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Cleveland Among Transit Systems Nationwide Pressing For More Federal Aid

Greater Cleveland Regional Transportation Authority bus and train ridership had dropped to record-low levels in 2019. Those already low numbers were cut in half by the pandemic. [Nick Castele / ideastream]
a cleveland city bus in playhouse square downtown

Congress is considering a COVID relief bill that would include about $16 billion in aid for public transit. Agencies from around the country, including Cleveland, say they need twice that amount, at least.

“That number was also a short-term and had some assumptions that with the epidemiology and the vaccines coming online and that the ridership would start to rebound a little bit and the economy would get going a little bit,” said Robert Powers, general manager of San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit, during a Wednesday press call with public transit officials from around the country.

The transit executives all agreed that some federal aid is needed before the end of the year. New York City’s transit agency said recently it needs $12 billion in aid to prevent drastic cuts.

The Greater Cleveland Regional Transportation Authority received almost $112 million from the previous federal stimulus, the CARES Act. That funding made it possible for RTA to avoid layoffs or drastic service reductions, RTA’s director of marketing and communications, Steve Bitto, said Wednesday, but the system’s revenue still isn’t even close to pre-pandemic levels.

“A diminished or weakened transit system would have a devastating effect on our communities,” said Bitto. “We urge Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle as well as the administration to work together now to pass a COVID relief package that includes transit before the end of this current legislative session.”

Right now, RTA is considering a 2021 budget that forecasts one-third less revenue than this year. A vote on that budget is scheduled for Dec. 15.

Bus and train ridership plunged in Greater Cleveland at the outset of the pandemic and in each month since April, ridership has dropped by more than half compared to last year, when it was already at historic lows.

RTA is especially susceptible to economic downturns like this one – about 80 percent of the system’s revenue in 2021 is projected to come from local sales taxes. It receives no funding from local or county government and Ohio’s state support for public transit is among the lowest in the nation.

Other transit agencies on the call Wednesday described similarly dire circumstances. New York City’s public transportation experts are looking at 40 percent service reductions. In New Orleans, a 60 percent drop in revenue is expected.

“We cannot continue at this current pace without help,” said Powers of Bay Area Rapid Transit. “The prospect of deeper cuts and gutting service is unconscionable.”

Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer at Ideastream Public Media who focuses on criminal justice.