thinking, is the very occasional rider."

Calabrese said that unlimited transfers were built into the all-day pass (and the seven-day pass) and that even the five-ride pass included transfers.  

"It's like going to the buffet at Ponderosa," offered Calabrese (in what was surely the committee meeting's most evocative and unexpected metaphor). "They say: Here's your buffet for $9.95 and your dessert is $4. But if you buy a monthly pass here or a coupon book here, that dessert is free."

RTA's Director of Service Management Joel Freilich added that perhaps the transit agency ought to do a better job at publicity. 

"Particularly on the five-trip card," said Freilich. "I really emphasize that it should be called the five-trip card, not a five-ride card." 

Though there was much consternation about the state's lack of funding, and Councilman Zack Reed encouraged everyone to dispel the notion that Kasich was coming to the RTA's rescue, Councilman Brian Kazy did ask Calabrese who the agency had advocating for them at the state level. 

The answer, essentially, was no one. Calabrese himself has ventured with hat in hand to the state, but otherwise, the RTA is relying on local elected officials to recognize how important public transit is, (and presumably, thereafter, to wage war on their colleagues in the notoriously anti-public-transit state legislature).

The local group Clevelanders for Public Transit will be traveling to Columbus later this month to appeal to the state. 

In addition to funding cuts, the region's population loss has cut into the one percent sales tax that provides about 70 percent of the transit authority's annual operating budget. When Zack Reed pressed Calabrese on "other local funding opportunities," Calabrese acknowledged the potential for increased advertising revenue at its bus shelters and even support — why the hell not? — from the local business community. 

"Number one is getting butts in seats," said Council's Transportation Committee Chair, Marty Keane, before the meeting descended too irrevocably into abject despair. "As a city, we need to continually promote RTA and the benefits of public transportation and getting cars off the streets. Every time you go out, you need to tell people that we are served by RTA. We've got to utilize it." 

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