“It really is a pretty easy city to get around,” Joseph A. Calabrese, general manager of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, the bus and rapid transit system in Northeast Ohio, said in an interview with The Post. “It is a robust system. It was built for more people than live in Cleveland today. We can handle, because of that infrastructure, the larger crowds.”
The system’s heavy-rail line, opened in 1955, was built to serve a city of nearly a million people, at a time when Cleveland was the country’s seventh largest city. Today Cleveland proper is home to fewer than 400,000.
When selecting a site for the convention, Republican officials wanted somewhere with sufficient transit to avoid a repeat of the Tampa fiasco from 2012. There, the hordes of delegates and media descending on the city resulted in mammoth traffic jams and mass confusion. One night, delegates leaving the convention site at 11 p.m. — unable to find a bus — didn’t get back to their hotels until 3 a.m., according to the Tampa Bay Times.
That led Republican officials to weigh transportation heavily when choosing a site for 2016. And Cleveland outperformed five other finalists — Kansas City, Denver, Dallas, Cincinnati and Las Vegas — in public transit and walkability, according to the Cleveland Plain-Dealer:
“On two key measures – public transit and walkability – Cleveland ranked first among the six finalists for the 2016 Republican National Convention. A third benchmark – traffic congestion – rated Cleveland almost the least likely to have gridlock, trailing only Kansas City.”
In the city’s downtown core, where the convention is taking place, Cleveland’s transit scores are 90 and 84, respectively, according to walkscore.com. Some of the competitors fare equally in one category, but neither score as highly in both.
In the run-up to the convention, officials also made efforts to boost the available transit. A grant from the state of Ohio allowed Cleveland to add 12 new trolleys to its fleet — at a cost of $6 million — nearly doubling the existing fleet of the downtown trolley service. Meanwhile, extra cars were added to trains on Cleveland’s 19-mile Red Line, leaving the normally two-car trains running with three to reduce crowding.
Calabrese also touted another transit mode, the HealthLine, which connects downtown Cleveland with eastern suburbs, taking passengers to restaurants, shopping and other attractions along the way. Because it’s a bus rapid transit system, the HealthLine — hailed by some as the gold-standard for bus rapid transit in the U.S. — runs in dedicated lanes, meaning it isn’t hampered by daily traffic and runs much like heavy-rail.
The transit system also offered a $20 pass for unlimited rides during convention week.
Of course, RTA is beset by many of the same problems as transit systems nationwide. The system has faced budget shortfalls and fares hikes in recent years, and Calabrese has been vocal about the state of Ohio underinvesting in public transit, saying that while the typical state contribution to transit is around 20 percent, Ohio contributes 0.8 percent.
Commuter challenges are another concern. Believe it or not, the RNC hasn’t been Cleveland’s biggest draw this summer. The Cleveland Cavaliers’ championship parade in June had 1.3 million people swarming downtown and led to RTA’s biggest day on record. While the transit system normally serves 200,000 on a typical weekday, the system had 500,000 customers that day, leading to delays of 90 minutes to two hours for customers traveling downtown.
As for the convention itself, initial observations show the event proceeding smoothly. Ridership was actually down in most places.
The system only served about 50 to 60 percent of its usual ridership on Monday, officials said — as major employers such as Key Bank and Sherwin-Williams encouraged teleworking and alternate work schedules.
“It’s been steady, but steady and very, very controlled,” Calabrese said. “We had no capacity issues.”
“Better overprepared than underprepared,” he added.