Public transit advocates make the case to significantly boost funding in state budget

Responding to a barrage of criticism from transit advocates, Ohio legislators have significantly boosted funding for public transportation in the 2021-2022 budget.

The Ohio House Finance Committee on Thursday, Feb. 25, accepted a substitute to House Bill 74, committing $97 million a year in total funding annually for public transit agencies hit hard by low ridership and pandemic-related expenses.

The increase is a far cry from the paltry $7.3 million a year, in state funds only, originally proposed by Gov. Mike DeWine’s executive budget for the transportation agencies. That was a 90% drop from the $70 million in funds in the 2020-2021 budget.

“It was a welcomed surprise,” said Jason Warner, director of strategic engagement for Greater Ohio Policy Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization advocating for smart growth strategies, of the substitute bill being accepted by the committee

The bill proposes a total of $193.7 million over two years in a mix of state and federal funds for public transit.

Legisislators in the statehouse, Warner said, are willing to commit $46.3 million in general revenue funds, $66 million in federal “flex funds” and $81.4 million in Federal Transit Authority funding to public transportation over two years in the 2022-23 biennial budget.

Originally, the state provided federal flex funds, but if this amended budget item passes, $33 million annually will be “set aside” by the Ohio Department of Transportation for transit use and public transportation. More than $40 million a year in Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) funding comes from what the state receives from the 18.4-cent federal motor fuel tax. Warner explained that Ohio’s motor fuel tax can only be used to fund highway and bridge construction and maintenance (a restriction enshrined in the Ohio Constitution).

The addition of the federal flex funds is something his group has been advocating, Warner said.

“Even before we saw the executive budget proposal, Greater Ohio was going to be advocating for the use of the federal flex funding,” he said. “We do think that there’s a place for the federal flex funding, so we’re supportive of that.”

The original sparse funding proposal from DeWine’s office came as a surprise to some Ohio lawmakers who were hoping to make sure transportation services could safely continue for essential workers and the 10% of Ohioans without a vehicle during the pandemic.

Ohio Sen. Sandra Williams, D-Cleveland, said she was told the administration justified the deep cuts to public transit agencies because of funding provided from the CARES Act.

“The reasoning from the administration is that budget was reduced because the state transportation systems received about $700 million in CARES Act funding,” said Williams, who recently was appointed to the state Senate’s transportation committee.

Those funds, Williams said, were for COVID-19 related expenses only, and most of the funds were spent before the end of 2020.

“These agencies spent all that money right away, so they would not lose it. So many of those places may not even have money left over for this year,” she said.

Ohio Reps. Mike Skindell, D-Lakewood, and Terrence Upchurch, D-Cleveland, introduced House Bill 141 before the amended bill was accepted by the committee. HB 141 would augment the $7.3 million in transit funding with $100 million from the state’s general revenue fund and $50 million from federal flex dollars annually.

The governor’s budget, Skindell said when introducing HB 141, ignores the “need to create a transportation system that addresses Ohio’s changing demographics and transportation preferences, links people to jobs and training opportunities, and provides access to businesses and health care.”

Even the $70 million a year committed to transit agencies in the previous budget, which was treated as a one-time increase to address major infrastructure fixes around the state, ultimately was reduced because of COVID-19 cuts required by the governor at all state agencies, Skindell said in a statement on the bill.

Ohio’s public transportation funding has been on a downhill trajectory for nearly two decades. A budget that sent $42.3 million a year in 2000 to transit agencies fell to $6.6 million in 2018. That ranks the state among the lowest per capita of any state on public transportation.

“The historic cuts and underfunding in public transit have resulted in higher fares and cuts in bus services, including senior and disabled transportation options, across the state,” Upchurch said in a statement about his legislation.

The chronic underfunding has not gone unnoticed. In early February, the American Society of Civil Engineers released its 2021 Report Card for Ohio’s Infrastructure, and based on 16 categories of infrastructure, the state received an overall grade of C- and a D for transit.

The report specifically cited “the long-term chronic lack of state funding for transit, the resulting decrease in transit ridership, and increased age of transit vehicles throughout the state” and called out the $7 million budget proposal as a problem going forward.

“Public transportation here in Cleveland, along with others in the state, has proven that we are absolutely essential,” said India Birdsong, Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority CEO and general manager. “And when we face such a drastic reduction like this in state funding, it’s definitely a blow.”

The pandemic brought with it the shutdown of nonessential businesses and has affected public transportation ridership and revenue. RTA reported a 57% decline in passenger fare revenue in January, compared with January 2020, and a 55% decrease in ridership in January compared with the like period a year ago.

In her testimony before the Senate Transportation committee, Birdsong called the administration’s budget disappointing and a “giant step backward given everything we as a transit industry are doing.”

“We are worthy of the allocation of dollars,” she said. “We are not just an essential service. We also support other essential services, make sure folks can get to work, to the hospitals and have to get to the grocery stores.”

Even if the new funding goes into place, most public transportation supporters agree it will not be enough to for any long-term plan for stability.

“Even with the historic funding that was approved two years ago, it just scratches the surface of what the long-term needs are for transit agencies, big and small, across the state,” Warner said.

Birdsong and Greater Ohio Policy Center’s Warner agree that the agencies cannot rely on the whims of the executive budget, and that lack of predictability makes it difficult to do efficient and meaningful investment.

Others agree that unpredictability is a problem for transportation needs. During budget testimony, ODOT director Jack Marchbanks told the House transportation committee that overall transportation funding is unpredictable as decreases in gas tax revenues — the result of less driving during the pandemic — most likely will become a long-term issue. The emergence of electric vehicles plays into that as well.

“We believe that the legislature needs to consider a permanent, dedicated source of funding for public transportation,” Warner said. “We are going to be asking the legislature to form a study committee to look at potential sources and dedicated funding.”

The substitute bill has one more scheduled committee hearing before it goes to the floor for a full House vote. If it passes, it would go to the Senate.