At its final meeting of 2015 Tuesday morning, the GCRTA Board of Trustees approved the transit authority's 2016 budget, paving the way for rate hikes and minor service cuts.
Ever since a fare increase was first proposed
a month ago, RTA has said that it would not be approved without extended board deliberation and opportunities for public comment. Indeed, the fare increase won't be finalized until public hearings in early 2016.
But deliberations Tuesday morning consisted of public comments opposing the hike and the board nodding politely — or, in East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton's case, immersing himself in the contents of his mobile device — and then approving the budget anyway.
Calabrese initially cited a dwindling pool of state and Federal support as the primary cause for the increase, not to mention about $20 million in increased expenditures in 2016.
"The only alternative [to a fare increase]," read an RTA press release earlier this month, "would be to further reduce needed services."
A small number of bus routes will already likely be cut or reduced in 2016. In response to concerns about those cuts voiced Tuesday morning, Calabrese responded (as RTA has repeatedly said) that the cuts would be based on ridership. The routes with the lowest levels will be on the chopping block. As has been previously reported, no rail line service will be cut.
Board member Valerie McCall said that she thought the board had done a "phenomenal job" of not
raising fares over the past seven years, especially in light of the financial strain caused by the recession.
"I will caution to say that as we're having this discussion, we should really have the right discussion and try to balance between raising fares to meet a budget as opposed to meeting capital needs," she said. "We have a very, very, very old rail fleet. And we need to make sure that if we're raising the fare, we raise for what we need, not to solve a problem — a band-aid approach. There's only so many more band-aids we can put on these rail cars."
Though the state of Ohio has traditionally provided very little to public transit — about 1 percent of RTA's budget — Calabrese announced a $3.2 million grant from the state for track work.
"It's the first time the state has acknowledged we have a rail system," Calabrese joked.
In his General Manager remarks, he attributed a slight decline in November ridership to low gasoline prices and an unexplained glitch in Health Line ridership data. (According to the RTA's monthly ridership report, Health Line ridership is down 22 percent, about 100,000 rides, from November, 2014).