When the white-and-orange doors slid open to Orlando’s new SunRail train this month, 10,000 passengers flooded onto cars built for 3,000.
When Cincinnati broke ground on a $133 million, 3.6-mile streetcar line through its downtown, city council member Yvette Simpson told The New York Times, “It’s not just about a streetcar. It’s that Cincinnati can accomplish great things.”
In these microcosms—and in trends pointing to Americans driving less—supporters see hope for a transit renaissance. We asked area leaders to share their vision for transit in Northeast Ohio.
“I am bullish about the future,” says Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority CEO Joseph Calabrese. “I like to say that the Millennials—26% of whom don't have a driver’s license—would rather pay $7 for a Martini than $3.50 for a gallon of gas.”
But, what will Northeast Ohio do in order to entice Millennials out of cars and on to a train or bus? Do we need a big vision to expand transit, like Cincy has, to attract what industry insiders call “choice riders”? Or do we focus on improving our current system?
Calabrese might be bullish about national trends like transit ridership increasing faster (32%) than vehicle miles traveled (23% - since 1995). But, what would he do with a big infusion of cash?
“Likely not one mega project,” he says, “but several meaningful projects. What RTA is now doing on Clifton, a HealthLine on a smaller scale, could be done on several high-density corridors.”
Calabrese would take the money for a mega project and pour it back into RTA’s three, aging Rapid Transit lines.
“RTA's rail car fleet is now 30 years old, and they will likely need to be replaced in approximately 10 years or so. This will be a $300 million plus project.”
Grace Gallucci, Executive Director of the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA), insists that the region "will limp along" without a bold vision for expanding its transit system.
Topping her wish list is a network of Bus-Rapid Transit lines, like the Health-Tech Corridor on Euclid Avenue. She points to Curitiba, Brazil as the leading BRT system; it's used by 85% of the city's population, and is pushing development into core, urban areas.
"It must be transformational," Gallucci says. "It must be bold.
"I could draw for you on a map what I think we need," she adds. "Multiple BRT corridors that fit into a whole system similar to Curitiba. They couldn’t afford rail, but still developed it like it was rail along with the city."
Hop on board?
Some local transit advocates are able to follow Calabrese’s line of thinking. Angie Schmitt, advocate and reporter on transportation for Streetsblog, would place a more concentrated effort on land development within walking distance of the Rapid stations in her “20-year transit ambition.”
“I think the Rapid is a really great resource, but we aren't taking full advantage of it (with) some real, land-use planning around the stations,” Schmitt says. “Zone them for walkable, high-density development.”
Phoenix recently completed a “transit-oriented development” project like she suggests, using Sustainable Communities funds—the same federal program that funded Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium.
Cleveland could add “extra sweetener,” Schmitt says, with development incentives, such as density bonuses and tax breaks, to compensate for its relatively weak real estate market.
Akshai Singh, who works on transportation issues with groups like Sierra Club, aligns himself as “more of a Joe Calabrese sympathizer. I’m not thinking of big projects. I'm thinking of bus lanes on West 25th, so that buses don't have to defer to parked cars and single-passenger autos in the busiest transit area outside of Public Square.”
Singh listened to Joe Biden speak in Cleveland this week where the Vice President described the Administation's priority in rebuilding and repairing America.
"The points raised by the Vice President really speak to basic investments in maintenance and transit-oriented development that work for our area," Singh reflects. "I know that bus lanes might not sound that exciting, but that's all BRT really is—dedicated lanes for buses."
The Transit Moment?
Northeast Ohio can't afford to set the bar too low, or risk losing what Singh calls the "transit moment." After all, a transformational project like the HealthLine encompassed a decade of planning, design and development before opening in 2008.
Discussion of transit in Cleveland tends to get easily atomized. As fiscally conservative as the pragmatists sound, Daniel Burnham, the architect behind Chicago’s lakefront plan who famously extolled, “make no small plans for they fail to stir men’s blood” might have a thing or two to say about, do we dare to dream bigger?
"We need to think and act boldly like Burnham would have us do," says Gallucci, a former deputy director for Chicago's Regional Transit Authority.
Support is growing in Lake and Lorain along with Cuyahoga counties for a more robust transit system that connects the region, she says.
NOACA already broke the ice with a recent agreement between it and two metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) between Cleveland, Toledo and Ashtabula to pursue improvements to passenger rail.
Gallucci talks excitedly about NOACA leading the region in a transit plan, after it concludes an adjustment to its fix-it-first policy that guarantees at least 25% of the agency's budget will go to repairs that do not include road widenings or expansions.
She feels that a well-designed plan for expanding transit could go to a referendum, and get funded locally.
"In Denver and in Los Angeles, they did it by laying out a plan that shows visually and, through public meetings, what we want a system to look like."
"Be explicit," she advises. "If we want a BRT system, what will it cost, what is the timeframe, the plan, does the money go through a 20 year levy or propose something other than a sales tax, which, if it's a transportation system, I believe, it should be funded by transportation."
While she admits some members of NOACA would not favor expanding transit, she feels that lessons from how the Chicago region did it might apply here.
"Cook County paid more than outer counties and the city even more. We had some interesting ways to get funding focused on intermodalism."
Writer and RTA Citizens’ Advisory Board member, Joe Baur, agrees that the conversation about transit needs to cast a wider net if Cleveland hopes to haul in the big catch.
“Let's look at what the most sustainable cities in the world are doing and implement those strategies here,” Baur, who writes a column for Cool Cleveland, advises. “Limit car travel in the city and give priority to rail transit.
“Buses can be loud and can get stuck in the same traffic jams as cars. Rail, when done right, is smooth, quiet, and moves faster than vehicular traffic when given its own right-of-way.”
We have met the enemy (and, yes, it is us)
“This isn't entirely a dream,” Baur continues. “When we put money and man/woman-power to something, we can get it done. The Innerbelt, as much as I loathe spending half a billion on rebuilding a 1950s highway, has been built like a game of Sim City and under budget. If we decided to prioritize transit and other sustainability projects, such as the Red Line Greenway, we could transform Cleveland almost overnight.”
OK, so what needs to change? How do we unlock the perpetual traffic jam that seems to clog our brains when it comes to transit?
“Since Ohio and the federal government are proving to be increasingly unreliable funding partners, especially for urban and city-to-city transportation needs, it's time for Cuyahoga County to develop a multi-modal infrastructure fund to improve transit, bike, pedestrian and roadway facilities and services,” suggests All Aboard Ohio Executive Director, Ken Prendergast.
The goal of a Cuyahoga multi-modal fund would be to connect every resident in the county with a job in under an hour by transit. Dwelling in the visionary is Prendergast’s stock and trade. He’s sometimes the lone voice calling for more transit service—from the freeways to construction of a streetcar circulation system for downtown, near-downtown neighborhoods, and University Circle.
But, as nice as a streetcar or another BRT line would be, if the goal is to help more people out of their cars, transit has a bigger issue with which to contend.
“We have to quit encouraging people and businesses to spread out from our core cities,” says Jason Segedy, Executive Director, Akron Metropolitan Area Transit Study (AMATS). “It's impossible to have a cost-effective, robust, competitive, and useful public transportation system serve a region that is built at a semi-rural population density. And that is essentially what we have in Northeast Ohio. Brooklyn, NY, for example, is roughly the same land area as the City of Akron, and it has 11 times more people.”
The challenge for sustainability advocates is to advance a vision for land use and economic development in the region that will create the conditions where big capital transit projects can actually succeed and thrive, he says.
“We are fooling ourselves if we think that we can do things like widen I-271, widen I-77, and build the Opportunity Corridor and simultaneously make transit more attractive and viable,” Segedy adds. “It can't be done. State transportation decisions can seriously undermine efforts to reinvest in transit and in transit-friendly places. We have to stop doing it.”
Roll in the regional solutions
Missing from the big picture is a single system that connects the entire, 12-county region, Segedy says.
“How can we improve cross-county express service between our core cities and our job centers,” he says, citing gaps between places like Bedford to Macedonia. “This should include express bus in the short term and commuter rail in the longer term.”
Playing small ball—real-time travel information, a stronger focus on rider safety, improving walking routes to and from stations—is fundamental, Segedy says, although, he admits, not game changing for “choice riders.”
Putting Northeast Ohio transit on par with leading systems will take a larger effort led by policy change at the state that supports rather than undermines efforts to improve. Segedy urges state lawmakers to get involved in funding inter-city transit service like Canton-to-Akron and Akron-to-Cleveland. A transit counterpart to the inter-city-rail-focused Ohio Rail Development Commission, might be created that would provide general revenue funding.
Calabrese adds, “We need to think and act more regionally.” He would like to see development encouraged on major existing corridors so that transit can better serve it. He’s also concerned with employers who subsidize parking costs. He would like them to instead offer benefits to promote environmentally friendly commuting for their employees.
Prendergast offers that states can act more entrepreneurially these days when it comes to transit. He points to emerging public-private partnerships where transit service and development around rail lines are led by states seeking partners in the private sector. It’s a model that once worked well in the United States.
“This real estate/transport model is coming back as Florida East Coast Industries (a conglomerate that owns a railroad and real estate companies) is developing a 110 mph passenger rail service linking Orlando and Miami,” Prendergast says.
Cleveland-based Forest City Enterprises is reportedly backing a low-interest federal loan program called the Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Fund (RRIF) so that it can include TOD projects at rail stations, he adds.
“We all need to encourage the State of Ohio to be a leader in funding for transit, and not a state that is in the back of the pack,” Calabrese concludes. “Transit supporters must demand that their elected officials change the way ODOT looks at transit. While the typical state provides 23% of the operating funding for transit systems in their State, Ohio provides less than 1%.”
Gallucci adds, "In my proposal to ODOT, I said, 'I want you to match dollar for dollar what the locals put in.' They hadn’t thought about it. I proposed if we’re willing to invest $200 million then they should match it. They said they would definitely take that under consideration, but that it might have to be ten cents on the dollar. And I said, 'that’s better than nothing.'"
“Doing 1,000 small things really well is so much more important than doing one or two large high-visibility projects,” Segedy says. “As much as I am a supporter of, eventually, establishing a rail system, I think it would be foolish to build a commuter rail system, without getting the transit fundamentals right. And that includes land use, economic development, and transportation investment fundamentals.”