Cleveland 19 Investigation: RTA tries to stay on track with massive funding shortfall

Cleveland 19 Investigation Part 1: RTA tries to stay on track with massive funding shortfall
Around 200,000 customers use the RTA everyday. (Source: WOIO)
Around 200,000 customers use the RTA everyday. (Source: WOIO)
RTA tracks and bridges are in disrepair. (Source: WOIO)
RTA tracks and bridges are in disrepair. (Source: WOIO)
General Manager Joe Calabrese says the RTA wants to do more, but needs support from the state. (Source: WOIO)
General Manager Joe Calabrese says the RTA wants to do more, but needs support from the state. (Source: WOIO)

CLEVELAND, OH (WOIO) - Around 200,000 customers use the RTA everyday. Some ride the buses and some ride the trains. Some ride both to get wherever they are headed. Routes extend across Cuyahoga County corner to corner to help commuters get to work, school, or run errands.

It's an annual $350 million business that not only eases the travel burden for those who use public transit, but just imagine how crowded our highways and roads would be at rush hour if all those commuters were in a car? They ride the Rapid daily to avoid the congestion on area highways.

"Because traffic sucks and parking sucks," said RTA commuter Angelo Watson.

All walks of life are jumping on public transit to avoid congestion on local roads.

"Students, professionals, people going to the casino, all downtown venues," said RTA commuter Scott Pitts.

Pitts commutes on the Rapid from the Cuyahoga-Lorain county border every day. He saves on parking costs downtown and certainly saves on gas. To him, it's a win-win. But as the Red Line train pulls in at Tower City, it's not just riders like Pitts aboard. It carries a burden, too.

"There's a national problem with infrastructure. Our bridges are collapsing. Our roads are in terrible shape," said RTA general manager Joe Calabrese.

Public transit rail tracks are in the same state of disrepair.

"We have some drainage issues. We have to take up the track, the ties, the ballasts and put in a new sub-floor base," Calabrese explained.

Because of the bad condition, the federal government mandates the trains reduce speeds from 45 mph to 15 mph for passenger safety in areas where track condition is questionable.

"If we had the money, those would have been done sooner. If they were done sooner, we wouldn't have the slow orders we have today," explained Calabrese.

The RTA calls it a massive budget shortfall.

"We wish we could do more, but we have a missing funding partner, and up until now, it's been the state," said Calabrese.

According to a 2014 study by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, Ohio ranks 38th out of 50 states, plus D.C., in per capita funding for public transit. That's 63 cents invested per person. Pennsylvania has about 10 percent more in population, but funding for public transit is more than $85 per person. Plus, not a single state with a larger population ranks lower, but 31 of those with more per capita funding than Ohio have much smaller populations than the Buckeye State.

"The numbers are astounding," said Calabrese.

From that same study, Ohio is in the top 15 states for public transit ridership, but again, in the bottom 15 for funding from the state. Add it all up, and Calabrese says typical transit systems get about 20 percent of their funding from their states. While here in Ohio, Calabrese says the RTA gets less than 1 percent from the state.

Less money doesn't just mean slower repairs on the tracks, but also on the buses and rail cars. ODOT says of 2,700 Ohio transit buses on the road, 900 are considered beyond their useful life, but are still on roadways.

"It means they might be a little rickety. They might not get as good fuel mileage. Might not be as comfortable. They might be more pollutant than other buses," described Calabrese.

He says RTA keeps buses on the road for 15 years, when they should be replaced every 12 years. He says they are still safe, but these conditions are not ideal.

"These trains need work. The tracks need work. Some of the buses break down. It's not fair to us as consumers," said RTA commuter Rachel Croon.

Croon commutes by RTA bus and Rapid everyday from Euclid to Westlake. It's a two-hour ride, but to her it's worth it to avoid high gas prices and rush hour traffic.

"The traffic is horrible in the morning. And with winter coming, I hate driving in the winter," said Croon.

To Croon, slow zones and closures make her long commute even longer. She said it's time for the state of Ohio to pick up a bigger share of the costs.

"It's not fair to us to bear that burden," said Croon.

How did it ever get this bad? From 2000 to 2015, RTA has seen their funding decrease from $13.5 million to under $2 million.

How will this ever turn around in a time when we are trying to move forward? RTA says there's demand from people, businesses and the state to expand.

But how can RTA grow when the budget is doing the opposite? It's a scenario RTA deals with everyday.

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