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.


  1. As you may know, Don, Los Angeles used to have one of the best public transportation systems in the world, but the train tracks were torn up and replaced by freeways at the behest of the big oil companies. Ohio also used to have outstanding intra-city streetcar service. When I first arrived at Oberlin in the early 1970s, the tracks were still visible, but it had been several decades since anybody had been able to hop on a streetcar and ride it into Cleveland. The entire momentum of the 20th century was away from that and toward private ownership of automobiles. What it's going to take is a change in the momentum.

  2. So true, Robin.

    Electric streetcars were invented about the same time as automobiles. They were privately operated, annd they were highly popular. And some lines went between cities--the famous interurban lines. In fact, I read once that in the early 20th century, except for one twenty-mile stretch in upstate NY, one could have traveled from Boston all the way to Milwaukee just by hopping one interurban line after another.

    Beginning in the 1920s politicians found that they could have a windfall of campaign money if they supported the oil, auto, and road construction industries in building new roads and highways. The supporters of the streetcar lines didn't have the deep pockets, so they lost out. The politicians and the auto industry supporters refused to support the streetcar lines, saying they had to make their own profits. But in some cities, they weren't even allowed to raise fares to cover cost increases. The auto companies argued that motorized buses, which they build of course, were better than streetcars because they could operate on streets without tracks. What they really wanted, of course, was to tear out the tracks and make the roads smoother and more convenient for automobiles. And in the late 1940s, General Motors bought out several streetcar lines and put them out of business. That was the end of the streetcars in most cities, and of course the Interstate system spelled the end of most passenger rail in the US.

    The thing that galls me the most is that you still hear rail opponents talking about rail as a money loser--the fares don't pay for the costs, so the taxpayers have to subsidize them. That only makes sense if we completely ignore the huge taxpayer subsidies for highways and air--taxpayers pay for the airports, air traffic control, etc. so that private airlines can use them. And taxpayers pay dearly for highway maintenance, snow removal, and police protection. Rail lines are, for the most part, still privately owned.

  3. What would change the momentum? Ten-dollar-per-gallon gasoline, perhaps? Or a fuel shortage like the one we had in the 1970s? (We were hopeful that the '70s shortages would encourage us to invest in rail, but it didn't happen.)

    One positive thing is that many young Americans seem not to want to be tied to automobiles like their parents were. Many are waiting to get their drivers licenses (neither our younger son nor his wife drive), and some are eschewing auto ownership. Instead, they are moving to cities that have good public transportation (which means not Ohio cities, for the most part, although Cleveland has a good rail system), and they are setting up car sharing co-ops for the occasions when they need access to an automobile.

  4. Hi Don,

    Excellent post. That bus route would have been very useful. Many of my students also have transport issues, as well, so I know what you're talking about.

    Neither of my children own cars and both live close to public transit in the city. So, anecdotally, I concur about younger people--though (as you know) mine are from a family with an environmentally-oriented value system--as is your son, I suspect. : )

    One reason Chicago hangs on is due to its functional (though flawed) public transit system. Chicago is actually planning rail line extensions and METRA just opened a new station.

    I just found out about ALEC, and how it has been influencing the new crop of Republican governors to further an anti-progressive agenda, funded by people such as the Koch brothers. What you are reporting seems very similar to Wisconsin gov. Walker turning down federal money for high-speed rail. Aargh! And then there are the union issues...

  5. Yes, Adrian, Ohio's new governor seems to be cut from the same mold as Scott Walker. We have our own version of the collective-bargaining law. Our protests just haven't been as large or drawn as much national attention as Wisconsin's.

  6. The automobile era is in decline, not because people are finally coming to their senses, but because we're seeing the end of cheap resources, and cheap energy.

    Unfortunately, I suspect the current political system won't tend toward the enlightened view of having better public transportation.

    Hopefully I'm wrong about this, but I'm not holding my breath.

    What I think is most likely is that our future will involve a lot of walking; perhaps even significant distances on a daily basis.

  7. I believe you're right, John, though most of the public is in denial about that. But the signs are evident, not just in fuel prices, but also in the fact that fewer people are able to own and maintain a car. I think it won't be all that long before only the relatively wealthy will have cars.

    The current crop of politicians have demonstrated that they're unable and/or unwilling to look at these signs and make plans to deal with the end of the auto age.