Could a County Sales Tax Increase Save the RTA? One Board Member Thinks So.

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Newburgh Heights Mayor Trevor Elkins gripped the mic at Antioch Baptist Church in Fairfax. Elkins is the newest member of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA) board of trustees and he was representing that body at a Clevelanders for Public Transit Meeting Thursday evening. 

Elkins' remarks came after RTA CEO Joe Calabrese was pressed on specific transportation issues in front of a crowd incensed by the recent board vote to raise fares and cut routes.

Calabrese agreed to join the Cuyahoga County Council on a transit advisory committee, pledged to continue working toward greater transparency, and (when asked if he'd aggressively seek local funding to prevent fare hikes in 2018, and even roll back the current fare hikes and service cuts), deferred to the board of trustees, but said he spends every day "trying to best allocate resources." 

Elkins was perhaps a non-representative sample of the RTA Board. Though he commended the compassion and commitment of his colleagues, they all voted in favor of the fare hike and service cuts on June 7. Elkins didn't. He proposed a sunset clause that he said would put the responsibility of finding a long-term sustainable funding source back in the hands of the RTA and its board. In Elkins' proposal, when funding was found, fare hikes would be discontinued.

But the suggestion was dismissed out of hand on June 7. South Euclid Mayor Georgine Welo, another board member, called such a clause irresponsible.

On Thursday, Elkins first addressed another issue. Though he said he couldn't speak for his colleagues, he said he had no problem hosting board meetings in the evening once a quarter to accommodate the public who'd like to attend board meetings but can't usually make the 9 a.m. start times because of work. This announcement was greeted with applause.

Elkins then dove back into the idea of local funding.

"The state is not coming to rescue the RTA," he said. "Keep that in the mind when you're in the voting booth, because elections matter. Ask your candidates their views on public transit. Because in the end, public transit is good across the spectrum of society."

Elkins suggested that the big alternative to a fare hike that no one particularly likes to mention — certainly not county council — is a sales tax increase.

"The sales tax for public transit has not been increased since 1975," Elkins told the crowd. "A quarter percent increase would generate $62 million for public transit countywide. It would essentially solve all the issues that we're now experiencing. We could expand routes. What's the old expression? Build it and they will come? We did it with Jacob's Field. We did it with the Q. We did it with FirstEnergy Stadium. Well, let's do it with our public transit system."

Elkins, who told Scene that he sought election to the RTA Board because he wanted to see ridership increase, also vehemently opposed the Sin Tax in 2014. He was the lone dissenting vote when the Mayors and City Managers Association voted to endorse the Sin Tax at that time. Elkins also opposed the sales tax increase for the Convention Center Complex.

"And this is why," Elkins told Scene, referencing the RTA's funding crisis. "We have foundational economic infrastructure going ignored in this county. When we start using taxpayer dollars to pay for the shiny stuff, it makes it that much harder to go back to the voters to pay for basic economic necessities."  

Clevelanders for Public Transit meeting at Antioch Baptist Church. - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
  • Clevelanders for Public Transit meeting at Antioch Baptist Church.
Clevelanders for Public Transit member Akshai Singh leads the gathered crowd in chants of "Fix it! Fund it! Make it fair!" - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
  • Clevelanders for Public Transit member Akshai Singh leads the gathered crowd in chants of "Fix it! Fund it! Make it fair!"
RTA CEO Joe Calabrese under the gun. - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
  • RTA CEO Joe Calabrese under the gun.
RTA board member Trevor Elkins, talking sense. - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
  • RTA board member Trevor Elkins, talking sense.

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