Ohioans deserve and demand transportation choices

The Ohio state legislature is in the midst of debating Governor Kasich's proposed $6.1 billion budget for transportation. Unfortunately, the budget is heavily tilted towards road funding, with a little more than 1 percent slated for public transportation. This is disappointing considering that roughly 9 percent of Ohio households have no vehicle, according to Census figures. Moreover, vehicle-miles-traveled is down in Ohio and across the country -- and this downward trend is likely to continue as our aging Baby Boomers drive less and fewer Millennials are even bothering to get a driver's license. Yet transit ridership continues to grow to the highest levels since 1957.

Fortunately, a diverse coalition of groups in Ohio is pushing for passage of legislation that would boost transit funding. The coalition is calling for transit to get its fair share by ramping up  "transportation choices" funding to 10% of the state's transportation budget by 2020. As a first step, the bill currently under consideration would set aside at least $75 million each year in funding for FY 2014 and FY 2015 from Ohio's multi-billion dollar transportation budget into a designated fund for public transit, as well as for walking and biking.

[UPDATE: The coalition is pushing hard to advance it's pro-transit agenda, as evidenced by this article, this great blog, and this editorial by the Toledo Blade]

By investing to increase Ohio's transportation choices, the state would reduce its economic vulnerability to oil, while promoting jobs, improving public health, and providing affordable transportation options.  

In testimony before a House subcommittee earlier this week, Jack Shaner with the Ohio Environmental Council, made a compelling case for the bill. He noted, for instance, that transportation is the second largest expense for most households after housing. In fact, households living in auto-dependent locations spend 25% of their income on transportation costs. Housing that is located closer to employment, shopping, restaurants and other amenities can reduce household transportation costs to 9 percent of household income. Living in a location where only one car per home is needed can reduce total costs to 50 percent of income or less with the following benefits:

  • Transit users in cities with robust transit systems can save up to $10,230 per year by taking transit rather than owning a vehicle.
  • While 69 percent of communities are affordable under the conventional definition (housing costs < 30 percent of income), only 39 percent are affordable using a comprehensive definition (combined housing and transportation costs < 45 percent of income).
  • In a nationwide study comparing 18 communities, housing in mixed‐used‐neighborhoods performed better than conventional development in resale value comparisons and had a higher price per square foot indicating a higher value for these homes overall.

"Smart transportation policy and convenient public transit can help people save money, build wealth, and enjoy a higher quality of life," said Shaner.

Yet highway funding overwhelming dominates the governor's transportation budget while public transportation funding languishes.

Road-building proponents might argue that the political bias toward highway funding is a reflection of public will. That is not the case. In fact, last summer NRDC conducted focus groups in Ohio and followed that with a public opinion survey which found that Ohioans  were nearly three times as likely to favor investing in public transportation over building new roads as a solution to worsening traffic congestion. Specific findings included: 

  • 68 percent of Ohio respondents said improving public transportation (35 percent) and developing communities where people don’t have to drive as much (33 percent) are the best “long term solutions to reducing traffic” in their area. In contrast, only 21 percent favored building roads;
  • 52 percent said they have no alternative but to drive while 44 percent regarded the nation’s transportation infrastructure as ``outdated, unreliable and inefficient”;
  • 43 percent said they would prefer to use public transportation if it were more convenient; and
  • 76 percent support increased local government spending to expand public transportation options.

NRDC's poll shows a strong preference for more public transportation choices and that Ohioans are willing to put their money where their mouth is by backing increased spending to expand and enhance public transit in particular.

On that note, it's worth highlighting a key point gleaned from our focus groups. We found out that most people over-estimate what their state spends on public transportation. The average amount among those offering an opinion was 16 percent of their state’s transportation budget. When asked what amount they thought should go toward funding public transportation, the average amount suggested was a whopping 28 percent. In reality, the average percentage of transportation money – state plus federal – spent on transit over the past three years was 6.6 percent per state. As noted above, Ohio spends about 1 percent of its state transportation dollars on public transportation -- with the rest dedicated to maintaining and building new roads.

It is long past time for the Buckeye State to use more bucks for transit. Doubling its current outlay to $75 million would mark modest progress on the road to providing the people of Ohio more transportation choices.

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