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Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA) launches 25Connects Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project

Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA) launches 25Connects Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project

by Bruce Checefsky

(Plain Press, April 2021)      During the height of COVID19 pandemic last summer, the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA) launched 25Connects, a community planning process that aimed to provide the design recommendations and tools to support a future West 25th Street corridor with walkable, transit-supportive, mixed-use community development along RTA’s bus rapid transit (BRT) line. BRT refers to a high-quality bus-based transit system that delivers fast and efficient service.

NEWS ANALYSIS

   Over three miles long, the West 25th Street corridor between Detroit Avenue and Broadview Road spans five neighborhoods: Ohio City, Tremont, Clark-Fulton, Brooklyn Centre, and Old Brooklyn. The study area is home to 44,000 residents— 11% of Cleveland’s total population. The MetroHealth Line includes the 51, 51A, 51B and 51C bus routes, which operate more than 200 bus trips per day.

   Several virtual community events took place between July 2020 and February 2021 aiming to provide recommendations for the design of the new bus stops and for the policy and design guidelines that will impact new transit-oriented development (TOD) along the corridor.

   The consultant team of Stantec Inc. and Seventh Hill were hired by GCRTA to provide recommendations and policy initiatives for the next phase of design, which will support a formal application for federal funding to construct the BRT line when completed. The total cost for the design planning is $414,000. Most of the project cost is covered by a $336,000 federal grant. RTA pays the remainder. GCRTA selected the consultants in January 2020 through a competitive Request for Proposal (RFP) process.

   Seventh Hill, founded by David Jurca, is an urban design consultancy dedicated to transforming people and places through measurable experiences. The Cleveland-based firm focuses on improving user experiences in the public realm through appropriate technology and insightful research. 

   Stantec Inc. is an international professional services company in the design and consulting business with over 22,000 employees operating out of more than 350 locations in North America and across offices in 6 continents internationally. The company provides professional consulting services in planning, engineering, architecture, interior design, landscape architecture, surveying, environmental sciences, project management, and project economics for infrastructure and facilities projects.

   Stantec Inc. was at the center of a whistleblower lawsuit in 2019 when contractors charged a Honolulu rail project for hundreds of change orders that added more than $20 million to the project. An employee of Stantec, who was eventually terminated by the company, alleged that contractors charged for “hundreds of change orders” without getting approval from the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART). The whistleblower suit came as the rail authority faced criminal investigations into escalating costs. Stantec officials denied the allegations.

   In 2016, The City of Winnipeg filed a lawsuit against Stantec Inc. alleging the firm was negligent in its design and construction of the Sturgeon Creek Bridge. A year prior to the lawsuit, the Town of Plymouth in Massachusetts won a landmark $22.8 million settlement over sewer collapse in which Stantec Consulting Services, Inc. had worked on the design.

   The GCRTA 25Connects plan includes a bus rapid transit (BRT) design for the corridor highlighting the common themes and expressing the unique character of each community with a foundational policy and urban design toolkit to implement new transit-oriented development along West 25th Street to support walkable, transit-focused communities, according to a RTA spokesperson.  A review of current market conditions and financial tools will provide opportunities for a new transit-oriented development along West 25th Street and identify factors that will provide equitable housing opportunities along the corridor, ensuring displacement and gentrification are kept to a minimum.

   David Dixon, Principal Project Director, and Craig Sklenar, Project Manager, from Stantec Inc., are leading the Cleveland project.

   “It’s great to be here,” said Dixon during the first interactive virtual meeting last year. “Cleveland is a city that is dear to my heart. This is an exciting and important project particularly now.”

   Sklenar introduced the rest of the consulting team including David Jurca from Seventh Hill, as well as several residents from the community, and Maribeth Feke, RTA’s director of programs and planning.

   “We see this as a unifying project along the West 25th Street corridor,” said Sklenar. “We want to explore how we’re living and working together.”

   The community engagement process was used to figure out what residents need in terms of bus service transit along the corridor and provide a foundational document for schematic designs. Sklenar was looking for a clear vision from the community that could be implemented effectively, according to him.

   “If we’re creating a premium bus service to increase density population along the corridor, we have to make sure real estate developers and investors understand how to make it happen,” said Sklenar. 

   Transit Orientated Development (TOD), a central component of the Stantec study, is built upon density, diversity, and design. Density ensures there’s enough critical mass to create a premium transit service servicing everything from single family homes to high-rise apartment complexes. Dixon and his team at Stantec, along with Jurca and Seventh Hill, will make recommendations that will include increasing density while creating the tools needed for investment along the corridor. Diversity is not limited to the makeup of the population, according to the initial study. Activities play a large role towards a vital, walkable transit connected urban community. Building typology is part of the diversity plan; design ensures both the private sector and public sector have equal footing in the creative process.

   “We want to make sure that new and innovative ideas have room to adapt within the framework that we’re creating,” Sklenar said.

   Life and vitality are returning to the city of Cleveland like never before, according to Dixon. For RTA, the project concept which began before COIVD19 matters more now than ever. Dixon believes that regional demographics are changing in favor of urban lifestyles, emphasizing the need to ensure that equity is built into city planning including public transit. 

   “One of the things we know about COVID19 is that people of color and lower income are suffering the most,” he said. “We have to create housing where people won’t need to own or operate a car. You may have seen stuff on social media saying people are leaving cities but in fact, the data all shows that is not the case. People want to live in walkable places.”

   Despite Dixon’s optimism, Cleveland’s population declined annually since 2012 by 2.3%, even as the U.S. population grew by 3.8% over the same period. Over a third of Cleveland residents live in poverty, more than three times the national average. Most major urban study reports point to the lack of businesses and jobs in disadvantaged urban areas as a cause for increased crime, poverty, deterioration and decline of the inner city. Politico, a company that focuses on fostering journalism focusing on politics and policy both in the United States and throughout the world, recently reported that teleworking, not the coronavirus, is making urban living obsolete. 

   Office leasing activity in Cleveland declined 70 percent last year. Working from home will remain the norm, experts say. Once the vaccine program has been successfully administered, many businesses could switch to a mix of days in the office and at home.

   At the final RTA 25Connects virtual community meeting held on February 25, 2021, Sklenar rolled out a list of diagnostics and statistics from their research. Dixon added that corridors like West 25th Street are ‘our small towns’. People want to live close to the convenience of shopping and meeting friends. The deep underlying fundamental trends in the economy have not changed as a result of the COVID19 pandemic, according to him. Most of the new urban jobs require advanced education and training, and they tend to attract creative people.   

   “Jobs follow the workforce into the cities where mixed use and walkable neighborhoods need public transit,” he said, adding, “COVID19 has not correlated with people leaving cities. Poverty and race have.” 

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