Why Cleveland is stuck with second-rate rapid transit.

Miss Congeniality
RTA's three rapid lines stop in only two suburbs and - don't reach some of the area's most dense - neighborhoods. - Walter  Novak
RTA's three rapid lines stop in only two suburbs and don't reach some of the area's most dense neighborhoods.
Don Yuratovac has spent 30 years trying to bring more public transportation to Greater Cleveland. So forgive him if, on the verge of retirement, he gets a little cynical, like when a visitor asks him about expanding Cleveland's meager rapid-transit system.

"Maribeth can speak about the present plans that'll never happen," he says. "And I'll bring you up to date on the past plans that never happened."

He and his colleague, Maribeth Feke, laugh. He's just kidding. Kind of.

They need a sense of humor to work for the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, which runs the town's three rapid lines. They know what a first-rate rapid-transit system can do for a city: reduce air pollution, relieve rush-hour traffic, and even encourage community when people and businesses congregate around a well-planned station. But in the last 40 years, as Cuyahoga County's population sprawled out into the suburbs, our rapid-transit system has hardly grown at all.

"I go to seminars, and I see rail embraced in other towns," says Feke, RTA's planning director. "In Cleveland, it's difficult."

While sprawling cities like Dallas and St. Louis are expanding their light rail lines, people here are quick to balk at the high cost of building rail lines, and they don't always see the potential benefits, Feke says. Unlike in other towns, Cleveland's rapid lines are so old that there's little evidence here of how a new station can spark development. And since Cuyahoga County's population isn't growing, it's hard to attract new riders.

So our rapid lines only serve two suburbs, stopping in many sparsely populated neighborhoods, but not reaching some of the most dense ones. About 17,000 people a day ride the Red Line, which runs from East Cleveland through University Circle and downtown to Hopkins Airport; about 14,000 people a day ride the Blue and Green lines that connect downtown to Shaker Heights.

"It's good for getting to work and home, but not going anywhere besides that," says Nick Price, who commutes to work in Shaker Square every day from Cleveland's East Side by taking a bus downtown to Tower City, then going back east on the rapid.

He and his friend Sharon Ouelette, a Cleveland State University student who commutes from Shaker Heights on the Blue Line, like the rapid because it's much faster than buses. They can easily think of more places they'd like to get to by train: Cleveland Heights, the zoo, more of Cleveland's West Side.

"[The lines] need to be more spread out," Price says.

One man, rushing through the Tower City station, was more blunt when asked about the rapid system. "It ain't worth a damn," he grumbled.

Yuratovac, RTA's acting director of rail operations, knows the problems. The Red Line, he admits, "doesn't necessarily go where the people are." To save money, it was built on freight-train tracks, so it snakes through trash-strewn industrial stretches of the city. And almost everyone who rides the rapid downtown has to get off at Tower City, thanks to Albert Porter, county engineer in the 1950s, who refused to build a downtown subway -- even though voters approved the money in 1953. "This is the only rapid-transit system in the world with a single downtown stop," Yuratovac says.

A few years ago, RTA hoped to fix both problems by moving the Red Line from its bleak path through Cleveland's East Side to the middle of Euclid Avenue, its busiest bus route. The line would have attracted a lot of riders and been highly cost-effective, says Yuratovac -- but local leaders shot it down in 1995 because of its price tag: at least $700 million. Instead, RTA plans to spend about $300 million to build a median for electric buses with the "look and feel" of light rail on Euclid.

Some people think Cleveland just isn't a good place for rapid transit. Norman Krumholz, an urban studies professor at Cleveland State University and a former Cleveland city planner, has long opposed expanding the rapid. "Cleveland is a relatively low-density region, with relatively few people per acre," he says -- too spread out to support rail. In our car-dominated region, Krumholz believes public transportation money is simply better spent on buses.

Yuratovac says rail can work along dense, well-traveled routes. But Krumholz's view of Cleveland as an auto-dependent town helps explain the fate of RTA's recent plan to extend the Red Line west.

A few years ago, the mayors of Brook Park and Berea proposed bringing the rapid to their towns. But instead of embracing the Red Line as a new way to commute, Berea residents rose up against it, afraid that the stations' park-and-ride lots would make traffic worse, not better.

"We had several groups opposed to it who were very vocal about it," says Joseph Biddlecombe, who became mayor last year when Red Line advocate Stanley Trupo retired. "Primarily, we'd be a conduit for everybody to park here at the stop and leave."

What's more, even though Berea is relatively dense in population, RTA estimated the extension would attract only enough riders to make it marginally cost-effective. After Biddlecombe and the Berea City Council came out against the plan, RTA dropped it.

Now, the agency's looking into extending the Blue Line east to I-271 and new business parks planned in Highland Hills. "People could ride from Twinsburg, or wherever, and get off the freeway and park their car in a park-and-ride lot and get a train into downtown Cleveland," says Yuratovac.

RTA hopes the Blue Line can help lessen the effects of urban sprawl. But it may be a losing battle. Feke says the Jacobs Group, developer of the proposed Chagrin Highlands business park, is "ambivalent" about letting the rapid in. "They've been very approachable . . . [but] it's a very hard sell."

Even David Beach, director of EcoCity Cleveland, an environmental organization that promotes "smart growth" over sprawl, is skeptical about the Blue Line plan. Beach says rail and other mass transit can be an important ingredient in walkable neighborhoods, like EcoCity's "eco-village" revitalization project near the Red Line's West 65th Street station. But rail doesn't do much good when the land use around it doesn't support it. "If you build a place that is only accessible by cars, it's hard to expect people to take transit," he says.

RTA is also hoping to make the Waterfront Line -- the only new rapid line it's built in the last 30 years -- a complete loop, extending it from the Flats and the lakefront south past Playhouse Square, Cleveland State University, and Cuyahoga Community College. Though it would cost $111 million, Feke says it'd attract enough riders to make it very cost-effective.

Cleveland City Council President Mike Polensek isn't convinced. "Right now we don't see where the ridership's going to come from: just moving Cleveland State students during the day?"

Instead, Polensek would like RTA to think bigger and pursue ideas on its long-range wish list -- now on the back burner due to lack of funds -- like commuter rail connecting Cleveland to neighboring counties.

"What I don't understand is why we're not taking transit and especially light rail to where people live in this region," he says. "There's got to [be] some visionary planning and thinking here."

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