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Is RTA Going in Circles?

Tuesday, February 29, 2000 at 1:12 PM

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The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority celebrates its 25th anniversary this year with plans to redraw the public transportation map. But some critics think RTA is heading in the wrong direction. 90.3's David C. Barnett examines the transit system's track record and where new leadership may take it.

DCB- RTA officials recently threw a party for the system’s new boss. Joe Calabrese comes to the job of RTA General-Manager at what would seem to be a good time. There are two major transit expansion projects in development that could have a big impact in traffic flow in the downtown area. In addition, rising gasoline prices may convince some motorists to leave the car at home and hop on the nearest bus or rapid. Calabrese says that a previous gas shortage got his career kick-started.

Joe Calabrese- When I was in graduate school, it was during the Arab oil embargo number one. Odd-even gasoline rationing..... saw the price of gas go from .39 to 1.39… And everything that an impressionable young graduate student read about the future talked about how this country was going to embrace public transportation the way Europeans have for years. But, obviously, the big push to public transit never happened. Another thing they tell you in graduate school is that what’s good for GM is good for the country.

DCB- The car culture is very much alive and well...... and local transit officials have been trying to offer the public alternatives for the past 25 years. In 1975, the former Cleveland Transit System merged with suburban bus lines to form the Regional Transit Authority. Since then, RTA has consolidated bus lines.... introduced smaller neighborhood circulator buses.... and built a multi-million-dollar light rail line to serve the city’s entertainment district - from Flats night clubs up past the new Browns stadium and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Former City planning director Norman Krumholz says that this Waterfront Line and the other proposals on the drawing board are bad business decisions.

Norman Krumholz- In the seventies, when I was Planning Director, the CTS - the Cleveland Transit System - was owned and operated by the city of Cleveland. And a succession of mayors insisted that it be run out of the fare box and not go into big deficit spending. As a result, CTS never had the money to consider expensive rail extensions...and also the fact that they were a city-owned and operated system, they were less interested in extending rail lines into surrounding suburban jurisdictions.

DCB- RTA’s position is that it must respond to changing demographic patterns in the Greater Cleveland area. They say those patterns reflect a change from the tradition of people traveling from the suburbs into the city to work. There are increasing numbers of people traveling from suburb to suburb… and… from the city out to the outer-ring suburbs where new job creation is taking place. Rosemary Covington, RTA’s Deputy General Manager of Development, agrees that trying to deliver service outside the city center is difficult.

Rosemary Covington- It’s very expensive to try to provide any kind of service to the far suburbs. You’re not carrying a mass of people out to those areas at a given time of day. That makes a passenger trip extremely expensive. So, something like a rail line that serves a densely populated area, which then encourages more people to build in that densely populated area, becomes a much more efficient way for us to provide transit service.

DCB- It’s a quarter past 6:00 on a Wednesday night and the L.A. Lakers are in town. A Waterfront train has just pulled into the lakefront parking lot and is taking some basketball fans into the city....... all eight of them. Trains on the opposite track taking downtown workers from Terminal Tower to the parking lot are similarly empty....and that has been the biggest criticism of the Waterfront Line

NK- It carried a great number of riders for the first month when they opened the line and there was a big party downtown and there was no charge and everybody was going for free and sort of seeing something new. Ever since then it’s caved precipitously.

DCB- Former City Planner Norman Krumholz is now a professor in Cleveland State’s Levin College of Urban Affairs. He says that RTA hasn’t been doing a good job tracking their ridership figures for the Waterfront Line - a charge that RTA’s Rosemary Covington dismisses.

RC- It could be better. It could always be better. However, it’s doing as we expected when we developed it. We expected to be carrying about 700,000 at this point and we’re right on target.

DCB- The Regional Transit Authority has just set a new target for transit service in Cleveland - an extension of the Waterfront Line that will loop back into the city, creating a downtown circuit it claims will fulfill the train’s original promise. RTA planning director Maribeth Feke is outlining some options for the shape of this loop which will be developed over a two-to-three year planning process, pending federal funding approval. Development manager Rosemary Covington says the loop will correct one of the present system’s major deficiencies.

RC- If you want to come downtown, other than the stations on the Waterfront Line, you can only go to Tower City. If you want to go anywhere else, you have to get off and get a bus. That is a deterrent to people using our system. We have a very good rail system with one downtown station which a lot of people don’t use because of the inconvenience of transferring to a bus to complete their trip. If we can fix that, then we have a much better chance of improving our ridership in the overall system, and making these other extensions work better.

DCB- Norman Krumholz is one of RTA’s biggest critics, but he’s also one of it’s most dedicated users. He uses the bus and rapid system to get to work and around town. He says Job One for any transit system is to meet the basic needs of people who rely on public transit every day.

NK- And that’s where the focus should be - the people who use transit on a regular basis should be given the best, most punctual, cleanest, safest, lowest-cost transit possible.

DCB- Public Transit officials and critics are in agreement as far as that goes. Where they differ is the proper route to that destination.

For Infohio, I’m David C. Barnett in Cleveland.

Additional Information

Cleveland State University's Levin College of Urban Affairs

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