Personal View: Reaffirm our commitment to mass transit

July 5, 2016

By Sean P. Malone

Cleveland’s history can be traced through its mass transit systems, from the street cars in use at the turn of the 20th century, to the rapid transit constructed a few decades later, to the 1974 formation of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority and the recent HealthLine. Ridership has ebbed and flowed, but mass transit has remained an important facet of life in Northeast Ohio.

Our commitment to public transportation is being tested again, and not just by jubilant Cavs fans and RNC conventioneers. RTA’s rapid transit cars continue to deteriorate and may be forced out of service earlier than expected.

Anyone who tried to ride the Rapid to the parade celebrating the Cavs’ victory knows our region’s commuter rail system is imperfect. Yet even on days when hundreds of thousands aren’t trying to board, the system is prone to arbitrary delays caused by malfunctioning trains.

Repair crews are working to extend the useful life of the existing fleet, but RTA acknowledges it will need to replace both its Red and Blue/Green line cars, many of which are more than 35 years old, with a single fleet by the year 2025, at an estimated cost of $280 million. RTA general manager Joe Calabrese has said this will require a greater investment than RTA can afford on its own.

This news comes at a time when demand for public transportation is growing, both locally and nationally, with many young people and retirees choosing to live in walkable neighborhoods close to transit, often without a car.

It also comes as our region has heavily invested in its commuter rail infrastructure.

RTA has spent tens of millions in public money in recent years to upgrade rail lines, crossings, stations and cars. These investments have fostered major new private developments along Rapid lines, from Shaker’s Van Aken District to the Flats, Little Italy, University Circle and the airport.

If RTA is overly optimistic about its ability to keep its outdated rail cars functioning for nine more years, then major service disruptions could ensue, as it takes several years to order, construct, test and deliver new cars. A depleted transit line forced to rely more and more on replacement buses could severely decrease ridership.

To reduce the risk of such disruptions, Northeast Ohio’s leaders need to develop a plan to address this challenge now before it becomes a crisis.

There are no easy solutions.

Local tax levies or further fare hikes beyond those recently announced by RTA would disproportionately affect working families, many of whom live in inner ring suburbs with already-heavy tax burdens. Federal transit funds, whether from a revamped gas tax, a vehicle-miles-traveled tax, or an infrastructure spending bill, have failed to materialize. And state support is negligible. According to ODOT’s 2014 Transit Needs Study, the average state supports approximately 20% of public transit costs. Ohio supports just 1%.

Still, we can’t afford to ignore this problem. My hometown of Shaker Heights would be particularly hurt by reduced or inferior train service, given its unique 100-year history as a city designed around the Rapid lines. But all of Northeast Ohio will suffer if our commuter rail system is not brought into the 21st century.

Even as we welcome transformative developments along our rail lines and continue to revive our urban core, we need to reaffirm our commitment to mass transit to help ensure that our region remains a place future generations will want to call home.