Asking some lingering questions about cutting service on the Waterfront Line

GCRTA's Waterfront line (courtesy of htabor).

GCRTA’s Waterfront Line (courtesy of htabor).

After months of an extended and often contentious debate, the GCRTA Board of Trustees finally voted on a series of measures to help the agency balance its budget for the next year. Surprising no one, Board members approved a series of stepwise fare increases that will take effect on August 16, which should increase annual operating revenues by $3.5 million. Single-ride fares will increase to $2.50 from $2.25 currently and, ultimately, rise again to $2.75 in August 2018. All day passes will increase from $5 to $5.50 and ultimately $6, while monthly passes will jump from $85 to $95 and then $105.

For the sake of comparison, WMATA, the Washington, DC area transit operator, charges $1.75 for bus fares and off-peak rail fares; the base fare for on-peak rail users is $2.25. MTA, the transit operator in New York, in turn, charges $2.75 for a single trip and $116.50 for a monthly pass. In other words, Cleveland’s fares are now on par with, or even higher than, some of the most extensive transit systems in the country.

But, as we know, the fare increases alone were not enough to cover the $7 million hole in GCRTA’s budget. Staff also proposed a series of service reductions that would have cut bus service hours and miles by approximately 4%. Courageously, the Board decided to punt on this issue and make GCRTA’s management responsible for approving the service cuts. These cuts, which have been scaled back since the initial proposal, will save the agency less month ($3 million vs. $4 million) but affect fewer customers (1% vs. 1.8%).

One of the more hotly debated portions of this list of service reductions involves GCRTA’s Waterfront rail line, which ferries customers from the Tower City transit hub along the Cuyahoga River and lakefront to the South Harbor. The Waterfront Line, which opened to much fanfare during Cleveland’s 1996 bicentennial celebration, cost GCRTA roughly $50 million to construct. But ridership soon fell off a cliff, as the city continued to shrink and the Flats entered a prolonged period of decline.

The agency reduced service on the Waterfront Line in 2010, but it subsequently restored it in 2013 to account for new investments on the East Bank of the Flats. While ridership may have increased somewhat since that point – we don’t really know – the line has rightfully earned its name as the “Ghost Train.” Fewer than 400 people ride the train on weekdays, and nearly all of those people take it during rush hours. During off-peak times, GCRTA says 2 people ride each train, on average.

Personally, I have long questioned the utility of the line. I think I have used it maybe 2 or 3 times in my life. If I am traveling to the Flats or the lakefront, I would much rather walk or hop on a trolley, but I freely acknowledge I’m abnormal.

That said, I do know people who ride the train and see its utility. I also recognize that there is no other transit serving the Flats, and it can be pretty daunting to try and walk up the hill from West 10th to West 9th, particularly if you are of limited mobility.

Moreover, I might be pissed off if I was one of the people investing in the redevelopment of the Flats. Investors and developers thought they had reached an agreement with GCRTA to ensure the Waterfront Line would serve this area. Adam Fishman, the Board Chair of Flats Forward, offered an eloquent articulation of this viewpoint in an op-ed over the weekend. As he wrote,

In 2015, RTA increased services to the Waterfront Line and saw an uptick in riders after the opening of Flats East Bank.

Now, RTA’s proposal is to reduce weekday service, to end at approximately 7 p.m. — but limiting service to these new entertainment venues during evening hours when downtown residents are looking to explore dining options is a misstep. Limiting transit service to this area will greatly hurt the potential for growth and will prevent the Flats East Bank from becoming part of the uninterrupted fabric of downtown in the minds of those who live, work and play here.

To an extent, he’s right! But we also need to recognize the fact that GCRTA has to balance its budget, and, in the process, it needs to guarantee that the pain is spread evenly. If the agency tried to dump all of the service cuts on low-income communities of color on the East Side, it may have run afoul of federal environmental justice and Title VI guidelines and would almost certainly have facee a lawsuit.

Yes, fixed rail investments can – and should – promote development. But sometimes when you build it, they don’t come. GCRTA dumped millions of dollars into the Waterfront Line for 20 years, with little to show for it. Flats developers can’t simply demand cuts for thee but not for me.

With all of that in mind, I still have some lingering questions that I wish had been asked during this debate. I think getting this information would have given all of us a clearer picture of the real value of the Waterfront Line, relative to the various bus routes that faced service reductions.

  1. We should recognize that, while the Flats is turning into something of a playground for wealthy white people, there are a lot of service sector employees who need to work in these establishments. What percentage of these service industry workers in the Flats and along North Coast Harbor rely on/use public transit? How does it compare to other lines that were cut or faced cuts?
  2. Will reducing service frequency on the Waterfront Line (and the Green line) have any effect on the lifespan of the aging Breda LRV cars? Could it reduce wear and tear on these trains to any noticeable extent?
  3. If the employers in the Flats are so concerned about protecting rail service, are they willing to pitch in? I’ve seen various estimates on how much GCRTA would save from cutting Waterfront Line service, varying from $200,000-500,000. The Flats East Bank development represents some $750 million in investments. Some of the entities involved, including Ernst & Young, are worth billions. Could they not come together to help defray or cover the costs of retaining service? Consider the fact that the Cleveland Foundation gave GCRTA $100,000 to provide free trips back in January 2014. And University Hospitals just signed on as the sponsor of Cleveland’s bikeshare system. There is a precedent here.
  4. What steps have Flats employers taken in the past to promote public transit usage among their patrons and employees? What about to promote public transit funding and support among the general public? Do they participate in RTA’s Commuter Advantage program? Do they subsidize transit passes? Seeing them actually stick their necks out for transit would mean a lot more, particularly in light of the sea of surface parking lots that they’ve constructed in the area.

Answering these lingering questions would not have mollified both sides, but it may have given us the information we needed to make a more informed opinion.

[Insert obligatory line blaming the State of Ohio for not funding transit.]

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  • neroden

    Maybe the RTA could consider *scheduling* service on the Waterfront line. With its current low ridership, it can’t support “turn up and ride” (15 minute frequencies) levels of service.

    But it probably could support a morning commuter run, an evening commuter run, a late night commuter run, and a shuttle to meet the Amtrak trains at two AM. (That would be 8 trips each way.) This is thinking outside the box, but is probably what is needed.

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