When it came to funding more than a pittance to the working poor, the Millennials and retired Baby Boomers flocking to urban centers and clamoring for robust transit and bike friendly roads, Ohio legislators, Department of Transportation and Governor took a hear no, see no, and say no stance last week.
At a House Transportation Subcommittee hearing, a coalition of progressive groups called on the House to support Transportation Choice. Their modest proposal is a 1% increase—or $75 million—in the state’s multi-billion dollar transportation budget with the goal of building sustainability back in to the roadway.
“Ohio needs a 21st century transportation system made up not only of roads and highways but also a complete network of affordable, accessible, and environmentally-friendly transportation options, including public transit, passenger rail, streetcars, hybrid buses, electric vehicle, and walk-able, bike-able streets,” Policy Matters Ohio researcher, Amanda Woodrum, testified before the committee.
The seasoned group of statehouse advocates made a strong case for funding transit, bike lanes and green streets. A simple re-allocation of 1% of the budget would reduce our dependency on foreign and domestic oil. $75 million would leverage new job creation and avert massive healthcare costs from air pollution and less active streets.
“We spend billion of dollars on roads every year,” Woodrum said. “Meanwhile, 9% of Ohioans don’t have a car. We spend less than 1% to support transit. Folks don’t think that’s a fair allocation.”
Clearly, there’s a need. In Columbus, COTA plans to move to 100% clean burning natural gas busses. Cleveland is eager to build from its 2011 Complete Streets ordinance, and projects are piling up, including Denison, Detroit, Clifton avenues and W. 65th Street all slated for Complete Streets makeovers.
ODOT’s response last week was to throw cold water. Gongwer News Service reports ODOT Chief of Staff Greg Murphy testified that the agency's request for $7.3 million in general revenue funds for aviation and public transit is the lowest the department could submit to avoid losing the ability to match federal public transit money.
But, several members of the subcommittee questioned why ODOT is only seeking the lowest possible amount, noting that Mr. Murphy said in his testimony that Ohio has the 12th highest public transit ridership in the nation.
On the other hand, Ohio ranks 47th in the nation in funding transit. Ohio will be better positioned to compete for young professionals who are eschewing cars for walkable and bikeable urbanism, says David Roseman, Board Member of the Sierra Club Ohio Chapter.
"There are far more bike shops opening in Columbus than car dealerships," says Roseman, also Vice Chair of the Sierra Club Central Ohio Group.
Ohio's metro regions have seen an influx of population to the urban core. A Transportation Choice fund would demonstrate a commitment to them.
"Investing in biking needs to be a priority for the state if they want to attract business and young talent,” says Bike Cleveland executive director, Jacob Van Sickle. “A record number of young adults are opting not to get driver’s licenses and are moving to areas where they can bike, walk or take the bus.”
To meet the needs of the 9% of Ohioans (35% in Cleveland) who are carless by need or by choice, $270 million would be needed, Ohioans for Transportation Choice estimates. They would be pleased to see funding for transit and complete streets rise from cents on the dollar to pull even with Midwestern states—like car-loving Michigan which spends close to $20 per person on transit.
But, on a phone conference this week, Woodrum said that the House did not add the draft amendment for Transportation Choice. They will try again with the Senate this week.
At the House hearing, Rep. John Carney (D-Columbus) said ODOT’s funding indicates that public transit "doesn't seem to be a priority".
"Everybody always wants more," ODOT’s Murphy responded. "Now, if 'more' just means more so they can have shiny new vans, we aren't in support of that.
“I don’t know if a 12-year old bus is a shiny new bus,” responds Joe Calabrese, CEO, Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, about the average lifespan of an RTA bus. “We’re seeing that a 12-year old bus is much worse for the environment.”
The state’s current $10 million for new buses is sufficient for small, rural areas, he adds, but doesn’t go very far for the big urban transit systems.
Calabrese met with Reps. Amstutz and Batchelder this week along with a group from the Ohio Public Transit Association (OPTA) to request additional dollars.
“They said, ‘we don’t know what they’re needed for?’” Calabrese recounts. “They kept talking about jobs, well, you can’t get a job unless you can get to the work site.”
ODOT's chief of staff said the Ohio Public Transit Association did ask for $70 million in capital improvement flex funds, and the department is waiting on that request to see what transit funding levels will be (Gongwer).
ODOT's public transportation priority list, he said, includes 20 projects that would involve $14 million in funding.
Meanwhile, ODOT testified that sometimes "a little" federal public transit money is left on the table because there are no matching funds.
Rep. Richard Adams (R-Troy) asked ODOT to give more information about those instances.
Murphy responded that transit projects require a 20% local match, while highways do not.
ODOT also testified that it had not heard about a Transportation Choice budget request.
The group's response to this ‘hear no’ from ODOT was to provide documentation to the House on a meeting held last December introducing Transportation Choice to ODOT.
“ODOT’s been spinning it that we never shared (Transportation Choice) with them," Woodrum said, "that we took them by surprise, and that was not true we met with them in December.”
She says some in the committee were not pleased to hear ODOT had provided erroneous testimony.
Policy Matters also refutes the lack of matching funds claim. Some transit funds require a 50% match, while others like Surface Transportation have a 20% match and CMAQ it can go up to no match. "So that’s only partly true.”
Still, Transportation Choice is an uphill climb at state government. The group plans to start a letter writing campaign to build citizen support for Transportation Choice.
At a Senate hearing this morning, ODOT Director Jerry Wray responded to questions from Rep. Nina Turner (D-Cleveland) about flat funding for transit in Ohio. He expressed support for transit, but not necessarily funding increases. He promised to work with OPTA to come up with a plan, but warned, “The problem is that when we ask them, ‘How much more do you need?’ The answer I get is, ‘More.’ When I say what services will be cut, they are uncertain. We need to take a very close look at public transit in Ohio, and see if it is important to us. I personally believe in a robust and viable public transit system. The funding, though, is unresolved.”
Calabrese thinks the “ask” for the state is to use more federal money to pay for bus replacement. “$70 million a year that can be non-state money, which is crucial to this governor. Many states do, as a matter of course, match federal dollars for transit.”
Akshai Singh at Sierra Club adds that the state stands to save billions with a $75 million transportation choice fund. Citing a Transportation for America 2012 study, 10% of fatalities in car crashes involved pedestrians. The vast majority of the cyclists killed by cars were bike commuters.
Some, like Sharon Pearson at The Oberlin Project, see transit and complete streets as a security issue.
“I fear that there will be a time when we have not been forward thinking enough to solve the transportation problems and we will be in a tough position and unable to travel in Ohio. That will not only hurt me but could also be a HUGE blow to economic development, if people are unable to travel.”
The last time gas hovered near $4/gal, a rush to the bus translated to a huge increase in transit ridership in Cleveland.
Transportation Choice is a bi-partisan issue, writes NRDC's Rob Perks. "Road-building proponents might argue that the political bias toward highway funding is a reflection of public will. That is not the case. In fact, last summer NRDC conducted focus groups in Ohio and followed that with a public opinion survey which found that Ohioans were nearly three times as likely to favor investing in public transportation over building new roads as a solution to worsening traffic congestion."
If you want to ‘get on the bus’ pulling for Ohio to build a 21st century transportation system, see the Talking Points for Ohioans for Transportation Choice. And stay tuned for ways to get involved.