Vision: restructure, rebuild & expand NEO transit

Part Two of our series on challenges and opportunities of re-envisioning Northeast Ohio transit

Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority General Manager Joe Calabrese, right, tours US Vice President Joe Biden and Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson of GCRTA's Central Rail Facility, noting that its aging rail fleet needs replacement. That is but a small part of the overall public transportation challenges facing Northeast Ohio that All Aboard Ohio believes warrants a new transit vision for the region.

Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA) General Manager Joe Calabrese, right, tours US Vice President Joe Biden and Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson through GCRTA’s Central Rail Facility in 2014, emphasizing to them that its aging rail fleet needs replacement. That is but a small part of the overall public transportation challenges facing Northeast Ohio that All Aboard Ohio believes warrants a new transit vision and significant new funding for the region’s transportation and jobs-access needs. (Photo courtesy of GCRTA)

Northeast Ohioans care about their region and its quality of life. They care about it so much that All Aboard Ohio is willing to bet they’ll come together to take a hard look at everything involving the region’s public transportation offerings. Everything should be on the table — its purpose, goals, organization, service delivery and of course, funding — across the multi-county region.

Roughly every 40 years, public transportation in Greater Cleveland has been substantially reformed.  In 1903, two major streetcar companies were merged into the Cleveland Railway Co. In 1941, the Cleveland Railway Co. was acquired by the city of Cleveland and renamed the Cleveland Transit System (CTS). In 1975, CTS, the Shaker Heights Rapid Transit, and several suburban bus service providers were merged into the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA).

It’s time to reform public transportation again, but not merely because GCRTA was founded 40 years ago. Rather, a lot has changed in Greater Cleveland since 1975. Back then, “regional” in Greater Cleveland was considered multi-city within Cuyahoga County. Today, “regional” is multi-county.

Furthermore, in 1975, GCRTA was set up as a countywide service to be funded by a 1-cent countywide sales tax. Back then, Cuyahoga County had nearly 1.8 million residents in a metro area of 2.2 million people. Today, the metro area’s population hasn’t changed, yet Cuyahoga County’s population has fallen to 1.3 million and continues to fall. With that, sales tax revenues to GCRTA have also fallen — yet GCRTA relies on its county sales tax for 70 percent of its revenue. This is because state funding has fallen to where GCRTA gets little or nothing from Ohio. And as population, ridership and extent of services in GCRTA’s service area that is confined to within Cuyahoga County have declined, so has GCRTA’s ability to tap federal state-of-good-repair funds.

This has hurt the quality of life in Greater Cleveland. Consider:

“Public transportation needs are very different today than they were 40 years ago when RTA was created,” said All Aboard Ohio Executive Director Ken Prendergast. “Yet the organizational, funding and service-delivery models for public transportation in Cuyahoga and its surrounding counties have not significantly changed in that time. The result is that Northeast Ohioans who could reach jobs and improve the quality of their lives with transit end up falling below the poverty line because they either cannot reach jobs placed beyond the reach of the transit system or because they must use cars they cannot afford in order to reach low-wage jobs.”

GCRTA and other Northeast Ohio transit agencies are left to fight a growing backlog of state-of-good-repair needs. Expansion of transit routes and services to reduce transportation costs for many households often can’t be afforded. Sponsorship of transit-oriented development to bring jobs and housing next to existing and future transit stations to instigate economic growth cannot be aggressively pursued. Meanwhile, commuting in Greater Cleveland has become increasingly multi-county and at times outside of the traditional 9-to-5 job, requiring longer, faster, single-seat transit trips at times other than the usual rush hours. Yet the transit system is still designed very much like the streetcar systems of the early 20th century. Consider:

  • GCRTA has a $338 million capital improvement budget for the next five years. But it has nearly $600 million in immediate state-of-good repair and expansion needs.
  • That doesn’t include $280 million for replacing GCRTA’s 30- to 35-year-old rail cars on three routes that carry 20 percent of ridership on GCRTA’s overall 60-route transit network.
  • Nor does it include capital improvements that could make the rail system operate more cost-effectively, like replacing high-maintenance 80-year-old overhead catenary infrastructure that provides electricity to trains or generating electricity from renewable sources.
  • Nor does it include extending the Red Line to the city Euclid or rerouting one of Shaker Heights’ rapid transit lines to serve University Circle instead of downtown. Both of these would restructure the rail system to better reach more suburban jobs and reduce traffic congestion in University Circle, which is now the top destination in Cleveland for eastern suburban commuters.
  • Despite the dispersal of jobs, GCRTA’s bus and rail network remains a radial system with Public Square in downtown as its principal hub. More transit systems like Portland and Los Angeles are redesigning their networks into grids.
  • More than one-third of all passengers on GCRTA’s suburban park-n-ride bus services come from outside Cuyahoga County.
  • GCRTA and Northeast Ohio “collar county” transit services are operated independently with little through service or “reverse-commute” buses that provide seamless transportation between counties.
  • Lorain, Geauga and Medina counties have no dedicated public transportation taxes and few if any regular route bus services within or between counties to reach their growing employment opportunities.
  • Transit offered by Laketran, Akron Metro Regional Transit Authority, Portage Area Regional Transit Authority (PARTA) and Stark Area Regional Transit Authority (SARTA) work well within their county-based service areas but need to provide more seamless, faster, inter-county services.

All Aboard Ohio believes that Northeast Ohio needs a new public transportation vision and significant new funding to realize it — perhaps as much as $100 million per year in new local funding. It may also require new organizational and service delivery models to serve as the region’s new caretaker of public transit. But those can only happen if the region’s citizens come together to engage in a constructive dialogue.

“The growing challenges faced by the region’s transit agencies are not their fault,” Prendergast said. “Transit agency staffpersons have done a remarkable job in keeping their vehicles and infrastructure safe and in service with funds and service demands limited by the organizational structures and funding policies established for them a long time ago. Instead, those challenges are a call to all of us who care about the future of Northeast Ohio to take custody of public transportation in this region.”

All Aboard Ohio stands ready to lead or assist in this community conversation for Northeast Ohio to set a new vision for public transportation. We invite you to join us.

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