The history of the light rail line in Cleveland is well told — it includes real estate speculators, the Van Sweringens, building their line connecting downtown Cleveland to suburban enclave Shaker Heights. Along the way, they managed to develop land into tax-revenue-producing properties like Shaker Square, and, ultimately, the Terminal Tower.
Half of the rail line today operated as the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority’s Blue Line and its trunk, the Green Line, serves mostly low-density suburbs. The other half travels through a lot of vacant space in the city. As a result, ridership has declined significantly to the point where the cost of replacing the rail cars, estimates the Greater Cleveland Partnership, comes in north of $200 million and will not be covered by its operation.
Obviously, this has lead to much hand ringing since the light rail in Cleveland represents more than a historic moment in its booming development in the early 20th century. It represents Cleveland — for better or worse — rising and then declining as jobs and people have moved out and industry has shipped overseas. It represents a vision of the business man who suits up to ride downtown and scoots home, away from the city, to his country manor at the end of the day.
The rise of the suburbs and the dominance of the car has placed passenger rail for decades in a precarious position. In booming Sun Belt cities and high population centers on the Coasts there has been a sudden rebirth of rail as a legitimate force in the revitalization of cities. Downtown Cleveland is on the rise again, but how does the rail line figure in?
Arguably, a much stronger a case could be made for spending that sum if the land at the stations were rezoned by suburbs into mixed use or dense housing developments with incentives to build more transit-oriented development (TOD). Cuyahoga County in its Climate Action Plan called for more TOD. To some degree that has happened along the Blue Line in the Van Aken corridor. But much more opportunity exists at numerous locations in the tony suburbs of Beachwood, Shaker and Cleveland around Shaker Square or even the Campus District.
The truth of the matter is, Cleveland has not had to dig deep and produce the type of complex real estate deals that the Van Sweringens and their ilk produced in the urban core. It’s just too hard to do infill development in Cleveland. Too costly, too time consuming, not enough support, all the incentives are going in the other direction out into the green fields.
Rail has always depended on real estate speculation to fill in the land around it with economic value. And now Cleveland is in a position where it has to suddenly rediscover how to do this. The suburbs, meanwhile, get let off the hook when it comes to transit-oriented development. At stake is the very existence of its rail line.
The question is, how much of the onus can fall on one or two cities when the rail is a regional asset. It’s important to sell businesses considering Cleveland that we have a rail line. And it fills up on Browns and Indians and Cavaliers game days. Which would elevate it to regional importance if only regional leaders saw it that way. To a degree, NOACA has committed funds to replace the rail line cars over the next decade. Where that leads it remains to be seen. In other words is a decade more of limping along in its current state going to ensure the future success of the rail line, or is rail doomed unless suburban and city leaders can see it as an asset and start acting that way?