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Next Gen RTA Committee recommends route changes to the Regional Transit Authority Board of Trustees

by Bruce Checefsky

(Plain Press, January 2021) Joel Freilich, Director of Service Management, Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA), reminded board members at the RTA Board & Next Gen RTA Committee meeting on December 15th that working closely with Jarrett Walker & Associates and local stakeholders, the public had spoken, and he listened. Priority trips to work, education, and health care topped the list of needs. The public asked for more frequent service all day and more direct transportation with fewer transfers needed between city areas and the suburbs. 

     “We conducted a large public involvement process in person and virtually in 2019 and did a follow-up public engagement in 2020,” said Freilich. “We listened.”

     The NEXT GEN RTA website and comment portal went live between mid-October and late November 2020 under his direction, in an effort to enhance public engagement with the process. Five virtual public hearings were held on Facebook. Jarrett Walker & Associates reached out to individual residents, community leaders and advocates early in the process, according to Freilich. The Cuyahoga County Suburban Mayors and City Managers Association, suburban mayors and Cleveland City Council Transportation Committee were among the groups contacted.

     Pleased with the quality and quantity of the comments, Freilich said, “The comments were on point and focused on our proposals. As expected, there were a lot more views than comments. Most people were satisfied with our work.” 

     Social media posts drove the campaign for the most part. RTA paid for booster posts on Facebook along with posting on Instagram and Twitter. Every proposed route was posted on the RTA website along with current route to compare and contrast the changes. Maps showed routes and text with tables to describe the proposal. A person could submit a comment by clicking on the webpage.

     For residents without computer or Internet access, questionnaires were provided upon request. An answer line was set up at RTA offices to leave comments six days a week.

     Despite the social media blitz, 47% of responses came from frequent or semi-regular RTA riders categorized as one ride per week or more, while 41% came from infrequent or non-riders. Only 12% of respondents did not own a car in their households. Compared to the population at large, seniors were the most underrepresented in the survey population. People ages 25-34 and under 24 were the most overrepresented.

     Cleveland ranks as the worst-connected large city for Internet in the United States in 2019, according to the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, a United States nonprofit organization that brings together over 300 non-profit organizations, policymakers, and academics to advocate for national access to broadband and to put an end to the multiple digital divides. About 30% of Cleveland households had no broadband access, and 45% had no wired connection.

     Public approval rating for Cleveland public transportation ranked near the bottom in a new report on the best public transportation systems in America, according to the Brookings Institute. Share of workers who use public transit was below 3% and less than 65% of RTA stations are ADA-accessible. 

     Several adjustments to the RTA proposal were based on feedback from the community. Improvements include seven-day service to Tremont Pointe on #25 MADISON-CLARK (designed to replace #81 TREMONT-STORER) with continued regular service along W25th Street at Riverview Towers and Lakeview Terrace.

     On the East Side, #9 MAYFIELD-HOUGH (designed to replace #38 HOUGH) will provide service along Hough Ave every 30 min during weekday AM and PM rush; 45 min midday; and 60 min service weekday evenings. Weekend service every 60 min on Saturday evening, Sunday midday and evening. #38 HOUGH will be discontinued under the new plan.

     Other changes to the system will be noted on their website: http://www.riderta.com/nextgen

     RTA plans to coordinate and implement the changes in June 2021. An extensive education program is planned for the spring.

     Justin Bibb, RTA board member since 2018 and rumored to have an interest in running for Mayor City of Cleveland in 2021, asked whether any of the Community Development Corporations (CDC), particularly in the City of Cleveland, had been consulted for the report. Bibb reportedly received a number of complaints from several CDC leaders that they were not involved in the decision-making process. Freilich explained that while some CDC’s had been included in the community outreach, generally, the councilperson spoke on behalf of the CDC with input from Cleveland City Planning Commission.

     Elaine Gohlstin, Director at Harvard Community Services Center in the Lee-Harvard neighborhood, said that while she reviewed the information on the RTA website, and responded accordingly, no one from RTA reached out to her, or the community. 

     “That would have been very helpful,” she said. “We had a lot of questions.”

     Executive Director of Ohio City Inc., Thomas McNair, shared similar concerns. “We’re on the ground floor of community involvement. In fact, we’re the worms view of community concerns,” he said. “Residents of Lakeview Terrace were being asked to walk to Detroit Ave to catch #25 MADISON-CLARK, for example, when many elderly and handicap residents can’t make the trip. It might as well be three miles not three blocks. If RTA had talked to us early in the process, we could have told them so.”

     Bibb reiterated that reaching out to the community has to be more proactive. He recommended that more effort take place within the RTA to do intentional outreach to each executive director of the CDC for feedback. “We have to go above and beyond,” he said.

     “If your mission is to promote development in a particular area of Cleveland, this is an enormous benefit to support what you’re doing,” Freilich said in response to Bibb’s question, suggesting that route decisions were based, in part, on areas where new development throughout the city is more likely to occur.

     “The number of jobs within 1/2 mile of a frequent service, every 15 minutes, will increase by 50,000 jobs or 25%. The number residents living within 1/2 mile of a frequent service will increase by 167,000, doubling the current numbers,” he added.

     In a conversation with the Plain Press, Chris Stocking from Clevelanders for Public Transportation (CPT) noted that many workers at retail malls in the suburbs depend on transit. The redesign helps connect riders to these jobs from the city to the suburbs. To solve this problem, CPT has called on the RTA Board to support the “expanded funding” system redesign. “This way service could be maintained in lower ridership parts of Cleveland while expanding service out to jobs in the suburbs. Unfortunately, RTA has stopped discussing the “expanded funding” (which assumes 25% additional funding) when they rebranded to the NextGen proposal recently,” Stocking said. “RTA is being asked to serve jobs in far out suburbs instead of downtown with less resources. The decline in population in Cuyahoga County means less sales tax revenue.”

     “The region needs to come together to plan how to prevent sprawl. A good starting place is Cuyahoga County’s Climate Action Plan that includes transportation as a focus area,” he added. “But what is being done to coordinate this? Armond Budish hasn’t been public about supporting transit and I don’t see any coordinated plan to change sprawl development.”

     A vote by the Next Gen RTA committee to forward the proposal to the full RTA board was unanimously approved.

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