ODOT looking to send 33 percent more money to public transit
" I'm glad that the ODOT director is taking the needs for public transit to heart and is taking leadership on this issue," said Kirt Conrad, president of the Ohio Public Transit Association. "For him to have requested that increase at a time when the governor has instructed everyone to decrease their budgets by 10 percent shows that transit is a priority for him."
Public transit in Ohio could be getting a small windfall if plans at the Ohio Department of Transportation come to fruition.
ODOT Director Jerry Wray requested a 33 percent increase in funding for public transit in each year of the new biennium budget.
If approved, that would send $10 million more each year to the state's transit agencies in fiscal years 2018 and 2019.
"I'm glad that the ODOT director is taking the needs for public transit to heart and is taking leadership on this issue," said Kirt Conrad, president of the Ohio Public Transit Association. "For him to have requested that increase at a time when the governor has instructed everyone to decrease their budgets by 10 percent shows that transit is a priority for him."
ODOT currently dedicates $23 million a year to public transit by flexing federal funds, while the state chips in $7.3 million directly.
Matt Bruning, ODOT press secretary, said the department is trying to increase funding to transit based on the results of its 2014 Transit Needs Study.
"Certainly, that was meant to show that it is an important function of transportation," Bruning said.
The study identified significant infrastructure and fleet replacement needs for the state's transit systems. Of the 3,250 transit vehicles in use in the state, 1,050, or 32 percent, need to be replaced - a $300 million expenditure, according to the study.
In a recent meeting of Cuyahoga County Council's transportation advisory subcommittee, Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority CEO Joe Calabrese said Director Wray knows that one of transit's greatest needs is in replacing aging infrastructure.
"He understands that 15-year-old snow plows or 15-year-old buses are ineffective," Calabrese said. "One of the reasons the ODOT director is proposing more money to public transit is really to help with that bus replacement process."
The additional transit funding from ODOT will come from federal highway revenues, Wray said in a letter to Tim Keen, director of Ohio's Office of Budget and Management.
ODOT's budget request will be included in the transportation budget, which is approved in the first part of the year.
In addition to the funds identified in the budget, ODOT also applies for grant funding on behalf of transit agencies and tries to flex federal dollars for public transit, Bruning said.
"We contribute what we can, and we're always looking for other ways we can help contribute," Bruning said. "If we can identify another grant, another funding stream, we're always doing that."
For example, last year ODOT used $6 million in federal funds to purchase 12 new trolleys for RTA before the Republican National Convention.
"I think the state has additional money to do that if they're so inclined," Calabrese said about flexing federal funding to help transit.
Despite the potential additional help from ODOT, funding for transit in the state overall still falls below that of other states across the country. Ohio only spends 63 cents per capita, among the lowest in the nation, on public transit.
And between 2002 and 2015, the state direct contribution to public transit has been slashed from $43 million to $7.3 million. Public transit receives funding both from the state and from ODOT, which flexes federal funding.
Because of the lack of financial support from the state, Ohio's transit agencies continue to face funding challenges, as evidenced by the service cuts enacted last year by RTA. And Stark Area Regional Transit Authority, where Conrad serves as executive director, still hasn't been able to restore the Sunday service it had to cut in 2009 because of the recession.
Funding problems for public transit could become even more severe this July when the sales and use tax on Medicaid managed care organizations will no longer be collected by the state, in response to a federal mandate. Unless state legislators find a budget neutral solution - like many other states have done - transit agencies like RTA and counties across the state could lose a total of $500 million in 2018.
"I think that it starts moving the needle in the right direction," said Conrad about additional ODOT funding. "The needs are pretty great but there's also an economic reality of how much money we can ask for."