RTA facing challenges as it grows ridership alongside communities

Cathy Poilpré may be the quintessential transit rider. She lives in Lakewood near the recently upgraded 55 bus route that whisks her to her job as director of marketing and communications at Cleveland Public Library. Poilpré also rides the rapid and uses the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority's (GCRTA) free trolleys to attend lunchtime concerts at Trinity Cathedral or meetings at Cleveland State or Playhouse Square.

Having a dedicated bus line available during rush hour is a convenient alternative to dealing with morning gridlock or mushing through snow and ice supplied by a typical Cleveland winter, Poilpré declares.

"I get dropped off right in front of my job," she says. "I actually get to work faster since we glide past all of the cars sitting in traffic."

Though Poilpré is mostly satisfied with her riding experience, Cleveland's public transportation system, and its rapid service in particular, suffers in comparison to the other cities she's called home.

The CPL director, a veteran of the Washington D.C. metro during her four years in the nation's capital, calls out RTA's limited destinations and small parking lots as factors that could curtail those interested in giving public transit chance.

"If the system was easy and practical, tourists and residents alike would use it instead of driving," says Poilpré. "With downtown Cleveland developing, more young people would be prone to do without a car if they could get anywhere, anytime."

Although there's been a steady uptick in ridership over the last several years, RTA is facing financial and public policy obstacles that are slowing the growth process, officials note. As part of its effort to draw in commuters, RTA is seeking to foster connections between new or existing transportation infrastructure and mixed-use neighborhood growth, an approach area transit watchers believe would help the authority build off its successes and become more competitive.

This summer, RTA will open its $17.5 million Little Italy-University Circle station, a venture that planners say will spur the $200 million Uptown and Intesa   developments while boosting the overall vibrancy of the surrounding neighborhoods.

The new facility is among multiple planned station projects along RTA's 50-mile rapid transit route, including the Brook Park, East 34th, East 79th and Lee-Van Aken stations. That doesn't include the $18.5 million reconstruction of an intermodal transit stop at the foot of Cedar Hill that reopened in August 2014.

RTA Cedar - University Rapid Station - Photo Bob Perkoski

"We're going to where our riders are at," says Stephen Bitto, Cleveland RTA's director of marketing and communications.

Rapid hubs as community builder

The Little Italy-University Circle station is consistent with RTA's growing focus on transit-oriented development, a policy used by many cities throughout the world to
attract mass transit riders and to provide amenities, offices and residences for these commuters within walking distance of transit stations.
E34th St rapid station
The station replaces an obsolete facility on Euclid Avenue at East 120th Street, moving it several blocks to a site on Mayfield Road at East 119th Street. Set to act as a gateway for burgeoning residential and cultural development along Euclid Avenue, the project also stands to give public transit in the area a more visible presence.

"Right now there isn't convenient access to Little Italy," says Bitto. "With this station, riders can come from downtown to (the neighborhood) in 15 minutes."

An unsightly, dank stretch of Mayfield is expected to improve significantly thanks to a well-lit hub decorated with public art and reinforced by new paving and better drainage capability. Though federal funds are paying for 80 percent of the work, the Cleveland Foundation raised $1 million to design and plan the rail stop. Other partners in the enterprise include nearby neighborhoods groups, hospitals and universities.

"We want a complete neighborhood where you can function without a car and get everything you need within a 20-minute walk," says Chris Ronyane, president of University Circle Inc (UCI).  

RTA leaders would eventually like to see ridership-boosting mixed-use development rise up around two underused rail stations at East 34th and East 79th Streets as well. Although the stations only carry a few hundred passengers daily, the transit group is making plans to rebuild both facilities.

Recommendations for East 34th include redevelopment of Cedar Estates housing and development at Cuyahoga Community College as indicated by the school's Master Plan. East 79th is a half-mile north of the Opportunity Corridor roadway project, which could be its own catalyst for growth at some point in the future.

Recent board action gave RTA the green light to move forward with redesign and construction at East 34th, while plans for the pricier East 79th rebuild are dependent on development in the vicinity.

Bitto points to RTA's bus-rapid transit system -- led by the HealthLine on Euclid Avenue -- as a form of mass transit that has efficiently sparked urban renewal. The system has been a tremendous boon for the area, he says, pumping over $4.3 billion into the Euclid Avenue corridor to the tune of 7.9 million square feet in commercial development and 13,000 new jobs. The transit group has been visited by delegations from all over the globe interested in studying an example of integrating a successful BRT with the surrounding area.

Though laying track has a permanence that a bus line does not, even renovating a transit stop can be a difference maker for Cleveland's underserved neighborhoods.

"The HealthLine is an example of 'if you build it they will come,'" says Bitto. "These rehabilitations can provide communities with assets that get other developers to take on projects."  

Lack of focus on transit

RTA is currently replacing or relocating five of its 52 rail stations: Improvements over the pantheon of RTA projects include new stations, new tracks, revamped lighting and security systems, and repairs to handicapped-accessible ramps. While the transit authority's revenues derive from fares and local tax dollars, paying for these ventures sometimes takes creativity, Bitto says.

Price hedging, where diesel costs are locked in to reduce exposure to a volatile fuel market, has saved RTA $16.4 million since the authority started the practice in 2009. The group also offers naming rights to interested parties. Cleveland State University purchased rights to a bus-rapid line extending from downtown to the West Side. The university will pay $150,000 annually to keep its name on the upgraded 55 route that began service late last year.

Stephanie Tubbs Jones Transit Center on the 55 bus route

RTA's resourceful fund procurement tactics aside, Ohio still provides among the least amount of financial aid for its regional transit agencies, according to data from the Federal Transit Authority. State cuts have reduced funding for public transpiration by 83 percent since 2000, even though 9 percent of Ohio's population lives without a car, reports Cleveland-based public transit advocacy group All Aboard Ohio.

A shortage of state and federal dollars means little movement for additional transit stations or a version of bus-rapid transit along West 25h Street, a venture akin to the Euclid Avenue HealthLine that's now in limbo.

The lack of focus on transit is disappointing, particularly in a region willing to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer bucks to widen interstates that carry commuters out of the urban core, say transit supporters.

John McGovern, a member of RTA's Citizen Advisory Board, would like to see more effort spent in developing communities around desolate transit stops like East 34th and East 79th. If regional officials don't believe the opportunity is there, then RTA and its stakeholders must speak up.

"There has to be leadership at RTA saying these (neighborhoods) are worth something," says McGovern. "We have to realize what our assets are. We're missing some big opportunities to bring life into the city."

Public outreach is part of the slow process of improving low-performing stations ensconced in population depleted areas, says RTA's Bitto. Stakeholding employers like the Orlando Baking Company on E.79th and Woodland Avenue get a say in how rebuilt rail hubs can be an engine for renovation and reinvestment in communities that need the boost.

The Little Italy-University Circle rapid line itself was a joint endeavor that harnessed Cleveland's neighborly creativity in the face of financial challenges, Bitto says.

"It's about a sense of ownership," he says. "These are not RTA projects, but community projects. How can we build something that gives total value to the community?"

Impact of transit-oriented development

Transit-oriented development can have a dramatic impact even on smaller cities, proponents say. Forty years ago, the Ballston-Rosslyn transit corridor in Arlington, Virginia, was a waning commercial area suffering from disinvestment and population decline. Policymakers partnered with the local public transportation system on initiatives around five closely spaced metro stations, concentrating density and promoting mixed-use development. The corridor has since prospered, creating 50,000 new jobs and more than doubling the population.

The move of the Little Italy station carries exciting possibilities for Cleveland, maintains McGovern. "It's going to connect the cultural hub in University Circle with this cool neighborhood," he says.

The RTA citizens' advisory board member wants to see more of that community/multimodal synergy, and points to he Flats East Bank mixed-use district as a vehicle to get more folks using the nearby rapid location.

Flashy new rail lines are not an end-all answer to building ridership and community economic development, says Angie Schmitt, who writes about transportation issues for the Streetsblog Network. Incremental service improvements, additional bus routes and forward-thinking land-use policies can work in harmony to urge people from all backgrounds to consider hopping aboard a bus or train.

As the local rail system is solid, it's a matter of city policymakers stepping in to maximize investments with a clear through line toward transit-oriented growth. "As a region we haven't done a good job of steering development toward transportation-accessible areas," Schmitt says. "If I lived near an RTA station that made it cheaper to get to work, I'd pay more for a house nearby."   

The search for more riders

Enticing new riders through new rail stations and other general improvements has been difficult as state and federal funding levels fall, Bitto says. For its part, RTA plans to continue to expand and maintain its current assets. Sixty-year-old rapid stations need to be updated to align with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards and enhance the overall riding experience for the work-trip commuters who comprise 65 percent of ridership.

Photo Bob Perkoski

"Workers are our season-ticket holders," Bitto says. "They're the ones riding 50 weeks a year and buying monthly passes."

Keeping these folks happy will always be a priority, adds the transit agency official. Via rail, bus and trolley, RTA shuttled 49.2 million commuters last year in a service area covering 457 square miles. Total system ridership for 2014 was up 0.1 percent over the previous year, marking the fourth consecutive year of growth. Though the figure may seem miniscule, RTA's first quarter of 2014 was heavily impacted by extreme weather conditions. The rest of they year saw a bounceback culminating in an 8 percent increase in ridership for December.

Reaching additional Cleveland commuters will also stay on RTA's docket. The authority's Ready to Ride program, for example, aims to leverage fluctuating gas prices to encourage trial use of transit, with a target audience of client companies located downtown or near University Circle.

These are the moves that can attract the next generation of young professionals, a group for whom multimodal transit options are a determining factor when choosing a place to live. A recent study of 500 college students at 10 of the state's public and private universities revealed that 86 percent of soon-to-be graduates find it "very important" to live in a city where they can get around without driving.

Compact, pedestrian-friendly communities built around multiple modes of conveyance are a better choice than endless stretches of highway and surface parking lots that muffle urban life and create a situation where public transit can't compete, says Schmitt.

"Cleveland can create a transit service that people value and will bring in a younger crowd that's in demand," she says.  "We have to do a better job in getting more bang for our buck around this system we have."

Photos Bob Perkoski

Read more articles by Douglas J. Guth.

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to Fresh Water, his work has been published by Midwest Energy News, Kaleidoscope Magazine and Think, the alumni publication of Case Western Reserve University. A die-hard Cleveland sports fan, he also writes for the cynically named (yet humorously written) blog Cleveland Sports Torture.