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New RTA Budget Holds Steady Amid Ridership Decline

RTA light rail car awaiting repairs. [ideastream file photo]
RTA light rail car awaiting repairs.

The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority expects a decline in passenger fare revenue next year, but anticipates no other major hits to its 2020 budget.

RTA’s $296 million in general fund expenditures will exceed projected revenues for next year, staff told the board of trustees at a Tuesday morning meeting. The transit agency will use leftover funds from 2019 to cover the shortfall, planning to end next year $25 million in the black.

The agency is expecting a 4 percent drop in revenue from fares, in line with years-long ridership declines. But more than three quarters of general fund revenue comes from the county sales tax, which is projected to bring in 2 percent more money next year.

Next year, staff will draw on RTA’s bus system redesign study to present possible “cost-neutral” route changes, Director of Service Management Joel Freilich told the board.

“While any net service expansion would have to wait for increased funding, there will be some things that we can accomplish in 2020,” he said.

The new budget also continues stashing away cash to replace rail cars, a major capital expense coming down the line for RTA. The agency has been planning to split the estimated $240 million cost with the state and federal governments.

Those plans hit a setback when the state Transportation Review Advisory Council (TRAC) rejected RTA’s application for $60 million for rail car replacements.

“This was a little bit of a long shot,” Michael Schipper, RTA’s deputy general manager for engineering, told ideastream Tuesday.

TRAC approves state funding for major projects that would cost the Ohio Department of Transportation more than $12 million. The state concluded RTA’s rail cars weren’t eligible for the money, Schipper said.

“Usually it goes for highway-expansion-type projects, but they also have a transit component,” he said. “And we were making the argument that the rail cars are a significant, long-term capital investment.”

RTA will put $5 million from another state funding stream toward rail cars, he said, and has received commitments for about half of the expected total replacement cost from various other sources.

This week, Schipper said, RTA officials are traveling to Washington, D.C., to lobby elected representatives and the Federal Transit Administration for rail car funding.

Nick Castele was a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media. He worked as a reporter for Ideastream from 2012-2022.