With Public Square, Work Always Seems to be "Ongoing" Behind Closed Doors

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SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
It's anybody's guess what Mayor Frank Jackson, RTA General Manager Joe Calabrese and representatives from the traffic engineering firm of Parsons Brinckerhoff are discussing behind closed doors. Just like the decision to close Public Square to buses, the planning for the downtown transit zone in the wake of that decision is being conducted outside the public eye.

The above parties are presumed to be working on a report for the Federal Transit Administration, though no one has been able to estimate how far along they are or when the report might be submitted to the federal agency. Work, according to the RTA, is "ongoing."

"We will update when we know more," a spokesperson told Scene.

At a press conference on November 15, Jackson and Calabrese told a stunned press corps that Superior Avenue would be permanently closed to buses through Public Square. After the $50 million Square was fully redesigned and built with a bus lane through the middle, the announcement came as a shock, especially because the design was never even tried in its intended form. It was closed to buses from Day One.

Daily riders and other transit advocates have mounted protests ever since the decision was made official. Many weren't and aren't persuaded by Mayor Jackson's rationale. He has cited safety concerns — including terrorism — and the overwhelming popularity of Public Square as his two chief reasons for keeping buses off Superior.

Cleveland.com agreed with him. The editorial board wrote that Jackson was right to close the Square to bus traffic and that Public Square should remain that way, "for the public's sake."

Jackson and Calabrese said that the next step would be seeking FTA concurrence on a new traffic plan that would be completed within 10-14 days of the Nov. 15 press conference. It has now been 35 days since the announcement, and it's unclear how close the plan is to completion.

That plan is intended to persuade the FTA that the "operational impact" (i.e. traffic delays) caused by re-routing buses around Public Square can be sufficiently mitigated by other means. At both the press conference and at a city council hearing on November 30, officials informally proposed things like traffic signal prioritization and dedicated bus lanes. The plan is crucial because $12 million may hang in the balance. That money was awarded to Cleveland as part of the Health Line BRT project, and when Jackson closed the Square to buses, he breached the agreement, which stipulated that Public Square would remain a transit hub.

As has been reported, the current plan is being composed with help from the Montreal-based Parsons Brinckerhoff. Tuesday, the PD's Ginger Christ reported that RTA is picking up the $60,000 tab for the firm's engineering expertise. Messages to Parsons Brinckerhoff's New York office were not immediately returned.

When Scene reached the FTA last week, a spokesperson emailed a statement which was about as clear and helpful as the city's response (which has been silence).

"The Federal Transit Administration understands that the City of Cleveland and the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA) are drafting a proposal for the FTA’s review regarding the recent changes to the Healthline BRT around Public Square," the FTA said. "We have not yet received it, but will review it upon receipt. The FTA has not made a final decision on the matter."

City Councilman Kerry McCormack, in whose Ward Public Square resides, said he's had many conversations with residents and stakeholders since the Council hearing, but that he hasn't been part of or privy to any official meetings outside of council. One of the primary concerns voiced by council members at the November 30 hearing was that they'd been left out of the initial decision-making process. They had no idea it was happening. Councilman Brian Cummins specifically asked for a council liaison so that the legislative body could be apprised of developments.

McCormack told Scene that council's transportation committee would be taking up the issue once again after their legislative recess ends in January.


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