Transit Where? Public Square: An Update on the City's Biggest Debate

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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.)
The battle lines were more clearly drawn and more muscularly fortified in the city’s Public Square debate this weekend, as regional media powerhouse Cleveland.com sided with Mayor Frank Jackson.

Jackson announced last month that the strip of Superior Avenue through Public Square would be permanently closed to buses. And in an editorial published in Sunday’s Plain Dealer, the editorial board agreed: Public Square should be closed to buses, they said, “for the public’s sake.”

Which public? One might wonder. And it’s a good question. City Councilman Zack Reed, in a meeting last week dedicated to the issue, said Mayor Jackson had spurned transit riders once again, making a dictatorial decision that appeased downtown property owners and business elites who wanted a "$50 million playground" and who viewed bus riders as “low-lifes” and “thugs.” The decision is a double-whammy for riders, who already feel maligned and marginalized by RTA's decision this year to raise fares and cut routes in the face of a budget imperiled by dwindling state support.

(Calling Jackson a “dictator,” by the way, is the sort of catchy rhetoric that can be expected from Reed’s presumed Mayoral run.)

City officials have justified closing Public Square on the grounds of safety, citing concerns — terrorism among them — that were criticized, if not openly mocked, by City Council. Those concerns were nonetheless embraced and advanced by the Cleveland.com editorial board.

“After the truck attack in Nice, France, no mayor ought to overlook the possibility of terrorism,” the scribes warned. “Public squares were designed in a quieter time before terrorist considerations and wheezing block-long buses were prevalent. Cleveland's redesigned Public Square has recaptured what it means to have a centrally located, signature pedestrian-oriented gathering space within a city.”

For the record, these are the pedestrians that both Jackson and the editorial board seem to be concerned with:
  • Children.
  • Tourists.
  • “Other visitors who now stroll from side to side of the Square.”
There is no mention of the fact that transit riders, up until the moment they board a bus, are also pedestrians, and many of them are also children.

The editorial appeared on the second page of Sunday’s Forum Section (E2, in the parlance), alongside a letter from Content VP Chris Quinn about Cleveland.com’s plans to reinvent their political coverage. During the election season, Quinn wrote, Cleveland.com's five-person political team did not “talk to or take seriously” people with “dire financial woes,” and they failed to see the prevalence of Donald Trump support in Ohio. Quinn said a concrete plan was still in the works, but that part of their new approach would involve traveling the state to “talk to people from all walks of life.”

SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
That’s an idea worth championing, and it’s one that ought to be practiced locally as well. Transit reporter Ginger Christ, who toils on the Plain Dealer side, wrote a piece in the wake of last week’s council meeting titled “In Closing Public Square, People Say Mayor Forgot About Them.” It noted the virtually unanimous opposition to Jackson’s decision during the public-comment portion of the meeting and the fact that all but one representative from Jackson’s administration had departed before the public got a chance to speak. The piece appeared to take seriously, as the city so often does not, the views of people with dire financial woes.

Talking to and taking seriously the views of daily transit riders, of course, doesn’t mean the editorial board has to agree with them; and the Cleveland.com piece does advise that “loyal riders” — Isn't it telling that they’re referred to in the same way as, e.g., season ticket holders? — shouldn’t be ignored. But it’s a gross mischaracterization to assign blame and responsibility for the problem (“If a problem exists,” they actually say,) to RTA.

“RTA has to work harder and in a more transparent way,” the editorial board argues, while giving Jackson a pass for his private, unilateral decision making and failing to mention the $2.6 million in additional operating expenses that RTA will incur every year due to the rerouting; likewise failing to mention the $12 million in federal support now jeopardized.

Jackson and Joe Calabrese are thought to be preparing a proposal for the Federal Transit Administration, detailing ways in which the city plans to mitigate the operational impact caused by rerouting buses around the Square.

The Mayor's Chief of Staff, Ken Silliman, was confident at last week's meeting that the proposal would be accepted, thereby rescuing the $12 million. When asked what the city would do if the FTA did not accept, Silliman said the city would "cross that bridge when [they came] to it."

The city would provide no update on the proposal's progress. RTA told Scene Monday morning only that the submission had not yet been made.

On Saturday afternoon, RTA riders and transit advocates gathered on a chilly Public Square to protest the closure. Speakers from Clevelanders for Public Transit, All Aboard Ohio, the Amalgamated Transit Union and others gave personal testimony. The demonstrators gazed out from the open windows of a plywood RTA bus, constructed and painted by six organizers the night before. Chants of “Transit Where? Public Square! Transit Where? Public Square!” were interspersed among the prepared remarks, which alluded to the financial woes of riders, the RTA, and the city of Cleveland itself, which not only just secured an income tax hike but is also actively seeking cooperation from the Republican-controlled state legislature to quash local minimum-wage legislation, another popular issue among the transit advocacy crowd.

Zack Reed, from the front of the bus, muttered “dictator” twice at the mention of Frank Jackson’s name. He couldn’t contain himself.

The Public Square issue is picking up considerable steam. City Council vowed that last week's hearing would be the first of many on the topic and local media outlets are getting wise to the issue's civic importance. Scene spoke on The Sound of Ideas Thursday morning about the council meeting the previous day; and Cleveland 19 News, of all earthly outlets, published an editorial of its own, calling out the city for making this an issue long after it had any right to.

"This editorial lasts about a minute," said Eric Schrader, the station's General Manager, in the video screed, "which is about a minute longer than the time spent getting public input on a situation that impacts a lot of people."


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