RTA Traffic Studies Support Opening Public Square to Buses

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Joe Calabrese addresses the media Tuesday morning (2/7/2017). - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
  • Joe Calabrese addresses the media Tuesday morning (2/7/2017).
In what Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA) CEO and General Manager Joe Calabrese said was not a surprise Tuesday morning, two studies commissioned by the agency support opening Superior Avenue through Public Square.

A safety study performed by K&J Safety and Security Consulting Services found that the closure of Superior has "increased operational risk" to motor vehicles and pedestrians around the Square while also creating traffic "choke points." It asserted, notably, that "security and terrorism vulnerabilities," which Mayor Frank Jackson has cited as one of his primary reasons for closing Superior, "exist whether Superior Avenue is open or closed."

(This is not the first corrective to the Jackson administration's terrorism narrative. Last month, the Plain Dealer's Ginger Christ consulted local counter terrorism experts, who said that Public Square was no more of a security risk than many other public spaces in the city.)

A traffic study performed by the engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff found that closing Superior does indeed cause traffic delays and costs RTA an additional $805,300 per year in operating expenses. Both the delays and the costs, however, were less than estimates from the 2011 Nelson-Nygard study, due in part to reduced traffic around the square more broadly.

The study also assessed the effects of making operational improvements elsewhere in the downtown transit zone. Jackson and Calabrese had said that by using things like dedicated lanes and traffic signal prioritization, the operational impact of closing Public Square could be mitigated.

Parsons Brinckerhoff created a scenario that included the implementation of "semi-actuated signal operations" (traffic light prioritization) at 16 downtown intersections. But in that model, bus travel time was only reduced by 20 seconds during the morning rush hour and 26.5 seconds in the evening. If Superior were open, by contrast, average bus travel time would be reduced by 71.5 seconds in the morning and 60 seconds in the evening.

In a conversation with media Tuesday morning, Calabrese said the two studies "confirmed what [RTA] felt all along," and that conversations with the City will be ongoing over the next two weeks as a Feb. 21 deadline from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) nears. RTA has been in breach of a prior funding agreement since Superior Avenue was closed and will owe $12 million on Feb. 21 if Superior is not re-opened.

Calabrese said that he is meeting with the FTA in Washington D.C. on Thursday at 10 a.m. to "go over some of the aspects behind the $12 million number."

"We're really hoping for a resolution at this point," said Calabrese. "I think many of us were hoping that with the traffic mitigation changes we could be as efficient — even more efficient — than it being open. Unfortunately, that was not the result of the study. That would've been a key point of discussion on Thursday."

Was that a surprise? A reporter asked.

"No, it wasn't a surprise," Calabrese said. "Knowing the system the way we do, knowing the amount of bus traffic we have, the roughly 1,000 buses that now have to go around and not through Public Square, it not only slows up RTA traffic, it slows up other traffic as well."

This is a stark departure from rhetoric at the initial announcement of Superior's closure. On Nov. 15, during a hastily called press conference, both Frank Jackson and Calabrese — and the following week, the Mayor's Chief of Staff Ken Silliman — were brimming with confidence about the effects of traffic mitigation tactics in the downtown transit zone.

"We're going to look at the whole transit zone and use some strategies that have been successful to more than make up for the delays at Public Square," Calabrese said that evening. "We hope to show the FTA that this will be an even better program for greater Cleveland."

But the studies confirm what Calabrese is now saying RTA felt all along.

The RTA board of trustees, who met Tuesday morning, and the media were presented with summaries of both studies Tuesday. Calabrese called the full versions "voluminous," and "very, very comprehensive" but as of yet unfinished. He said he felt obligated to distribute them now because the key findings were unlikely to change and because the media had continued to ask for them.

The local transit advocacy group Clevelanders for Public Transit released a statement later Tuesday in response. They said that, given the Parsons Brinckerhoff estimates, RTA has already spent more than $420,000 due to re-routing buses around the Square, not to mention the $60,000 for the study itself. The study's cost has in fact ballooned, Calabrese admitted Tuesday, to an unknown number pegged at "more than $60,000, less than $100,000."

"GCRTA... cannot afford to wait any longer," the Clevelanders for Public Transit statement read. "The studies show that the only way to adequately mitigate safety concerns about Public Square is to reopen the Superior Avenue bus lanes... We need to make transit more convenient, not less convenient. It is well past time to reopen Public Square."

[Here are the conclusions from the K&J Safety Study:]
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