A masked worker uses a rag to clean a handrail inside a public bus.
Ohio’s public transit systems are likely to face significant challenges emerging from the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority / Courtesy

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Although Ohio lawmakers didn’t slash public transportation funding this year, the state’s 61 public transit systems likely will still face greater challenges emerging from the coronavirus pandemic than those in other states. 

Low-income families and people of color will feel the effects most.

“We want to encourage people to get out of their cars to reduce greenhouse gases,” said George Fields, deputy general manager for human resources at the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority. Greenhouse gases drive human-caused climate change, and energy used by the U.S. transportation sector is responsible for 29% of those emissions. Ohio is among the top 10 states responsible.

“As the pandemic started last March, there was a big dip in ridership for us because of the different shutdowns and closures,” Fields said. Ohio’s largest public transit system is back to about 93% of its normal service level. Yet difficulties remain.

Even as more Ohioans get COVID-19 vaccines, ridership may remain below desired levels. Many businesses also are considering whether employees who have been working from home will keep doing so for the long term, at least part time, Fields noted.

“All of that plays into a ridership trend that may not actually bounce back as quickly as we would like it to bounce back,” Fields said. Lower ridership means lower revenues.

The economy will likely take a while to rebound as well, especially in downtown areas. That also will decrease revenues for the Greater Cleveland RTA, which gets part of a local sales tax. More generally, a slow economic recovery can mean fewer jobs for people who would otherwise ride public transit systems throughout the state.

Even while overall ridership may take a hit, “more people will probably be relying on public transit,” said Amanda Woodrum, a senior researcher at Policy Matters Ohio. “We don’t exactly know what the long-term impacts are from the pandemic on how our economy works. And that has a lot of implications, particularly for low-wage workers.”

People who work in the retail sector and at various restaurants tend to rely heavily on public transit, Woodrum said. Many of those places shut down during the pandemic or restricted their hours. For now, it’s unclear whether those jobs will come back in the same locations.

Shaky employment figures mean more people are struggling financially. Roughly one in 20 Ohioans who were available to work were out of a job in March. The state’s unadjusted unemployment rate was somewhat better than the national rate. Yet five counties were still above that 6.2% level. Adding in people who only work part-time for economic reasons or have other tenuous or sporadic employment brings Ohio’s labor underutilization rate to roughly 13% for 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported on March 26.

Other people may work full time but have fewer hours or at lower-wage jobs than they had before the pandemic. As a result, more people may find cars unaffordable or need to scale back their use for monetary reasons.

The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, Ohio’s largest public transit system, is back to about 93% of its normal service level. Yet difficulties remain. Credit: Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority / Courtesy

Better, but…

Ohio public transit systems will get about $70 million per year for each of the next two fiscal years under the state’s new transportation budget, which goes into effect on June 30. The funding is a combination of state money and federal “flex funds,” which the state can designate for any of various purposes.

The total is a tenfold increase over the $7 million per year that Gov. Mike DeWine proposed in his initial two-year transportation budget. That amount would have slashed current state funding by roughly 90%.

“The public transit allocations reflected increases in federal allocations to offset state costs,” said Dan Tierney, DeWine’s press secretary.

“Across Ohio, public transit continues running due to much-needed CARES funding” from the federal government, said Claudia Amrhein, current president of the Ohio Public Transit Association and general manager and CEO of the Portage Area Regional Transit Authority, in her testimony on the 2022-23 transportation budget, House Bill 74. “CARES funds are tremendously helpful, but are a short-term fix during the pandemic, not a long-term solution to adequately funding public transit in Ohio.”

The result: Despite added challenges from the pandemic, Ohio’s next budget will at best keep public transit funding roughly where it is now. If any more federal money comes through, a clawback provision will let the state scale back its funding accordingly.

“The increased funding that the [Ohio] Senate put in definitely was better than what the governor had proposed. And it was better than what we passed out of the House,” said Rep. Erica Crawley, D-Columbus. “But public transportation overall is still underfunded.”

Six years ago, the Ohio Department of Transportation projected that in order to meet all budget needs for transit, including capital costs, the state should provide $185 million in annual funding per year by 2025. The new budget’s $70 million annual funding is roughly three-eighths of that projected funding need. ODOT’s figures have not been updated to reflect impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Put another way, $70 million per year is less than 2% of the overall $8.3 billion transportation package signed into law last month. Ohio spends roughly $6 per person on public transit, compared to a  national statewide average of nearly $60 per capita.

In contrast, the state will spend $75 million for one five-year project to reconstruct 2.5 miles of Interstate 70 through the city of Zanesville, where U.S. Rep. Troy Balderson lives. He previously chaired the Ohio Senate’s Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

Even as more Ohioans get COVID-19 vaccines, transit ridership may remain below desired levels. Credit: Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority / Courtesy

A matter of equity

Funding for public transit “goes directly to health and social equity,” Crawley said. Almost a quarter of Ohio households headed by Black women don’t own a car, compared to just one-twelfth of Ohioans overall, she noted.

“Economic sustainability says that people need to be able to have effective transportation to get to and from their jobs,” Fields said. Yet companies’ movement from downtown areas to outer-ring suburbs has created a mismatch between employers’ needs and workers’ ability to get to jobs.

A 2015 analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland found that half of the region’s top-10 employment centers were accessible to just 15% or less of the regional workforce. And only one-third of the jobs in the region could be reached by public transit in 90 minutes or less.

The Greater Cleveland RTA is exploring a pilot program, Connect Works, to partner with other transportation providers, such as ride-share or van services to give riders first- and last-mile options for shortening their commute, Fields said. In the longer term, some new or shifted routes may also be necessary.

“We know for sure we have a population of folks that must take our service, and we need to be creative and safe in how we make those mobility connections,” Fields said. All of that will cost money.

“When we have underserved communities, they’re cut off from opportunities and have barriers that other people don’t have to worry about,” Crawley said — increasing the wealth gap and worsening health disparities.

In 2019, the top 10% of American families owned 76% of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom half owned just 1%, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis reported in December. That same year, the typical White family had eight times as much wealth as the typical Black family and almost five times as much as the typical Hispanic family.

Lack of good public transportation harms people’s quality of life even beyond access to jobs, Crawley said. Among other things, families in urban low-income neighborhoods often live in food deserts — areas without supermarkets offering a variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, lean meats and fish at affordable prices.

Rural public transit programs also face challenges coming out of the pandemic. “In rural areas, people actually have to drive more” to get to jobs, food markets, healthcare and other basic services, Woodrum said.

Amrhein, of the Portage transit agency, told lawmakers that large parts of its service area lack fixed route service and instead provide pre-scheduled shared-ride service. “Since March 2020, 80% of our door-to-door trips have been dedicated to taking our most vulnerable populations — elderly and disabled and those without access to a vehicle or unable to drive — to life-sustaining dialysis treatments, medical appointments, jobs, and basic living necessities,” she said.

Indeed, hospitals in some rural areas have closed, making it harder for people without access to cars to get healthcare. Appalachian Ohio’s counties have above-average poverty rates compared to the rest of the state and are particularly hard hit by the opioid crisis, which has worsened during the pandemic. Substance abuse prevents many people from driving lawfully, yet they still need treatment, Woodrum noted.

In short, whether it’s rural or urban, “transportation is critical,” Woodrum said. “It’s how we need to get where we need to go when we need to get there, whether it’s school, work, the doctor’s office or the grocery store.”

Correction: This article has been updated to correct the name of the Cleveland pilot program: Connect Works.

Kathiann M. Kowalski

Kathi is the author of 25 books and more than 600 articles, and writes often on science and policy issues. In addition to her journalism career, Kathi is an alumna of Harvard Law School and has spent 15 years practicing law. She is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. Kathi covers the state of Ohio.