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Greater Cleveland Transit Ridership Plunges During Coronavirus Pandemic

Greater Cleveland RTA ridership fell 50 percent last week as businesses shut down and employees began working from home. [Nick Castele / ideastream]
Transit ridership fell 50 percent last week as businesses shut down and employees began working from home.

Bus and train ridership have plunged in Greater Cleveland as workers stay home to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority ridership fell 50 percent last week, Chief Operating Officer Floun’say Caver told board members Tuesday.

While transit remains “the veins of Cleveland,” RTA CEO India Birdsong told board members, the agency is cutting back on services because of low demand during the stay-at-home order.

RTA already cut Park-N-Ride and Downtown trolley service and additional service cuts could be coming, she said.

“We continue to have business as usual as much as we can,” Birdsong said. “We also will be gearing up to pare down service on bus and rail as needed in the coming days.”

Fare collections were already down about 30 percent for March, according to Deputy General Manager Rajan Gautam.

But the bigger financial hit could come from a drop in sales tax revenue as the shutdowns squeeze commerce. Sales tax collections account for 76 percent of RTA’s general operating dollars, and the coronavirus-related decline in ridership is financial blow to a transit system already facing money problems.

It’s too early to estimate how far sales tax revenues will fall, Gautam said. RTA officials may be able to make projections in mid-to-late-April when the state releases data, he said.

Board member Justin Bibb asked for a “coordinated lobbying effort” at all levels of government to ensure public transit receives funding after the pandemic.

“The region and the city can’t thrive without vibrant public transit, and we’re taking a huge financial hit,” Bibb said. “And so I want to make sure we’re getting out ahead of the curve and have a really good plan to come out of this crisis well-positioned for the future.”

The advocacy group Clevelanders for Public Transit has similarly called for increased transit funding during the crisis. The group also asked RTA to consider suspending fare collections — something other transit agencies, including some in Ohio, have done to reduce contact between operators and passengers. RTA does not plan to pause fares, a spokeswoman said Monday.

RTA staff are cleaning vehicles, and the agency is encouraging passengers to enter buses from the front doors and exit through the back, Birdsong said.

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