Ohio spends less than most states on public transit, policy analysis shows

CINCINNATI -- Only five states' transportation departments spend less on public transit than Ohio, according to a recent policy analysis.

The report came from Policy Matters Ohio, a Cleveland-based nonprofit policy research institute. Among the findings were that the Buckeye State ranks 45th when it comes to state dollars spent on public transportation projects. The study examined budget numbers and ridership statistics gathered from 2013, based on data gathered by the Ohio Department of Transportation's Transit Needs Study, published in 2015.

While Ohio ranks low on state-sourced public transit funding, it's one of the states that uses public transit the most. It ranks 14th when it comes to rides provided, the study said. In 2013, Ohio transit agencies provided roughly 115 million rides.

Ohio's 2018-19 budget also provides about a third of the recommended transit funding level, the study said -- about $40 million budgeted with nearly $120-130 million recommended. That figure makes up 1 percent of ODOT's approximately $3.5 billion annual budget. 

Local transit advocate and candidate for city council, Derek Bauman traces Ohio's low ranking in public transit funding back to the state house in Columbus.

"This is a policy choice," Bauman said. "(ODOT) is at the direction of the governor and the legislature."

It could take amending the state's constitution for that to change, according to ODOT spokesperson Matt Bruning.

"In Ohio, a lot of our transit agencies are funded at the local level," he said. That's largely due to Ohio's constitutional mandate that the state fuel sales tax -- which makes up roughly half of ODOT's annual revenue -- can only be used to fund road and bridge projects.

Bauman takes issue with that mandate. "There are lots of uses for fuel that don't go toward road transportation," he said, referring to machines like farm equipment, lawn mowers and other machinery.

In many cases, local funding comes in the form of county sales tax levies. The local focus comes from Ohio's status as a "home-rule state," which means many taxation decisions are left up to municipal governments and agencies.

Cincinnati, though, stands out as Ohio's only major metropolitan area that does not use sales tax contributions to fund its public transit agency, the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority. SORTA receives the lion's share of its funding from a city of Cincinnati-wide earnings tax, but receives no funding from sales taxes.

SORTA's board of trustees voted in June to take measures toward placing a sales tax measure on 2018's ballot, but a recent study also found that Tri-Staters want better public transit but are less willing to pay more for it

Part of the issue, Bruning said, is the wide variety of Ohio's 61 independent transit agencies, most of which are rural, on-demand services. That's opposed to fixed-route transit systems seen in the state's larger cities.

"You can't treat the Chillicothe transit agency like you can treat the GCRTA in Cleveland," he said. "They're both transit agencies, but they serve vastly different populations."

The same stands true when it comes to comparing state transportation departments across the nation, he said: "With 50 states, there are probably 50 different ways to do it."

Without a bigger source of funding for the state's transit agencies, Bruning said the 2015 Transit Needs Study is one way ODOT is working to further support public transit.

"One of the reasons we did the transit needs study was to help these agencies make their case to the public and their legislators and say, 'Here's what we're facing.'"

Meanwhile, SORTA faces an anticipated $20 million deficit over the next five years.

Pat LaFleur reports on transportation for WCPO. Connect with him on Twitter (@pat_laFleur).

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