Public Square Opens to Buses with New, Ugly Safety Features

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Like ships in the night, the No. 26 eastbound and the No. 22 westbound pass on Superior. - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
  • Like ships in the night, the No. 26 eastbound and the No. 22 westbound pass on Superior.
Bright and early Monday morning, RTA buses began traveling through Public Square for the first time in two years. After months of negotiations between the City of Cleveland, the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA) and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), Mayor Frank Jackson relented at last and agreed to open Superior Avenue through the Square with a few modifications.

Superior was supposed to have opened to buses August 1 but never did. After weeks of private deliberations, Mayor Jackson and RTA CEO and General Manager Joe Calabrese announced on Nov. 15 that the Square would be closed to buses permanently. That announcement rankled many of those who depend on public transit, those concerned about the forsaken $50-million James Corner design and City Council, who had been as deprived of information as every other citizen.

Mounting public pressure and a looming FTA debt forced Frank Jackson's hand. After the completion of both a traffic and safety study last month and extensive testing last week, the Square was deemed suitable and safe for buses.

To expedite matters, if the Square did not open by Tuesday, the FTA would have demanded the repayment of a $12 million debt caused by Superior's closure. The FTA had granted RTA two extensions, but said that March 7 would be its final deadline.

Monday, the four bus routes that were originally designed to serve stops on Superior began to do so: the No. 3, No. 26, No. 38, and No. 81. Additionally, the No. 22, No. 45, No. 51, No. 55, No. 79, and the suburban Park-and-Rides No. 246, No. 251 and No. 263 ran through the Square without making stops. The only difference from the original plan was that the E-line Trolley continued to go around the Square instead of through it.

Clevelanders for Public Transit, the organizing coalition that mobilized in the wake of the decision to keep Public Square closed,  announced its excitement at the long-awaited decision in a press release.

"We remain optimistic that the new configuration will be improved and optimized for GCRTA riders and operators, pedestrians, individuals with disabilities, as well as cyclists," the group wrote. "Reopening Superior through Public Square increases safety in a pedestrian-heavy area....Most of all, we want to thank riders for their patience."

Clevelanders for Public Transit will be handing out 216 donuts at 5 p.m. Monday to signify the 216 days since August 1 when Superior was originally to have opened. (216, incidentally, is also Cleveland's area code.)


THE CHANGES:
Superior is now the site of some very ugly new features, added ostensibly for the purposes of safety. Concrete jersey barriers (the same sort that you see on highway construction projects) now funnel pedestrians from the two original crosswalks to a new brightly striped crosswalk. Yellow ramps have been added to help those with disabilities or limited mobility get from the curb to the crosswalk.

The striping was completed by RTA. The barriers were installed by the city. And though they're thought to be temporary — the hope, according to one RTA staff member working at the Square on Monday, is that the city will install bollards eventually — some observers are convinced Mayor Jackson wanted to make the Square unsightly on purpose, as an act of revenge.

"These do nothing," said Ken Prendergast, Executive Director of the transit advocacy group All Aboard Ohio, when asked about the barricades. "They're there for the city to prove that they were right all along, and that any kind of solution to bring buses to the Square will be completely ugly. It's ugly by design, so that people will say let's go back to how it was."

Prendergast argued that the Square remained accessible from the north and south sides, and that the city's safety concerns — Jackson has been preoccupied with the threat of lone-wolf terrorists using Superior to barrel into gathered pedestrians — are specious, given the other points of entry.

"I know that terrorists aren't the most brilliant people in the world," Prendergast said, "but any terrorist with two eyes and a pea for a brain could see that there are other ways to drive onto the Square. Yet these transit-only lanes are supposedly the weak, vulnerable spot that will be exploited by the terrorists of the world. Thank God the city's there to save us!"

Prendergast scoffed at the yellow ramps and called the entire set-up on Superior the "most bizarre thing [he'd] ever seen."

"The city either has no idea what they want to do long term, or they're doing this expressly because it's ugly," Prendergast said. "It's either expedient or it's tactical. But either way, it's mind-blowing."

In addition, bike markings on Superior have been removed. RTA deferred all questions on that subject to the city, which handles bike lanes. But the city did not respond to Scene's requests for comment.

The Plain Dealer reported that Robert Mavec, the city's traffic engineering commissioner, wrote Bike Cleveland Executive Director Jacob VanSickle an email stating that the removal of the bike markings were necessary, but not permanent.

"This is a temporary condition as we work through a final design concept that will incorporate all users and satisfy the safety concerns," Mavec wrote in that email.


CITY COUNCIL:
Councilman Kerry McCormack, in whose ward Public Square resides, told Scene that through the entire process, he has had people from both sides of the issue calling and emailing him at a furious pace. It's been a hot topic since virtually the moment he assumed the Ward 3 council seat last year.

"It wasn't overwhelming in either direction," he said, "and I think that's important to establish. But with the $12 million floating above our heads, there's no way I could have supported keeping the Square closed, not with that type of impact."

McCormack said he wants to see the city invest in "getting people around in different ways," and says that how to stretch available transportation dollars in creative ways will be an important conversation "as we think about the future of our city."

Council, of course, played a more or less invisible role in the Public Square debate. Many councilpeople — as Scene and Cleveland Magazine, most recently have reported — weren't even aware of the Public Square closure until the Nov. 15 press conference. They weren't party to the negotiations and they seemed to have no say in the matter at all. They hosted one angry hearing on the subject, at which council members took turns berating Joe Calabrese and the Mayor's Chief of Staff, Ken Silliman, while decrying their lack of involvement and ridiculing the city's safety concerns. The idea of terrorism on Public Square, for example, was "laughable," according to west side councilman Brian Kazy.  

Despite their frustrations, council contends that their hands have been legislatively tied.

"Our attorneys on council advised us that this was an administrative decision," McCormack told Scene. "Even with the transit zone, council authorized the administration to enter into the agreement — opening or closing a street is an administrative action. We couldn't have passed an ordinance opening the street."

This is indeed the opinion of Council attorney Rachel Scalish. On Feb. 7, she sent an email with precisely the same ideas to council.

"Council, as the legislative body, authorized via legislation the administration to enter into the Euclid Corridor Project with the RTA," Scalish wrote. "The signatories on that agreement are the City of Cleveland through its administration and the RTA. Council is not a party to that agreement and therefore has no rights or obligations under the agreement.

"Closing a city street is an administrative function (not legislative) and falls under the general duties of the Mayor’s Office of Capital Projects, Section 123.03 of the Codified Ordinances. The Council does not have any authority over street closures."

The above are two separate issues. Council did indeed authorize the administration to enter into the Euclid Corridor Project. That was through Ordinance 893.03. But Article 11 of the very same ordinance says that the "provisions of this Agreement may be modified or amended only after receipt of legislative authorization of Cleveland City Council and the GCRTA Board of Trustees."

That's why Clevelanders for Public Transit had been clamoring for Council to "assert its legislative authority." When Scene asked Council President Kevin Kelley about the issue, he said he'd have to do more research on it.

Council spokespeople have yet to clarify whether the administrative function of closing a city street (codified in 123.03) supersedes the interagency agreement established in Ordinance 893.03.

LOOKING AHEAD:
The ramifications of the Public Square debacle will persist for years to come, though Frank Jackson is unlikely to bring that up at his State of the City address Friday. Joe Calabrese has mentioned that he worried about jeopardizing RTA's relationship with the Federal Government, which provides millions of dollars to RTA every year. Brian Cummins expressed the same fear at their council hearing.

Ken Prendergast felt the same way. He's been tracking the $600 million RTA needs in state of good repair investments — including an updated rail fleet — and can't muster much confidence.  

"Ultimately, the Feds are investors," Prendergast told Scene. "And from now on, any application with Cleveland as a return address is going to be looked at as a risky investment."




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