Nobody ever stops the press when government works. Everyday, government works to get people to work, to ship goods to markets, to power our economy, and protect our national defense. Occasionally, we do stop the press for major stories when government does not work as we expect. When a bridge crumbles, it’s a headline. When a train derails, it’s a headline. When bus drivers strike, it’s a headline. In all of these cases, lives are disrupted. Also, in all of these cases, rarely is the fundamental issue ever addressed: We do not pay, and seemingly will not pay, for the infrastructure and services upon which we rely; we insist on something for nothing.
The problem with infrastructure and transit is that the entire nation, or even the entire State of Ohio, does not collectively rely on the same bridge or the same transit route. However, as we complain about the cost of individual projects and transit services, our own community’s infrastructure is crumbling because we refuse to also pay for that of our neighbors.
In Ohio, here is how we got into this situation:
Nation-wide, here is how got into an even bigger situation, regardless of mode:
Among modes, the decline has been particularly steep among federal transit and passenger rail spending, which was basically slashed in half during the 80s and never recovered.
This all collectively means we find ourselves in a situation in which local government picks up more and more of the tab for transit.
Lastly, for a most interesting chart, particularly for “equity planners” whom decry spending on anything other than bus routes to poor neighborhoods – there appears to be a correlation between overall transit services and poverty concentration. As transit funding declines along with the varieties of constituencies that it serves, the differential between urban and suburban poverty rises. To advocates for “transit equity” meaning transit as a social service: What are you really trying to do?
We now find ourselves with the transit service that we deserve, pretty much. The fragmentation is pretty much complete. Where a unified front could possible exist as an effective force to solve these issues collectively, we find drivers succeeding in shifting money for transit to roads, we find transit-dependent constituencies advocating to shut down transit that serves middle and upper income people, and we find developers and transit growing farther and farther apart. It is 2016 and things are getting worse.
What gives? Flats Forward (and/or Backward)
The big debate in Cleveland right now is whether to continue service on the Waterfront Line. The Waterfront Line, completed in 1996, is a 2.2-mile light rail that bends around downtown, following the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie waterfronts, hence the name. Cleveland’s RTA spent $70 million to build it, and then not longer after opening it, decided to eliminate weekday service on it in 2010. Service levels were then revived in 2013, upon the accumulation of $500 million + in development spurred by the route, adding jobs at Ernst & Young, hundreds of dwelling units (soon to be thousands), and dozens of new entertainment venues.
It so happens, that the Flats East Bank project was built with an over-supply of parking. So while ridership has risen on the Waterfront Line, the trains aren’t exactly packed. Transit “advocates” (can you call those who advocate against transit, “transit advocates”) have dubiously branded the Waterfront Line as the Ghost Train. Mark Naymik of the Plain Dealer, generally considered that newspaper’s foremost loudmouth, wants this route to “be the first service trimmed to help close budget shortfall” (sic). (Personally, and this is the only personal opinion I am writing in this piece, but I’m still not over Naymik’s nasty fight in favor of the Ohio City McDonald’s by labeling opponents including myself as the “$6 Beer Crowd.” Seriously, who advocates FOR a McDonald’s in a historic district??) Flats Forward, a non-profit development arm aimed at revitalizing the Flats as a beloved community gathering place, has led the charge to retain service.
What’s at stake, besides hopes of continued ridership growth on the Waterfront Line? Well, developers did make a $500 million investment along it. One of the historic advantages of rail over bus service is that tracks can’t be moved like a bus route often is – and that goes out the window in this political climate. By burning the developers who invest in sites along transit, we get further and further from an ultimate solution to this wicked problem. Let’s not lose sight of a potential solution, in that Americans overwhelmingly want TOD – 73% support changes in land use zoning to encourage TOD. 73% of Americans rarely support anything.
Where the Waterfront Line was just one example of the solution, combining forces between transit and development, that is now at-risk. The reality is that the Waterfront Line is a choice rider service. By spurning those choice riders, as is often the goal of supposed “transit equity,” it becomes harder to pass needed local tax increases to support transit for everyone.
Don’t forget that the only reason Cleveland RTA is able to provide Ohio’s only decent transit system isn’t fare revenue, but rather the 1% county-wide sales tax that supports RTA. While other Ohio cities would kill for that (COTA in Columbus for instance must operate on half that), will County voters renew Cleveland’s RTA tax next time it is up the renewal? Keep burning choice riders, and County voters are less likely to see how they could benefit.
What we have here is ultimate dysfunction and fragmentation in which transit segments have turned against each other to throw each other under the bus. While we are all implicit, it is hard to blame anyone specifically; while each side seems to have missed the big picture, can you blame them considering what an ugly picture it has become?