Part One of our series on challenges and opportunities of re-envisioning Northeast Ohio transit
In five years or possibly less, east-siders in Greater Cleveland will be riding substitute buses to work, school or medical appointments. Their trips will take two to three times longer than the trains they used to ride. And they will ride through Shaker Heights and Cleveland next to tracks of the Blue and Green lines rusted from disuse despite tens of millions of dollars (including federal funds) spent to keep tracks, stations and other infrastructure in a state of good repair.
Those needed repairs were the ones the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA) could afford to make. But there is another expenditure RTA can’t afford.
If you regularly ride past the Brookpark rapid transit shops on Red Line trains into Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, you will notice a number of railcars sitting in the yard looking forlorn. This isn’t a repair shop. It has become the final destination for cars in RTA’s aging rail fleet. There, usable parts are cannibalized from these out-of-service trains to keep the rest of the fleet operational because parts for the trains are no longer available from their original suppliers.
The trains are now considered obsolete and the manufacturers stopped making parts for them several years ago. The economic life expectancy of railcars is about 25 years. RTA did an overhaul on some select railcars about 10 years ago extending their life to 35 years. The average age of the fleet is 33 years old with the Shaker rapid cars now over 35 years old. Once the most-decayed railcars are picked clean of anything usable, they are scrapped.
What railcars are replacing them? None. How much funding has been set aside for replacing them? None. What funding has the State of Ohio offered to this and other big-city transit needs? None. At the rate the aging rail fleet is failing, by 2020 there won’t be enough railcars left to operate a full schedule on the Blue and Green lines between Shaker Heights and downtown Cleveland. One or more of these rail lines will be unable to operate a full schedule and would have to be shut down and operated by replacement buses.
Worse, there’s nothing that anyone can do to avoid this. The only question left to resolve now is “how long would a rail shutdown last?”
It has been estimated that it would take approximately $280 million to replace the entire rail fleet with a new type of railcar capable of operating on all RTA rail lines in Cleveland. This is in addition to a reported $254 million gap in capital program funding needed to bring RTA bus and rail equipment and facilities up to a state of good repair. RTA cannot buy railcars until it has the money to pay for them. At about $5 million per car, RTA cannot afford replacement railcars. And once RTA finds the funding to buy railcars, it takes several more years for trains to be ordered, designed, built, delivered, tested and put into revenue service.
RTA’s railcar repair shop is the Central Rail Facility at East 55th Street. That’s where trains are stored between runs, inspected and repaired. It’s also where the 60 heavy-rail cars built by Tokyu in 1984-85 are being overhauled now. Actually, only 40 of the best remaining Tokyu-built cars are being overhauled for Red Line (Airport-Windermere) service. The rest are being scrapped and cannibalized for spare parts as no one makes parts for RTA’s trains anymore. But the Red Line trains should be able to keep running past 2025. That’s not far off.
The bigger crisis is on the Blue/Green lines. In 1980-81, 48 light-rail cars were built for RTA by Breda and refurbished in 2005 for Blue/Green Line (Waterfront-Shaker/Van Aken) service. These cars are falling apart. Unlike the Red Line’s more durable stainless-steel bodies, these trains use regular steel that’s getting brittle with age. Their air conditioning systems rely on Freon that will be illegal to use starting next year.
But only half of the original roster of light-rail cars remains available for service today and that number keeps dropping as more cars take the final trip to Brookpark. At the current rate of railcar attrition, RTA won’t be able to offer a minimum number of trains for regular service on one or both of the Blue/Green lines between Shaker Heights and downtown Cleveland by 2020.
That doesn’t include winter-induced shutdowns. The last two winters have been very hard on RTA’s elderly trains and their outdated, fixed-contact overhead electric wires that broke in the extreme cold. Substitute buses were often operated. This is the unavoidable, every-day future.
RTA needs 14 light-rail cars to run a rush-hour schedule on the Blue/Green lines. More are needed for special events like Cleveland Browns games or St. Patrick’s Day. And there are always a few extra cars in the rotation, cycling through Central Rail for routine maintenance and inspection. As these cars age further, a greater share of the remaining fleet will be off-line to visit Central Rail for maintenance and repairs.
More railcars will continue to head west to Brookpark until sometime before 2020 when buses are ultimately substituted for the Blue/Green lines every day. The trains on these lines take about 25 minutes to travel between the Shaker Heights and downtown Cleveland. During rush hours, substitute bus trips will take two to three times longer.
RTA lacks enough local matching money to leverage federal grant dollars. The sales tax revenue is no longer generating enough local funding to support the capital replacement of an aging infrastructure and maintain the levels of service the community expects and demands.
And even if RTA acted today to increase its fares by 50 cents a trip to come up with a with additional local capital funding to match the federal 50 percent share, it can’t use that local money to leverage any federal dollars until 2019. RTA has tapped out its eligible 4-year pot of federal formula funding (called State-of-Good Repair funds) to pay for smaller, more affordable bus and rail state-of-good-repair projects systemwide. This money is being used to improve stations, tracks, bridges, signals and electrical systems. Without them, the rail system shuts down too.
Forget about expanding or restructuring the transit system so people can reach jobs in more distant suburban areas including those in adjoining counties. Or to protect University Circle from choking in traffic. Or to ease congestion on highways like I-480. Expansion can’t be afforded when there’s not enough money for the existing system. But as business author Peter Drucker wrote: “If you’re not growing, you’re dying.”
A new vision for public transportation in Greater Cleveland is needed, and it’s going to cost more money. The local share could be as much $100 million per year.
Greater Clevelanders, including those at RTA, are waking up to this fact. RTA in 1975 was blessed with a permanent 1-percent countywide ad valorem sales tax to fund all of its needs in perpetuity. It lulled many of us to sleep.
But a lot has changed since 1975. Employers and commuting patterns have expanded beyond Cuyahoga County and with them, population. Cuyahoga County had 1.8 million people in 1970. Today it has 1.3 million yet Greater Cleveland’s overall population has stayed flat at 2.1 million.
Those changes mean fewer riders for RTA, as ridership has fallen from 120 million in 1980 to 50 million today. Yet that’s still more than the transit ridership in Columbus, Cincinnati and Dayton – combined.
No-growth urban sprawl also means fewer people are buying stuff in Cuyahoga County which means fewer sales tax dollars for RTA. That means RTA is shrinking when it should be growing and reaching out to new ridership sources. All of those criteria determine how much federal formula funds RTA can receive every four years. So that amount is decreasing, too.
That’s why multi-county transit expansion is as important as state-of-good-repair. So is the fact that more than one-third of all passengers using RTA’s suburban park-n-ride services live outside Cuyahoga County.
Few seem to believe the inevitable shutdown will occur. Many believe RTA is just making a threat or that, if real, a financial savior will emerge. But RTA doesn’t even have its own funding share to attract a savior.
Greater Clevelanders won’t be served if RTA is fixed by a temporary patch. It needs significant change. It needs to partner with or merge with transit agencies in surrounding counties. RTA needs several billion dollars over the next decade to rebuild, restructure and expand to get more Greater Clevelanders to jobs, school, and health care over a larger service area.
It needs to be part of regional development strategies that place more jobs, housing, shopping and education next to existing transit stops to increase access to opportunities. And we need reduce Greater Cleveland’s contribution to climate change. RTA and its collar-county transit partners can and should play a bigger role to help the region grow into more attractive place to live, learn, work and play.
But first it must replace aging infrastructure and procure a new railcar fleet. The coming rail shutdown should serve to galvanize support in Greater Cleveland for a new, constructive vision and funding mechanism for our region’s transportation system. All Aboard Ohio will take the lead in educating, activating and organizing stakeholders into a cohesive productive voice. Watch for details or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. After all, a problem is an opportunity dressed in work clothes. So join us and let’s get to work.