In the next few years, the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA) may be compelled to shut down one or all of its three rail lines just as millennials and real estate developers are repopulating city neighborhoods and making rail more cost-effective here. That bright future may be derailed by multiple factors converging at the same time.
On Oct. 5, 1975, GCRTA began bus and rail operations funded mostly by a countywide 1-cent sales tax. It funded the merger and rebuilding of 10 decayed municipally owned transit networks including the Cleveland Transit System and the Shaker Heights Rapid Transit. But what passed for “regional transit” 40 years ago doesn’t today. In the 21st century, “regional” means multi-county as more of Greater Cleveland’s commuting patterns extend beyond the county line.
Worse, more of Cuyahoga County’s tax base has bled into surrounding counties as well, meaning a steep reduction in GCRTA funding. The reason is the cultivation of GCRTA funding ends at the county line. Services and ridership have suffered as a result. In 1970, Cuyahoga County had 1.8 million people. In 2010, it fell to under 1.3 million. Cuyahoga’s population continues to fall faster (-20,294 residents) than any other county in the nation except Wayne County (Detroit). The six-county Greater Cleveland-Akron metro area’s population has remained stuck at 2.9 million people for 50 years. This no-growth sprawl means fewer people are buying things in Cuyahoga County which means less sales tax revenue for GCRTA.
In most major cities in the USA, roughly one-third of transit agency revenues come from fares, one-third comes from a local tax and another one-third comes from the state. GCRTA gets no money from the state, despite the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) identifying GCRTA’s rail capital requirements as a critical need in a recent ODOT report to the legislature. Gov. John Kasich and the Ohio General Assembly have failed to lead on this important economic development jobs-access issue affecting more than 1 million Ohioans.
So GCRTA’s eroding countywide sales tax has to provide two-thirds of transit agency operating revenues. Less population also means GCRTA is eligible for less federal construction money. It has depended on state-of-good-repair federal grants that aided legacy rail cities like Cleveland but must now compete with more cities that built rail systems since the 1970s; those systems need repairs too. Absent a new funding source, that means GCRTA must shrink its system to stay within its shrinking budget.
From 2006-2012 (the most recent year for which data is available), GCRTA cut 40 percent of its bus revenue-miles – the most of any big-city transit agency. Revenue-miles measure the total number of buses in regular service multiplied by the miles of route served. GCRTA kept its rider losses to only 20 percent in part by truncating suburb-to-downtown bus routes at outlying rail stations to facilitate transfers rather than running buses all the way downtown.
The reason why GCRTA didn’t cut rail services during the recession is because it can’t without incurring even larger costs. In the past 20 years, GCRTA has received more than $100 million in federal matching funds to rebuild stations, tracks, bridges, rail cars, electrical systems and other infrastructure GCRTA owns and for which it is solely responsible. If GCRTA terminates rail service, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) will demand GCRTA supply it with a plan to restore rail service or GCRTA must refund 20 years of federal capital money it received for that rail service.
As much as GCRTA has invested in its rail system, there are still sections of it that are as old as 100 years and need to be modernized to be more cost-efficient and reliable. Two of the most critical modernizations were put on hold simply because GCRTA couldn’t afford them: Tower City Center station tracks and the trains themselves.
All GCRTA rail lines – hosting 200 daily trains and carrying 40,000 people on a typical weekday – funnel through Tower City station on Public Square. Without the trains, GCRTA would need to operate 1,000 additional bus trips a day. Twenty percent of GCRTA’s riders use Cleveland’s three-route rail system. The other riders are spread across 60 bus routes including the HealthLine and Cleveland State Line bus rapid transit. To absorb the rail system’s riders would require GCRTA to borrow spare buses from most cities east of the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean. It would be like Cleveland hosting the Republican National Convention every single day.
“The Tower City rail station keeps me up at night,” said GCRTA General Manager and CEO Joe Calabrese at the Sept. 26 Rail Users Network (RUN) conference in Cleveland.
And rightly so. The base supporting GCRTA tracks through Tower City station is 25 years old. But the drainage systems date from the 1920s when the surrounding Cleveland Union Terminal complex was built. When it was rebuilt as Tower City in 1990, the station’s drainage conduits were cleaned but not replaced. They can no longer be ignored but GCRTA has only one-third of the $25 million total it needs to replace its tracks and sub-grade beneath them. Several times in the last two winters, Tower City station had to be shut down due to flooding and “frozen waterfalls” blocking trains. The chaos that resulted was a nightmare as many commuters waited hours for substitute buses in the bitter cold.
With regards to trains, all rail lines that depend on the Breda light-rail cars (Green and Blue lines to Shaker Heights plus their Waterfront extension) are at risk of shutdown in the coming years. The reason is that the Breda cars are 35 years old and are decaying quickly. These cars were rebuilt in 2005-6 to extend their useful lives for another 15 years and that clock is running out. The more durable, 30-year-old Tokyu cars used on the heavy-rail Red Line are being rebuilt now. The heavy-rail Tokyu cars will last longer than the Breda cars but can’t take the tight curves and serve the low-platform stations on the light-rail lines. GCRTA needs to acquire a new rail car fleet, proposed to be standardized cars that can operate on all rail lines. Cost of replacing the aging 108-car rail fleet with about 45 cars is about $280 million. Unfortunately, GCRTA doesn’t have anywhere near the necessary $140 million in local and state funds to leverage a $140 million matching federal grant to acquire the new, more efficient and reliable trains.
Because the Breda cars are fading fast, Calabrese said at the RUN conference last week he may have to shut down rail lines if rail cars are unavailable. Even if enough substitute buses can be found, the rail shutdowns will result in much longer waiting and commuting times. Blue/Green line trains travel into the central city faster than driving (and much faster than buses) during rush hours. The shutdowns may continue sporadically for years until GCRTA can find enough local/state funding to leverage a federal grant to acquire the new rail cars. It takes 3-6 years to procure and build new rail cars. None can be bought off a showroom floor.
Sadly, all of this is happening as real estate development around Cleveland-area transit stations is booming. Millennials are using transit to embrace an urban lifestyle. So are their Baby Boom parents who are using transit more as many have downsized, moved into urban settings and are living low-mileage lifestyles. Red Line ridership is at its highest level in 30 years thanks to the resurgence of neighborhoods near rail stations like Ohio City, Gordon Square, Tremont, Tower City, University Circle and Little Italy.
Similar development is occurring on the Blue and Green lines with the Van Aken District at the Blue Line’s Warrensville station becoming Shaker Heights’ downtown. At the other end of the Blue/Green lines is the Flats East Bank whose developers are seeking a partnership with GCRTA to transport more workers and patrons when Phase 3 gets underway on a large parking lot. With this partnership, GCRTA is considering 24-hour Waterfront Line service. Construction of a multi-modal hub for Greyhound, Amtrak and inter-county transit services near North Coast Harbor will also bring more ridership.
All Aboard Ohio in 2014 inventoried $5.5 billion worth of real estate developments within 2,000 feet of Cleveland-area rail/BRT stations. More large transit-supportive developments were announced shortly after this inventory was released. Despite relying on aging trains and rail infrastructure, or that post-recession transit-supportive real estate developments were just getting underway, GCRTA’s rail system is already more cost-effective than regular route buses, according to the National Transit Database.
The operating cost for GCRTA to accommodate an unlinked passenger trip is:
- $4.46 for a regular route bus,
- $4.37 for a Red Line (heavy-rail) train, and
- $4.04 for Blue/Green line (light-rail) train.
Greater Cleveland is at a critical time. The amount of walkable redevelopment occurring near rail stations is a remarkable opportunity to revitalize some of Cuyahoga County’s most economically challenged neighborhoods and return population and vitality to the urban core without increasing traffic or pollution. To continue this progress means investing in GCRTA’s rail system, including key extensions like the Red Line to Euclid. Greater Cleveland can’t afford to refuse federal transportation dollars that will bring jobs into low-income neighborhoods, improve access to jobs in Euclid and University Circle, and reduce traffic by 75,000 vehicle-miles traveled every day. These benefits come with a price tag, but the community benefits exceed the costs.
By locating more housing, employment, shopping, education and health care within close proximity of rail stations will make GCRTA’s trains a centerpiece of a lifestyle that can be independent of cars. It’s a lifestyle that frees up more household income to be spent on housing, food, entertainment, education, health care and other sectors of the local economy. Greater Cleveland cannot afford to lose its big-city rail asset while it vies for residents, especially among young talent who represent the future of every city.