Report: When it comes to spending on public transportation, Ohio is still in the slow lane

Nonprofit: Other populous states far outpace us
Posted at 12:00 PM, Nov 12, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-13 07:16:25-05

CINCINNATI -- Since Cincinnati’s streetcar service opened Sept. 9, it has provided more than 240,000 rides, an average of more than 4,000 per day.

That's 1,000 rides per day more than the 3,000 per day called forin the first-year operating budget for the streetcar.

The streetcar’s proven popular, but it wouldn’t exist without funding: $41 million from the federal government and at least $87.9 million from the city.

What’s missing from that picture? Funds from the state of Ohio. There aren’t any.

It would have been unusual if there were. Ohio, the seventh-most populous state, spends 63 cents per capita on public transportation, whereas the other nine most-populous states spend at least $50 per capita.

That’s according to Ken Prendergast, executive director of All Aboard Ohio, a Cleveland-based nonprofit that promotes improvements in transportation and rail.

According to a new report by Frontier Group, a Santa Barbara, California-based nonprofit, only 12 states spend less money on public transportation than Ohio. One of them is Kentucky.

The report, “50 Steps Toward Carbon-Free Transportation: Rethinking U.S. Transportation Policy to Fight Global Warming,” was released locally by Environment Ohio Research and Policy Center, a Columbus-based nonprofit.

The report notes that in March, because of increased traveling and stagnating vehicle fuel economy, transportation overtook electric power generation as the top source of carbon dioxide in the United States.

Mass use of electric vehicles and shared transportation could slash greenhouse gas pollution from transportation by 90 percent, the report says, especially if public policies that favor individuals driving are changed.

The report highlights the benefits of putting public money into carbon-free transportation, particularly public transit, said Sam Gerard, a campaign advocate for Environment Ohio.

Public transit offers the biggest bang for the buck, with every $1 invested yielding $4 to $5 in benefits over time, he said.

Ohio didn’t always spend so little on public transportation. In 2000, the state spent $42 million, Prendergast said, but over the years and under both a Republican and Democratic governor, that amount has fallen to $7 million.

One reason is that many Ohio state legislators represent rural areas, where the need for public transit isn’t as evident as in cities, Prendergast said. Legislators from urban areas are not in leadership positions, he added.

Because not enough state funds are available, Ohio’s cities must rely on federal and local dollars to fund public transit.

In Cincinnati, where the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority operates the Metro bus system, an occupational tax funds about half of SORTA’s $95 million operating revenue. Fares make up about 21 percent and federal funds about 12 percent.

State funds make up less than 1 percent.

Ridership has declined from 16.8 million in 2010 to 16.2 million in 2015. There haven’t been any significant reductions in service since 2009, SORTA spokesperson Sallie Hilvers said.

She attributed the decline in ridership to SORTA’s service model, created in the ‘70s, of bringing most riders Downtown and having them transfer there instead of going directly to their destinations.

“We believe the market has changed,” she said. “People are working in many other areas than Downtown now. … Most people want to be able to go cross-county.”

In March, after six months of work, the Metro Futures Task Force of 20 business and community leaders issued a report that said SORTA’s business model was unsustainable. It recommended permanent public funding through a sales tax that would include all of Hamilton County or beyond.

Without additional funding, SORTA will have to increase fares, reduce services or both after fiscal 2017, the task force said.

“Metro is looking at very large deficits,” said Derek Bauman, vice chair of All Aboard Ohio, an Over-the-Rhine resident and retired Mason police officer. “We think (SORTA) is on the brink of a crisis.”

One way to raise funds would be through a countywide levy approved by the voters. SORTA’s board has asked its staff to look into the issue, as well as ways to modernize and expand its service, Hilvers said.

SORTA has tried that route in the past, most recently in 2002, as part of the MetroMoves campaign for expanded bus service, streetcars and light rail. Voters turned down a half-percent, countywide sales and use tax by a vote of 32 percent to 68 percent.

The funding situation SORTA faces is similar to that faced across the Ohio River by the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky, which provides bus service to Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties.

About 68 percent of TANK’s $20 million annual budget comes from the three county governments, with 20 percent from fares and 8 percent federal dollars. Kentucky chips in $116,000, or about half a percent of TANK’s total revenue.

Ridership has declined slightly, from 3.84 million rides in fiscal 2012 to 3.66 million in fiscal 2016, spokeswoman Gina Douthat said. But in recent years, TANK has also seen a big increase in demand from people who work at businesses in Hebron and near the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.

There is unmet demand for service at non-traditional hours such as late at night, on weekends and for cross-county travel, she said.

Increasing funding for TANK is challenging, she said, because of the lack of state funds and because TANK must compete for scarce county government funds.

All Aboard Ohio sees funding public transit as an economic issue as much as an environmental one.

“We see our peer cities in the region making these investments,” Bauman said. “It hurts us in terms of economics, in terms of building our tax base and in terms of connecting people to jobs to have this kind of bare-bones transportation system that we have.”