FTA Demands $12 Million from RTA; Mayor Jackson's Public Square Nightmare Scenario Arrives

In the most striking and authoritative corrective to Frank Jackson's Public Square decision-making to date, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has issued a letter demanding $12 million in 30 days from the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA).

So egregious is the city's ongoing violation of a previous contract that the FTA didn't even wait for Mayor Frank Jackson and RTA CEO Joe Calabrese to make their case. The FTA letter, dated Dec. 20, came to light Thursday evening after WKYC broke the story.

The letter is a condemnation of Jackson himself and of the city's arrogance throughout the process. It echoes the grim forecast of city councilman Brian Cummins, who decried the outrageous premise of the current Public Square conversation in a council hearing about the matter on Nov. 30 — the only public hearing to date.

If Jackson insisted on having this conversation after the fact, Cummins shouted, then the city and RTA were legally obliged to keep Superior open while the discussion played out, lest they breach the 2004 agreement tied to the Euclid Corridor Project. Specific federal funds in that grant were premised on ridership numbers in a "carefully designed" Downtown Transit Zone with "high levels of patronage" at Public Square.  

Cummins warned that not only would RTA be on the hook for $12 million, but future funding from federal agencies would be in jeopardy. This has now come to pass. In the final paragraphs of the letter, the FTA advises of compounding interest rates and late fees, and says that if the debt becomes delinquent, they may report the claim to commercial credit bureaus, consumer reporting agencies, the U.S. Department of Justice or the Dept. of the Treasury.

All of the logistics, though, Cummins said at the meeting, paled in comparison to the betrayal of a public whose input in the thorough and costly planning / design process proved to be meaningless in the face of Jackson's unilateral maneuvering.  Ward 2 Councilman Zack Reed agreed. 

click to enlarge Transit advocates on Public Square Saturday. (Councilman Zack Reed and ATU Local 268 Prez Ron Jackson front and center.) - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
Sam Allard / Scene
Transit advocates on Public Square Saturday. (Councilman Zack Reed and ATU Local 268 Prez Ron Jackson front and center.)
"He's a dictator," Reed said of the Mayor more than once.

Despite the confusion and rage of city council, the Mayor's administration expressed nothing but confidence in the FTA's eventual concurrence.

Representing the Mayor at the council hearing was chief of staff Ken Silliman. He deflected council concerns by repeating assurances that the FTA would agree with their plans to mitigate the operational impact of Superior's closure. So confident was the city that there was no contingency plan in place. When Silliman was pressed about what would happen if the FTA rejected the city's proposal, Silliman said the city would "cross that bridge when [they came] to it."

They have come to the bridge.

When Scene asked Mayor Frank Jackson the same question in the last-minute press conference assembled to announce the closure on Nov. 15, he was equally dismissive. "Then it becomes their choice," Jackson said, curtly. Joe Calabrese, at least, had the honesty to say he "hoped" the FTA would concur with a plan.

At that press conference, Jackson and Calabrese estimated a submission to the FTA would take 10-14 days to assemble. The FTA letter, however, referenced a recent phone call with Jackson and Calabrese in which they told FTA officials that their "studies" would not be completed until the end of January, 2017.

To be clear: Quite apart from 'not concurring' with the city's plan, the FTA didn't even wait for local officials to prepare one.

"Based on the substance of [the Dec. 16 phone conference referenced above], the FTA does not believe the City will change its position on the closure of Public Square and allow GCRTA to resume full operations as it is legally obligated to do," it read.

Moreover, in what should be interpreted as a shocking revelation and further evidence of the Mayor's recklessness, the letter described how the Nov. 15 press conference was preceded by two explicit letters from the federal agency.

Not only did the FTA warn that the closure of Superior through Public Square would indeed represent a breach of contract; in a second letter, dated Oct. 12, the FTA "stated specifically" that RTA would owe the $12 million debt.

So this came as no surprise. Yet Jackson went ahead with it anyway. At the Nov. 15 press conference, he even suggested — with a straight face — that though he'd always preferred the idea of a unified Square, if RTA could "demonstrate that there was an operational or financial harm to RTA, than I would accept that as a fact."

The Mayor may consider this ample demonstration of financial harm.

The local transit advocacy group Clevelanders for Public Transit issued a statement in the aftermath of the FTA letter calling on Jackson to immediately re-open Superior Avenue through the Square.

In the event the Mayor doesn't act, the group said, the RTA Board should "demand an immediate re-opening of Public Square to buses, and legally enjoin or sue the City of Cleveland for failing to meet their parts of the agreement to maintain an open transit zone."

The FTA letter's date is significant. Thirty days from Dec. 20 is January 19, so when city officials and RTA folks return from their New Year's festivities, they'll have less than three weeks to cough up the dough.

More than likely — and neither RTA nor the city responded to requests for comment Thursday evening — they'll dispute the claim, for which the letter allows.

If RTA requests a review of the claim, it must "state the basis of the dispute and provide all factual information, documents, citation to authority, argument, and any other matters for FTA's consideration."

But so far, according to the Mayor — and to Cleveland.com, which has distressingly hewed to Jackson's agenda on this issue — the only enumerated arguments have been opaque safety concerns, terrorism chief among them, and what's being called "overwhelming popularity."

*A line regarding local coverage of the December tragedy in Berlin has been removed, due to potential mischaracterization.

About The Author

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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