When it comes to Public Square, where have all the bollards gone?

public square drawings bollards
public square drawings bollards

If you look closely, you will see retractable bollards on Superior, running parallel to West and East Roadways in this rendering from Field Operations (courtesy of Cleveland.com).

Last week, Mayor Frank Jackson and Chief of Police Calvin Williams sent separate letters to the Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx and Federal Transit Administration acting head Carolyn Flowers, respectively, in which they asked the two agencies to extend the deadline for GCRTA to pay the $12 million fine for closing the Public Square bus lanes.

Both letters emphasized the city’s safety concerns, particularly the threat that someone may use the 600-foot stretch of Superior Avenue to drive a large truck into a crowd of people, as we saw unfold in the tragic attacks in Nice and Berlin.

Chief Williams’ letter, in particular, echoed earlier statements from Public Safety Director Michael McGrath:

Of particular concern is the recent and continued use of motor vehicles by terrorists to attack citizens attending public events. Ohio is one of a few states to receive particular attention by federal authorities in the past few months. Opening Public Square to cross traffic allows a determined individual to gain speed traveling on Superior Avenue and divert directly into a crowd gathered on the square.

The threat of terrorism should always be accounted for, as it is an all too common reality in today’s world. But, while Mayor Jackson and his public safety officials keep hyping it time and time again as a justification for closing the Square, they have failed to even discuss alternative options to – say it with me – mitigate this risk.

Let’s ignore, for a minute, whether or not GCRTA or the FTA has any regulatory obligation to address this question, as Mayor Jackson keeps insisting, and take him at his word.

I’ve met the Mayor on a few occasions, and I’ve always found him to be a polite man who is generous with his time and seems to legitimately care about the people he is supposed to serve. So I am willing to believe that he honestly worries about the safety risks. That said, why does he appear so ardently opposed to considering other options, short of closing the Square entirely?

The threat from vehicles is not new

As Chief Williams noted in his letter, there is “particularly concern” stemming from “the recent and continued use of motor vehicles by terrorists.”

But we should not be ahistorical and pretend that this trend is somehow new. Quite the opposite. Terrorists have been using vehicles as weapons for decades now, stemming back at least to the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993.

In response, cities around the world have installed barriers to prevent individuals from getting their vehicles close enough to buildings to cause the type of devastation we witnessed in this attack. As New York University professor Marita Sturken described in her book Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero:

The 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing both had high destructive impact because trucks were able to get into or next to the buildings. This has produced and industry in the construction of such devices as bollards and NoGos. Steel or concrete bollards, which now surround the vast majority of government buildings, are designed to stop a truck going fifty miles an hour. Sleek bollards are a now a key feature of security design…While Washington, D.C., has been the site of the most obvious barriers for federal buildings, there are now many projects to situate bollards around tourist sites such as the Washington Mall in ways that are less intrusive and more aesthetically pleasing.

So why did the City of Cleveland and its partners in the Public Square redesign not include concrete bollards, NoGos, or some other form of vehicle barrier along the curbs on Superior Avenue to – you guessed it – mitigate these terrorism concerns?

Vehicle barriers already exist in Cleveland

It’s not as though, like contemporary fashion, these design features have stayed on the East Coast and not yet filtered over to Cleveland yet. On the contrary, we already have bollards, barriers, and planters installed outside of buildings throughout downtown, including City Hall, the Federal Reserve Bank, the Federal Building, and Key Tower, which sits just steps from the newly redesigned Square. We already had the foresight to install them at other sensitive locations, so why not Public Square?

 

Moreover, we have already installed bollards curbside along other public green spaces in Cleveland! East and West Mall Drives run parallel to Mall B downtown. As you can see below, in order to lower the risk that a car could jump the curb from those streets and crash into a gathering on the Mall, officials installed bollards. We’re already doing this.

bollards west mall drive

Bollards, both permanent and removable, abut West Mall Drive, protecting Mall B from vehicles.

We need to talk about the Malls

But, unlike Public Square, not every public green space in downtown Cleveland has raised the same breathless specter of terrorism. Venture just across the street south to Mall A, and you can see that the bollards disappear. The same thing happens when you head north to Mall C. Hell, even if you just go around the corner on Mall B, there are no bollards abutting St. Clair.

 

Each of the Malls runs along wide avenues – St. Clair and Lakeside – that can hold high volumes of traffic moving at high speeds. Each of them includes curb cuts that could allow someone to drive up off the street without being slowed down.

These Malls have been the sites of many large public gatherings, from protests to yoga classes to art installations to the Gay Games Festival Village and the Cleveland Orchestra’s Fourth of July concert. Where was the administration raising terrorism concerns when they were redesigned on the public dime, also to much fanfare? What makes Public Square so uniquely vulnerable?

I understand that the Square has a street bifurcating it, but similar conditions exist just a stone’s throw away.

What happened to the retractable bollards?

More galling, the original design of the Square, which starchitect James Corner unveiled in 2014, actually included retractable bollards at the intersections of Superior and East and West Roadways, which could be raised to close the street for special events. The City and its partners included these bollards in the plan, but scrapped them somewhere along the way.

Whose call was this? What was the justification?

So what’s really going on here?

Even if you take the administration at their word and assume their motives are pure, their arguments don’t hold up to scrutiny. This raises the question – what is their actual motivation?

Is it the Mayor’s assertion that the City was shocked by how popular the new space was? Are we honestly supposed to believe that the City spent tens of millions of dollars on a new Public Square, under the assumption that a few dozen people would maybe use it sometimes?

Or could it be, as Councilman Zack Reed suggested and Chief of Staff Ken Silliman perhaps accidentally admitted on November 30, that the businesses in and around the Square (including those who helped fund its completion) don’t want “those people” hanging around, waiting for the bus? If this is your real motivation, I urge you to reconsider.

Ultimately, each of these arguments falls apart when you actually hold it under the microscope.

We never should have gotten to this point, where GCRTA is facing a potentially crippling fine. Our elected and appointed officials should be able to demonstrate even a modicum of foresight and planning on issues such as this.

Public Square is an outstanding public space, and everyone should be able to utilize it. But, despite its many excellent features that make it unique in Cleveland, it is not uniquely vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

If you want to mitigate this risk, by all means do so. But that does not require closing the Square to buses.

That ‘Cleveland rail shutdown’ looks more likely by the day

red line winter
red line winter

The aging infrastructure and rail cars on GCRTA’s Red Line have struggled to cope with the past two brutal winters in Cleveland (courtesy of YouTube).

WCPN has a story today from Nick Castele on the untenable fiscal position in which the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA) finds itself. All Aboard Ohio, the rail advocacy organization, recently ran a post arguing that GCRTA’s rail cars are rapidly approaching the end of their useful life, and the system faces an “unavoidable” rail shutdown sometime after 2020 without a substantial infusion of capital.

Castele interviewed GCRTA’s General Manager Joe Calabrese, who confirmed much of All Abroad Ohio’s account, though the agency has sought to downplay the hysteria around the issue. According to Calabrese, GCRTA needs to raise $280 million in capital funds by 2025 to replace 65-70 of its aging rail cars. He emphasized that GCRTA “can’t get there alone. It’s going to take a more major investment.”

What Calabrese failed to discuss is what happens if that influx of funding doesn’t materialize. As I have discussed on a number of occasions, I’m not sure it would be possible for the State of Ohio to care less about public transit if it tried. The state provided just $7.3 million in general funds for transit in its latest budget, down 83.5% from 2000. So, at that rate, Ohio won’t scrape together $280 million for all transit funding throughout the entire state for another 38.4 years.

But that obviously doesn’t accurately reflect the state funding actually coming GCRTA’s way. In recent years, the state has broken transit funding into four main tranches: the Urban Transit Program, the Rural Transit Program, the Elderly and Disabled Transit Fare Assistance Program (E&D), and coordination grants (which it eliminated in 2009). Because Northeast Ohio is an urbanized area with a population well over 50,000, GCRTA receives funding from the Urban Transit Program. Given that it is the largest transit agency in the state, it receives the biggest chunk of urban transit funding (18%) each year. The agency used to receive E&D funding ($2.8 million per year in 2008-2009), but the state eliminated that funding for urban areas in 2009, reallocating it to rural agencies.

ohio transit funding 2000-2014

Transit funding, by program, from the Ohio Department of Transportation from 2000-2014 (courtesy of ODOT).

The only problem is that urban transit funding has evaporated in Ohio. For fiscal year 2016, GCRTA will receive $1,360,080 in funding through this program. If the agency devoted every penny of this allocation to procuring new rail cars, it would only take 206 years for it to save up $280 million. But, once again, this actually exaggerates Ohio’s support, as it includes federal funds. Urban transit funding from the state has, quite literally, fallen off a cliff since 2001. Whereas the 2000-2001 budget provided nearly $30 million in total funding for urban transit operators, that funding was halved in 2002 and has continued to dwindle to just $1.4 million by 2014. Given that GCRTA gets 18% of this funding, the state is really providing roughly $252,000 of its budget to fund transit in Northeast Ohio. Accordingly, if we wanted Ohio to foot the bill for this, GCRTA could expect to get its new rail cars running sometime in the year 3126.

It still seems a bit hyperbolic to claim that GCRTA’s light and heavy rail lines will inevitably shut down next decade. But, unless something changes dramatically at the Statehouse, the odds of that outcome increase each day.