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Transit: You Can’t Work if You Can’t Get There

President Obama’s speech in Lorain County, OH on Friday gives us a good excuse to examine more than just jobs in this Cleveland suburb.  Obama alluded to one obstacle---and a key to his jobs agenda--that went overlooked in most media coverage: “You can't get to work or go buy groceries like you used to because of cuts in the county transit system.”

Last November, voters in Lorain rejected a sales tax hike  from 6.25 to 6.75 percent. For transit riders there the result was that, effective January 18,  Lorain County Transit (LCT) eliminated 8 of its 12 bus routesand increased fares from $2.05 to $2.20, with buses running only once every two hoursThe fare hike itself was a hit for the 12.5 percent of the county population that lives below the poverty line (i.e. $21,834 for a family of four).  Indeed, when the vote went down in November, Lorain County Administrator Jim Cordes remarked, “Unfortunately, the people it affects are the people who have no other options.”

Public transportation, particularly in a recession, is a lifeline for the unemployed and under-employed. Over the decade, the Cleveland region experienced one of the largest increases in its suburban poor, representative of the general uptick in suburban poverty nationally.  As more poor and more unemployed are found in America’s suburbs, public transit becomes even more critical to connect 1) people to payrolls and 2) students to skills.

First jobs--if you can’t get to them, well, they are not any more likely to find you.  Lorain County experienced the highest increase in unemployment of any Cleveland suburb since 2000. Yet in 2008, only about 9 percent of job creation in the Cleveland metropolitan area in 2008 occurred in Lorain County itself, while about 72 percent of jobs were created in neighboring Cuyahoga.

Second to jobseekers is another population left in the lurch: students--many of whom are community college students trying to rev up for the new economy. About 10 percent of students at Lorain Community College use transit.

Not surprisingly, talk of a cross-county partnership between LCT and its eastern neighbor, the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) of Cuyahoga County, is gaining traction. (Unfortunately, the RTA isn’t in a much better situation, funded from a fixed 1 percent of sales tax with revenues in decline).  

Long story short, eliminating public transit may be a wake-up call that puts the Cleveland region on the road to smarter metropolitan cooperation. This will mean better access to jobs, training programs and education for the people who need it most. I just wish it didn’t take a recession to get us on the right path.