Sunday, February 13, 2011

Public Transportation: Not a High Priority in Ohio

The Columbus Dispatch reported last week that under the administration of Ohio's new Republican governor John Kasich, the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) is cutting funding for local transit agencies that had been promised by the administration of the previous governor, Ted Strickland, a Democrat. While this comes as no surprise, given that Governor Kasich managed to kill a major passenger rail project for Ohio before he was even sworn in as Governor, it still comes as a blow to those of us who believe that the government should stop favoring highway construction and automotive transport--those of us who believe we should begin to fund more sustainable transportation systems that will help us cut petroleum use and also provide transportation alternatives to those who need and want them.

Specifically, former Governor Strickland had pledged $150 million out of ODOT's budget over three years to ten Ohio transit agencies, mostly to help them develop new routes. The intent of the new routes was to help connect people to places that offer jobs and job training programs. The Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA), which serves the Columbus area, was among the intended recipients. COTA was planning to use the money to begin a new bus route that would have connected the area's hospitals, including The Ohio State University Medical Center and Nationwide Children's Hospital, to several local educational institutions, including Columbus State Community College where I teach. Given that Ohio's unemployment rate remains above the national average, and given that fuel prices are currently hovering around the $3.00 per gallon range and are rising, such a boost for public transport services seems to be a no-brainer to me.

But this expansion of transit services is not to be. Although ODOT will still share some $80 million in mostly federal transportation money with local transit agencies over the next three years, and although our public transit agencies will be getting more money this year than they have been getting in previous years, the increase won't be enough to allow COTA to offer the planned service connecting health care and higher education services.

According to the Dispatch report, a spokesperson for ODOT dismissed Strickland's funding promise as "not realistic and short-term." One wonders, however, why it isn't realistic. One also wonders what ODOT plans to do with the previously promised money. It is my understanding that ODOT's annual budget hovers around $3 billion per year. I also understand that ODOT's funding, since it comes from federal transportation money and fuel taxes, is not accounted with Ohio's general fund, which is currently running something like an $8 billion projected deficit over the next two years, and over which a lot of hand-wringing is now occurring over imminent and severe budget cuts. Again according to my understanding, ODOT spent about $10 million last year on public transportation. That's only about 60% of the amount ODOT spends every year mowing along the highways! Is most of the money that Strickland had promised to the transit agencies now going to be used for highway construction? One wonders. And if so, one wonders why we need to dedicate even more of the ODOT budget to highway construction, since that's where about 98% of it goes right now. Partly because of the fuel price crunch and high unemployment, Ohioans, like most Americans, are driving less and many younger Ohioans, like many younger Americans, want other transportation options besides driving and being saddled with the cost burdens associated with automobile ownership and maintenance. (Some young Americans aren't even getting their driver's licenses until they're in their 20s, and there's a boom in auto sharing and ride sharing among them.)

The $80 billion that the Kasich administration indicates it will deliver to local transit agencies, spread out over the next three years, represents almost quadrupling the state funding for public transportation from last year. I guess that's better than nothing, and I suppose I shouldn't complain. But other states do far better than this. According to All Aboard Ohio's Ken Pendergast, Pennsylvania spent close to $400 million last year on public transport. And the results are evident in clearly superior services to the public, as Pendergast reports here. There's no real reason why Ohio can't do at least as well.

One more thing: John Kasich, in his inaugural address on January 10, 2011, enjoined Ohioans to "rebuild our great cities in Ohio." I honestly don't know how he can accomplish that without significant and serious increases in spending on viable, convenient public transportation for our cities (not to mention inter-city passenger rail). Just look around: the cities that are vibrant and alive all have excellent and convenient transportation services that the residents use frequently; they are cities that are designed for people and not automobiles. Then take a look at many of Ohio's cities: the central cores are deserted after business hours. Walk around the downtown areas and notice the wide streets cluttered with fast-moving traffic; then look at the relative lack of safe places for people to walk. Notice the parking lot deserts where shopping and other services, as well as residences, could be built instead. (Columbus' downtown has long since been abandoned by retailers; to compensate, if one can call it that, we built a fake downtown in the suburbs, called Easton. One has to drive to go there, of course.) If we want to rebuild our great cities, we need a real commitment to invest in public transportation.

This is not a funding problem; it's a problem of priorities. So long as road-building and automobiles remain a top priority, the full transportation needs of all Ohioans will be neglected. Ohio can do better than this. Ohio must do better than this.