RTA ridership is at a historic low. Can an advocacy group help reverse a ‘death spiral’?

The numbers were never predicted to drop so fast for the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority.

And annual rides taken have dropped steadily since 1976, as Cleveland’s downtown population sprawled out to surrounding suburbs. First, there was a 20% plummet in 1983, the largest up to that point. Then, in 2009, at the tail end of the Great Recession, ridership tumbled by 14%, to below 50 million annual passengers for the first time since the birth of the Red Line. RTA panicked and that year increased the price for a one-way trip a whole dollar, from $1.25 to $2.25, followed by five other fare hikes in roughly a decade.

The result was what transportation experts refer to in macabre fashion as a transit “death spiral,” the simultaneous fall of ridership and revenue with no easy salve in sight. With data from an August RTA ridership report showing the agency at 7% below goal (a 9% drop in rides from August 2018), the question looms over transit heads as a new decade of sink or swim possibilities rapidly approaches. That is: Can third-party talent rescue the RTA from an even dimmer future?

“This year is our big year of planning,” Joel Freilich, RTA’s director of service management, said at a recent community outreach meeting at Cuyahoga Community College’s West Campus in October. “Meaning, we’ll be making plans for the coming decade.”

Freilich, who has been on staff at RTA for more than 25 years, is talking about the transit authority’s five-pronged Hail Mary: so-called Pillar Studies ("pillars that hold up our strategic plan," Frielich says) that began in fourth quarter 2018 consisting of everything from an economic study done by Cleveland State University, to in-depth investigations into fare equity and plans to replace rail cars for $240 million over 10 years. Consulting agencies like Jarrett Walker + Associates in Portland, Oregon; or LTK Engineering in Ambler, Pennsylvania; have allowed RTA’s Board of Trustees — and new CEO India Birdsong — to best allocate their $290 million operating budget, Freilich says, “in line with what residents of Cuyahoga County really want.”

Hence community outreach galore. A part of such strategic planning, Freilich helped orchestrate 21 public show-and-tells with stand-up posters reimaging RTA’s dwindling bus line (it most recently shortened its No. 86 route in Berea) if the scale of current funding shifted to “Ridership” or to “Coverage.” In line with a need for outside guidance, Jarrett Walker, a reputable transit planning firm, presented their survey of around 1,000 Cuyahoga County residents to RTA’s board in July. The findings were telling: Roughly half wanted more bus frequency, versus 33% who called for expanded routes to cities like Chagrin Falls or Parma.

With an uptick in funding—probably an increase of the $200 million derived from the Cuyahoga County sales tax—most downtown preexisting lines would be upgraded to 15-minute service. Lines would pop up in Newburgh Heights and Bedford. But the rub lies in the sheer cost (and added labor) of the big overhaul: RTA has to choose one over the other. All while not resorting to more transit fare hikes.

“As a professional, I’d like to have all three,” Freilich said at the Tri-C event, which was lightly attended save for other RTA representatives. “But the fact is, if you want improvement in any one and you don’t want to trade away any of the others? You need more resources.”

‘Patting themselves on the back’

What’s most curious to Robert Winn is how often he’s gotten credit. Or, should one say, how Clevelanders for Public Transit has not gotten enough credit where credit is due.

Last February, Winn's organizing body published "Fair Fares: A Campaign for Better Transit," the transportation advocacy group's manifesto for improved fare equity among low-income riders. Other than suggesting alternative modes of revenue—funneling taxes from Uber and Lyft rides, for one—Clevelanders for Public Transit suggested the implementation of fare capping, a pay system that essentially allows riders needing a monthly pass, Winn says, “to pay in installments.” This year, RTA released preliminary results from its own similar fare equity study. Winn was taken aback.

“And a lot of those recommendations from the [interim report] are in line with some things that we have suggested,” Winn said. Rather than using fare capping as a longer term solution to reverse the death spiral, Winn says RTA’s report included “shorter term things like increasing distribution of passes, and reducing the price of a day pass.” All “areas of alignment,” he speculates, that might have stemmed from his group’s own prior suggestions.

Winn's and Clevelanders for Public Transit’s knack for accountability may even have extended to RTA’s new general manager search. In March testimony to the Board of Trustees, Winn expressed his group’s concerns for the CEO job posting, suggesting that not enough emphasis was placed on RTA’s main shortfall of ridership (rather than on “financial management” and “mobility”), along with placing a clear demarcation between the secretary’s jurisdiction and the CEO’s. In July, when asked what her main priority was upon taking her seat, Birdsong reverberated the findings of the survey as her overall modus operandi.

“You want to be able to talk to people and understand what they need before you make decisions,” Birdsong told The Plain Dealer. “That might be something needed in Cleveland to help boost ridership.” (Birdsong did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)

Although Winn and his upcoming replacement, Dana Beveridge, know that they and RTA have interlocking goals of repairing Cleveland’s transit system, Winn expresses a slight air of remorse for the speediness in which such resolutions have been handled (RTA spending $1 million of a federal grant on in-route WiFi is a similar complaint he has). Freilich himself reports the opposite, detailing a close, connected relationship between the two organizations. “I meet upwards of 20 times a year with [them],” he says. “We talk all the time.”

“I don’t know if I would hear RTA come out and say, ‘Thanks to CPT for implementing fare capping!’ ” Winn says at their co-working space in Tower City in August.

“They’re very much more into patting themselves on the back,” Beveridge adds to Winn’s left.

“It’s more like, ‘You guys have planned that we needed transfers,’ ” Winn continues, “and now we’re coming around to just seeing the data.’”

“Yeah,” Beveridge says. “Years after we already made those recommendations.”

Making an impact

On a clear-sky day in September, RTA outreach representative Jeffrey Macko and two associates set up five poster boards depicting the 2019 Strategic Plan at the Louis Stokes/Windermere Rapid Station in East Cleveland. In their tucked-in, red-and-white polos and khakis, Macko and his crew stand out heavily from bustling East Side commuters. One woman in dreadlocks approaches Macko intrigued with the possibility of expanded lines. “If you’d like to help us out more,” Macko says on cue, “fill out our survey.”

Sitting nearby is Eugene Tufts Jr., 29, a native to East Cleveland. As a bartender at the Punch Bowl Social Club in the Flats, Tufts is one of the 25,000 Clevelanders who use transit daily to get to work, and part of the 75% of RTA riders who are car-less. Besides his concern for better public restrooms at transit stops, Tufts says his more practical worry revolves around meeting RTA’s tight schedule.

“If I’m late to my train, and I gotta go to work, then I guess I’m out of luck,” he says. “No way I’ll be on time.”

Over in Tower City, Linda Jones, 52, has more extensive concerns.

Boarding the bus or heavy rail to shopping centers on Ridge Road or her work at Tri-C West, she worries, like Tufts, that she’ll miss the No. 45 and have to “wait another hour for the next one.” More so, Jones says she frets about the upfront cost of a monthly pass, believing that she and the majority of regular riders she knows would benefit from not having to shell out the fee all at once.

“$95 is a lot for anyone,” Jones says, riding the Red Line west to Cedar Road. “If I could pay, like, four times a month? Yeah, that would be more feasible.”

Questioned with the possibility of a levy on the ballot in 2020 to increase the sales tax, Jones says she and others she rides with might consider it.

“Mmm, maybe I would?” she says. “I mean, as long as it can make an impact.”

Calls to Action

Read more articles by Mark Oprea.

Mark Oprea is a regular contributor to FreshWater Cleveland. He’s written for the Pacific Standard, OZY, and Cleveland Magazine, and was a correspondent in Mexico in 2018. He lives in Ohio City. More of his work can be found on his personal website.