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WKSU, our public radio partners in Ohio and across the region and NPR are all continuing to work on stories on the latest developments with the coronavirus and COVID-19 so that we can keep you informed.

Greater Cleveland RTA Losing Riders, Revenue During Pandemic

The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority is facing severe ridership and revenue declines in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

Ridership began to drop in the first week of March, said RTA Interim Secretary Treasurer and Chief Operating Officer Floun'say Caver during a Tuesday board meeting. By the second week of April, Caver said, ridership was down nearly 70 percent.

The agency is already projecting a $22.1 million loss in passenger fares for the year, Caver said.

Sales tax revenue projections show an additional loss of about $94 million for RTA from May through December, he said.

“These are the numbers as we have them today,” Caver said. “This is information that’s subject to change. Should information become more apparent, like all agencies, we are watching.”

In April, RTA cut back services by about 15 percent to reduce expenses, but so far the agency has not laid off or furloughed any employees.

“Our service is still constrained,” Caver said. “We’re still watching to ensure that we can save as much money as possible because we do understand the effects of this revenue environment.”

In the first year of the Great Recession, the transit agency lost nearly 11 percent of its sales tax revenue, Caver said, or about $17 million.

RTA’s applications for CARES Act funding through the Federal Transit Agency and U.S. Department of Labor have been approved, which should bring in nearly $112 million, according to General Manager and CEO India Birdsong.

But there are additional costs brought on by the virus, Birdsong said, including the already-implemented improved sanitization practices, as well as providing PPE and symptom screening for employees. RTA has also acquired new resources for employee telecommuting, she said.

The changes have totaled about $1.2 million in additional expenses of from March through May 4, Birdsong said, and RTA expects to accrue another $2.8 million in new expenses through the end of 2020. CARES Act funds could be used to reimburse those costs, Birdsong said.

The agency also is evaluating which of the new practices should stay in place permanently, she said.

“We do need to start looking at what we can keep, so to speak, and what we modify as we move forward,” Birdsong said. “COVID is really unfortunate, but it’s a handy sort of situation to be in because it forces us to be better.”

That evaluation could include a survey of customers later this year about what would help them feel safe and what practices they’d like to see implemented.

Some customers are already asking for even more pandemic-driven changes. Clevelanders for Public Transit is calling for suspending fare collection to limit interaction between operators and passengers, and limiting customer entry to just the rear doors of buses. Group members submitted statements and questions by email for the public comment portion of the virtual meeting.

“There’s been a lot of controversy about us continuing to collect fares,” Birdsong said. “But we’re confident that those barriers that have been requested have actually done the job of creating a thick, germ-free barrier for our bus operators and also our riding public.”

The agency is still developing barriers for some paratransit vehicles, but will install them soon, she said.

RTA is looking into other ways to save costs, including limiting new hires, Birdsong said, and the April service reductions helped cut back on overtime pay. Those cost-saving measures alone could save an estimated $22.7 million in the next six to seven months, Birdsong said.

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