That ‘Cleveland rail shutdown’ looks more likely by the day

red line winter

The aging infrastructure and rail cars on GCRTA’s Red Line have struggled to cope with the past two brutal winters in Cleveland (courtesy of YouTube).

WCPN has a story today from Nick Castele on the untenable fiscal position in which the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA) finds itself. All Aboard Ohio, the rail advocacy organization, recently ran a post arguing that GCRTA’s rail cars are rapidly approaching the end of their useful life, and the system faces an “unavoidable” rail shutdown sometime after 2020 without a substantial infusion of capital.

Castele interviewed GCRTA’s General Manager Joe Calabrese, who confirmed much of All Abroad Ohio’s account, though the agency has sought to downplay the hysteria around the issue. According to Calabrese, GCRTA needs to raise $280 million in capital funds by 2025 to replace 65-70 of its aging rail cars. He emphasized that GCRTA “can’t get there alone. It’s going to take a more major investment.”

What Calabrese failed to discuss is what happens if that influx of funding doesn’t materialize. As I have discussed on a number of occasions, I’m not sure it would be possible for the State of Ohio to care less about public transit if it tried. The state provided just $7.3 million in general funds for transit in its latest budget, down 83.5% from 2000. So, at that rate, Ohio won’t scrape together $280 million for all transit funding throughout the entire state for another 38.4 years.

But that obviously doesn’t accurately reflect the state funding actually coming GCRTA’s way. In recent years, the state has broken transit funding into four main tranches: the Urban Transit Program, the Rural Transit Program, the Elderly and Disabled Transit Fare Assistance Program (E&D), and coordination grants (which it eliminated in 2009). Because Northeast Ohio is an urbanized area with a population well over 50,000, GCRTA receives funding from the Urban Transit Program. Given that it is the largest transit agency in the state, it receives the biggest chunk of urban transit funding (18%) each year. The agency used to receive E&D funding ($2.8 million per year in 2008-2009), but the state eliminated that funding for urban areas in 2009, reallocating it to rural agencies.

ohio transit funding 2000-2014

Transit funding, by program, from the Ohio Department of Transportation from 2000-2014 (courtesy of ODOT).

The only problem is that urban transit funding has evaporated in Ohio. For fiscal year 2016, GCRTA will receive $1,360,080 in funding through this program. If the agency devoted every penny of this allocation to procuring new rail cars, it would only take 206 years for it to save up $280 million. But, once again, this actually exaggerates Ohio’s support, as it includes federal funds. Urban transit funding from the state has, quite literally, fallen off a cliff since 2001. Whereas the 2000-2001 budget provided nearly $30 million in total funding for urban transit operators, that funding was halved in 2002 and has continued to dwindle to just $1.4 million by 2014. Given that GCRTA gets 18% of this funding, the state is really providing roughly $252,000 of its budget to fund transit in Northeast Ohio. Accordingly, if we wanted Ohio to foot the bill for this, GCRTA could expect to get its new rail cars running sometime in the year 3126.

It still seems a bit hyperbolic to claim that GCRTA’s light and heavy rail lines will inevitably shut down next decade. But, unless something changes dramatically at the Statehouse, the odds of that outcome increase each day.

  • My comment on this is blaming the state: yes. But also, regional leaders in NE Ohio deserve blame. Because NE Ohio has gotten money from the state for transportation projects when we’ve asked for it. We got $10 million for a pedestrian bridge (Thanks, GCP!) and we got $260 some million for the Opportunity Corridor, plus another huge boatload for two innerbelt bridges. Our leaders, the real power brokers, haven’t pushed for this because they don’t care. Incredibly shortsighted and irresponsible. More than 30,000 rides a day on this rail system. Even though we don’t appreciate it, it is a gem.

    • Tim

      Obviously the state wouldn’t fully fund the replacement rail cars, even if it provided an adequate level of funding on par with, say Illinois or Michigan, because there would probably be a federal share and there would likely need to be a local match. But your point is well taken, as there have been recent instances in which the state stepped in to provide additional support to GCRTA to help fill funding gaps, even as the overall level of general revenue funding continued to decline. For instance, GCRTA notes that the state doled out one-time grants during the height of the Great Recession in 2009 to help fill its funding gaps. Those dried up as the impact of the Recession dissipated, but there is precedent there for the state to help step in. That said, the change in administration affects that as well.

  • Cleveland Streetcar

    The rail system will shut down. Why? It will take 5 years just to prepare the bid Specs for the new fleet, those specs haven’t even begun to be drawn, yet we need new car by 2020. we have already passed that red line. Only thing we can hope for is mild winter.

    • EatRighteous

      Took the red line last night and trains were only running 35 minute frequency instead of 15 minutes- had to single track around a broken train at Cedar-University.. it’s not just winter unfortunately… And the red line cars are supposed to last another 10 years.

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  • Aww, come-on, those old transit cars will last another 25 years if they have to. Anyone besides me old-enough to remember the old Shaker Rapid cars that ran for almost 50 years? I used to ride on these cars back in the 1970s and 1980s back when they were falling apart and full of rattles, with windows that wouldn’t close and ripped-up upholstery, covered in a thick layer of dust.

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