The drop couldn’t have come at a worse time. A 2012 renewal referendum on funneling some of the Metro’s money into road projects would soon be put to voters. Leaders sensed a crash just around the corner — fewer bus riders could mean slack voter support for the referendum.
“That really led to a focus on ridership as a big goal,” says Christof Spieler, a Metro board member.
When the Metro planned for its future in 2011, riders asked for improvements. But their gradual abandonment of buses in the years before and after showed those improvements were too slow coming.
The Metro had a reckoning: Its buses weren’t taking people where they needed to go, and it hadn’t done a big-picture review of its system since the 1970s.
“The agency actually admitting that our bus network had many problems was huge. It’s a really hard thing for an agency to do,” says Spieler. “Going to the public and saying, ‘We have this great network and we want to blow it up and start it all over’ — we had to get comfortable saying, ‘Here are the flaws.’ ”
In 2012, the referendum passed successfully. And in August 2015, after doing over a year of outreach to understand riders’ needs, Metro fully redesigned its bus routes into a crosstown grid. The big problem to overcome was, like Cleveland, Houston’s buses connected through downtown.
“[That’s] the slowest place to run a bus,” says Spieler, because of congestion, especially in a city that’s growing outward. Buses now better mesh with the Metro’s light rail and run more frequently on weekends. Spieler learned an important lesson from the experience: “You should not be bound by the history of your network and be bound by the system on your ground.”
To Clevelanders, that lesson should sound achingly familiar. Here, the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority is facing a budgetary crisis. Small cuts to routes are coming in 2018, with more possible in coming years. A fare increase will likely be postponed. But, in the background, the agency’s major source of revenue, a sales tax, will continue to flatline.
Until now, GCRTA’s problems have been largely contained to the world of transit advocates, riders and Twitterati. But soon, the transit authority will likely need to take its problem to all of Cuyahoga County’s voters.
Before that happens, we should glean a lesson from Houston. When a region believes in its transit system and creates excitement about its potential, good things can happen. GCRTA must realize its power and stand for something larger than its own survival. Doing so will help it through the gauntlet of voter approval.
But right now, GCRTA is just trying to douse the fire of the moment. “In our favor, we finished 2017 $24 million better than budget,” says Linda Krecic, GCRTA’s spokesperson. That means GCRTA is $24 million less in the hole. Sounds like good news.
That is until you hear that the federal government eliminated the Medicaid managed care organization tax in July 2017, which has meant — you guessed it — a projected 2018 GCRTA loss of $20 million. That’s a budget line with real-life consequences: 200 fewer jobs, 700,000 fewer rides for kids to school and 300,000 fewer trips for the sick to health care appointments.
Luckily, this year at least, the state will make up the $20 million loss. In the short term, Krecic says, the agency expects to save the additional $4 million by cutting routes and furloughing some employees.
“We have a year here to put some transitions in place internally while we work aggressively for some permanent funding solutions,” Krecic says. “We hope by the end of the year, we’ll have an idea of new revenue enhancement opportunities.”
GCRTA is not divulging those ideas yet. But whatever they might be, they will need to be attractive to riders and voters alike.
For that reason, one proposal should be a Houston-style re-evaluation of the system’s pluses and minuses. “The way I think about it is asking: ‘What would our system look like if we redesigned it from a blank sheet of paper?’ ” says Spieler.
Popping the hood on GCRTA might seem like an expensive wish list item in light of its budget issues.
But a community-driven conversation about where the largest transit system in Ohio can rev its engines would prove a useful political tool, as it did in Houston. Even if the ultimate conclusion is that the network satisfactorily serves riders as-is, the act of outreach would earn goodwill and help convince voters to fill up GCRTA’s tanks.
“The lesson isn’t that you need to redesign your network and end up with a frequent grid, like Houston,” says Spieler. “You should ask the question.”
Similarly, an aspirational proposal to collect new ideas for the future of the system could make voting for GCRTA funding into a positive, in a way that the continued trickle of service cuts does not.
“With a financial crisis, a framing that riders can understand is: We are forced to cut service because of things beyond our control, but we want to do that in a way that does the least damage,” suggests Spieler. “In order to do that, we think that it will be better if we redesign the network rather than just cut on the network we have right now.”
Inspired riders would make powerful advocates. Their support will be crucial, because the nitty-gritty of finding and passing a new or increased tax for transit will be a slog.
One idea is for a special property tax on parking lots and decks based on square footage or the number of spaces at street level. Dollars earned within GCRTA’s sales tax area could also be subject to a new payroll tax.
Another option is a ballot measure funding public transit, like the Cleveland Public Library property tax levy. This kind of measure would allow voters to have a regular voice in setting GCRTA’s direction.
This is more sustainable than putting another one-time sales tax increase to voters in Cuyahoga County, as recommended by a recent county report, which would pump dry an already-stagnant well.
But none of these remedies, or any others, will be politically easy. Bold moves, such as a parking or payroll tax, are likely to be about as popular here as Stephen Curry.
Even the easier options, such as a sales or property tax increase, will be a tough sell to the voters of heavily taxed Cuyahoga County.
Regardless, it seems we have not even gotten to the point of considering new taxes. Hope still rests on cajoling area politicians to fight for funding in Columbus. But that strategy is not getting much traction.
“I think a big concern locally is that it’s just not as big of an issue for local elected officials,” says Daniel Ortiz, outreach coordinator for left-leaning think tank Policy Matters Ohio. “They don’t have to expend any political capital to address this as much as they should.”
Regional solutions don’t mean the state gets to squirm off the hook. But to survive, the transit authority and its supporters need something inspiring around which to build a local movement. If GCRTA is to be saved, we need to believe in it first.
10:00 AM EST
April 9, 2018