Cleveland 19 Investigation: ODOT responds to lack of state funding for RTA

RTA opened a new station in Little Italy earlier this year. (Source: WOIO)
RTA opened a new station in Little Italy earlier this year. (Source: WOIO)
GM Joe Calabrese blames the RTA's lack of state funding on an anti public transit bias that exists among legislators in Columbus. (Source: WOIO)
GM Joe Calabrese blames the RTA's lack of state funding on an anti public transit bias that exists among legislators in Columbus. (Source: WOIO)

CLEVELAND, OH (WOIO) - RTA officials have watched the checkbook shrink for years. They blame an anti public transit bias that exists among legislators in Columbus.

"That's why we can't do more," said RTA general manager Joe Calabrese.

Ohio transit systems get less than 1 percent of their funding from the state, compared to typical states averaging 20 percent. Calabrese says what ODOT does send helps with buses, but not rail, rail cars, or stations.

"It's like, they ignore the rail part of our business. But the rail part of our business carries as many people as the transit system in Dayton, the transit system in Toledo and Akron. There's an anti rail bias," said Calabrese.

Cleveland is the only Ohio city that has public transit rail service. Around 200,000 professionals, city-goers and students depend on buses and rail daily.

"I don't have to risk paying a parking ticket or something. If I'm running late on campus, it helps me," said RTA rider Angelo Watson.

"It keeps the city connected. So why not fund it?" said rider Rachel Croon.

Calabrese agrees, but he also blames the bias between urban and rural Ohio for the funding shortfall. He says it's hard to make those lawmakers from rural areas care about urban transit needs.

"There are people in Middlefield that need things people here don't. That's where one needs to trade. If you want more farm land and fertilizer, more subsidies, we need to replace our aging fleet," explained Calabrese.

It's an argument he's lobbied for years without much luck as he watches funding slip lower and lower. Now some are asking if RTA will be around much longer.

"We're trying to raise the level and quality of it. We wouldn't be raising the level and quality of it if we were worried about it's future," responded Calabrese. "RTA has added new stations with the Little Italy stop and others. It replaced several older buses with new, more environmentally-friendly natural gas buses. But everyday there are requests for more. Can you go here or go there? Or make the trolleys run in University Circle? There are all these things I'd love to do for the betterment of the people here and the economy here, that I simply have to say no to."

He says he's approached by businesses that want more, making the argument that public transit helps get businesses to move to the area. Plus, millennials use public transit more and look for it in a new city they hope to call home.

"They want to walk, bike and use public transit. If we want to retain them here, as opposed to going to New York or Chicago, we have to give them what they want," said Calabrese.

Millennial Angelo Watson has a car, but opts for the Park and Ride, like many others.

"They don't want to be paying for parking downtown and it's convenient here because it's safe," said Watson.

However, the convenience can quickly wear off.

"It becomes an inconvenience knowing that you're paying for it and the service isn't there," Watson explained.

"If we can't provide those basic levels of service to our constituents, they're going to leave the state, and that's not what we need and want," said Calabrese.

For the first time this year, it seemed like the state was starting to agree. In the 2015 ODOT Transit Needs Study, ODOT recommended doubling Ohio public transit funding from millions to billions by 2025. But Calabrese's excitement was short-lived when he said all budget increases for public transit were slashed.

ODOT press secretary Matt Bruning gave this response:

"The Ohio Department of Transportation continues to look for every opportunity to find funding for transit preservation needs and services. We are one of many partners at the table and look forward to continuing to work with transit agencies around the state and the Ohio Public Transit Association to find additional efficiencies and expand shared services."

RTA is still optimistic, despite no promise of improvement from the state. Calabrese said by 2025, they'll find a way to pull the money together to replace the rail fleet. He knows that means slow zones and inconveniences last a little longer. According to Calabrese, the RTA prioritizes rail systems flaws "A" through "F." He said they are slowly working to turn the "C" and "D" areas into "A" and "B."

"I think the momentum is going up. It may take a couple budget cycles, so we may see the numbers start to go up," said Calabrese.

If it doesn't, he said the RTA will continue to adjust to the revenue they do have.

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