We caught up with Joe Calabrese, Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority GM/CEO, about the challenges and opportunities for Ohio’s largest public transit agency.
We asked Calabrese to consider:
- What will make transit an essential part of daily life for more people in Greater Cleveland?
- What makes transit successful especially when major projects like Public Square and Opportunity Corridor are proposed?
- When will Congress and Ohio start investing in transit in the same way it does the car?
Transit is essential for many Clevelanders who don’t own a car (some estimates put that number as high as 35%). It is also moving to the center of a conversation about revitalizing the urban core as in-migrating Millennials, now the largest generation in the U.S., take cars out of the equation.
“My generation moved out to the suburbs,” says Calabrese. “That’s changing along with family size, demographics and the realization that Millennials would rather walk and take transit. They are becoming a bigger force, a more vocal force, hopefully a political-office-holding force.”
There’s reason for concern. Transit is unable to maintain, let alone expand, he says, when political leaders refuse to raise taxes that support it (from gas fill ups).
“Everyone wants to talk about expanding transit, but virtually nothing is happening in D.C. They’re extending the same funding instead of expanding the (federal) gas tax.”
States also collect and contribute gas taxes. A recent Ohio Legislative Report found that Ohio is behind 21 other states in collecting taxes from fuel. Meanwhile, a Transit Needs study that is being paid for by the State of Ohio concluded last week that the state needs to double its investment in public transit.
“For Ohio to maintain a competitive status, they are going to have to do this,” Calabrese says.
Ohio’s 17% transit funding cut in the last year alone means RTA has had to play defense. “Our plans are to maintain the infrastructure we have and to come up with ways to cost effectively improve our service.”
The last expansion project RTA did was the Waterfront Line for the city’s Bicentennial in 1996, Calabrese says. “It was all local and state funding. Governor Voinovich made it a priority, and RTA provided the rest.”
Cutting bus stops by 15 percent is an example of cost savings goal that Calabrese says won’t dampen service.
“To increase productivity, on the HealthLine we reduced stops from 108 to 36 stations,” he says. “I cut my labor costs by a third.”
For the 59 communities in RTA’s 457 sq. mi. service area, how they build will ensure the success or failure of transit.
“Density is king,” he says, “and so is less parking. Transit doesn’t compete well with free parking.”
Take the recent $20 million Clifton Road transit project. Once a streetcar avenue that connects the west side to downtown Cleveland, Clifton is evidence of a symbiotic relationship between density and highly-functional transit.
“You have more apartments than three-car families on Clifton,” he notes. “If we can serve more people and have enhanced lanes and signal preemption, it reduces my cost significantly.”
The Clifton line, which launches December 7, mixes the bus in with traffic; it also doesn’t give it control of the traffic signal. But, a longer bus has doubled the capacity of the previous (#55) bus, he says. Large, well-lighted shelters and emergency phones put an emphasis on safety.
The city, RTA, FTA, ODOT and NOACA contributed funds. Calabrese calls it Bus-Rapid Transit on a budget.
“People are looking at how we reshape the corridor. Some of that is spilling over with new apartments and shops at W. 117th Street.”
Similar high-density corridors like W. 25th Street in Ohio City are in RTA’s strategic plan—as priorities for “enhanced” bus service. Indeed, a committee working on W. 25th Street is looking at an option of removing on-street parking for a dedicated bus lane.
The biggest challenge may come from merchants, who are usually loath to see any on-street parking go away. Is it possible to move beyond the conversation that pits transit versus cars?
“I think we’re there,” asserts Calabrese. “We’re talking about a dedicated bike lane on Lorain Avenue. Not that long ago, we wouldn’t have talked about it at all. There is a coming realization that parking isn’t everything."
The HealthLine on Euclid Avenue set the stage for doing more Bus-Rapid Transit development. I ask Calabrese what made it possible for transit to assume a larger role in shaping that project?
“They did things that are logical to encourage transit ridership,” he said, adding that Midtown’s form-based code requires a minimum of three- to four-story buildings and parking in the back. “Also, you can’t just do the transit project. It has to be a complete street. With landscaping and the bike lane, it’s the whole package.”
I relay that there’s anecdotal evidence that the HealthLine has slowed down for reasons ranging from a City of Cleveland decision to turn of the line’s signal prioritization hardware to, perhaps, its own success. Does RTA have data to support or refute that the HealthLine isn’t operating at its 20 minute end-to-end run time?
“I don’t know that Euclid has slowed down,” Calabrese said. “Ridership is up 60% so that will slow down the system somewhat. There’s been a tremendous amount of construction and detours. I think there are some intersections where the city should have police officers during rush hour like E. 9th Street.”
Is the conversation with the city about re-activating the signal priority for the HealthLine buses ongoing?
“Yes. We work closely with the city on the signal prioritization. It’s very complicated to have that up. It’s a delicate situation.”
The great paradox—the need for transit continues to grow at the same time Ohio reduced its support. The state did, however, conclude it is possible to elevate RTA into the realm of growth. The Transit Needs study concluded that the need is for Cleveland’s transit to be on par with Portland, Oregon’s. What is the vision for getting RTA there, and how can supporters help?
“One thing we need to do is have a diverse group of supporters talk to their legislators,” Calabrese says. “It was important that individuals from the Chamber of Commerce, Convention and Visitor’s Bureau and business leaders (were at the Transit Needs public meeting in Cleveland last week). They know how important this is, and that we couldn’t have done the Gay Games, the Senior Games and the RNC without it.”
The collective message, Calabrese concludes, is “you’re not subsidizing public transit. It’s an investment with significant return.”
Part two of this interview will look at transit’s role in big projects like Public Square. To contact Ohio Department of Transportation about increasing the state’s support for transit, email Transit.Needs@dot.state.oh.us.