OPINION: Regional Woes; RTA’s Struggle to Modernize

In December of 1974, Cuyahoga County created the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, referred to by Clevelanders as the RTA. Shortly after its formation, the RTA assumed ownership of its predecessors, the Cleveland Transit System and Shaker Rapid Transit.

Since then, RTA has expanded its rail and bus services with the opening of the Waterfront Line in 1996 and the Healthline in 2009. The Healthline alone has brought an estimated $9.5 billion of development along Euclid Avenue and is frequently used by Vikings and locals.

Even though RTA has brought immeasurable benefits to the greater Cleveland area, the system is plagued with issues. Delays, aging rolling stock, and crumbling infrastructure has prevented RTA from improving its system, keeping RTA stuck in the late 20th century while Cleveland enters a new era of development.

Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden could all have ridden on RTA’s nearly forty-year-old Tokyu HRVs that operate on the Red Line. President Carter could also have hopped on one of RTA’s nearly 45-year-old Breda LRVs on his way to Coventry via the Green Line. 

Jokes aside, RTA’s trains are old and must be replaced. Maintenance costs for RTA’s trains have grown by 148% since 2013 and continue to cost RTA resources that could be going toward other projects. Due to their age, the trains have long surpassed their optimal performance levels. 

On the Red Line,  trains frequently stop at random intervals and don’t come close to their original top speed of 60mph. Honestly, riders should be impressed if their Red Line train went faster than 35mph. 

RTA trains, and trains in general, are notoriously noisy, making it difficult for riders to hear the driver announcing destinations. Riders also must hope that their driver announces the destination since the Red Line trains don’t have an automated announcement system, let alone electronic signs telling riders what stop is coming up. This feature is standard in systems like the DC Metro and New York’s MTA but is absent on RTA. 

But riders fear not; RTA has (after many years) announced that they are actively procuring new trains to replace its fleet. These new trains (the German-made S200) are quite an upgrade. They’re sleek, faster, and most importantly, they will be able to fit on all of RTA’s train lines. But Clevelanders are going to have to wait until they can ride in style on the new trains. 

Delivery won’t happen until nearly three years after the RTA selects the manufacturer, which they hope to do this year. The Red Line will be replaced first since its fleet is most dilapidated, while Blue and Green Line trains will be replaced… nearly four years from now. RTA’s strategic plan (the systems 10-year vision) mentions modernization four times. It also lacks any discussion of implementing tools like live wait times at stations. 

Even with a brand-new fleet of trains, RTAs rail infrastructure is in desperate need of some tender loving care. Students wanting a faster way to get to the Flats East Bank and Browns fans wanting a less shameful trip back to the municipal lot used to have the option to take RTA’s Waterfront Line. But its service has been suspended indefinitely since 2019 after stress fractures were found on the Waterfront Line bridge.

RTA hopes the line will reopen before the Browns 2023 season, but even after it reopens, the problem remains that the rest of RTA’s 37 miles of tracks is in need of repair or replacement. Like me, riders of the Red Line  are very familiar with how often the trains speed up and slow down. While I was on my way to the West Side Market, the Red Line train sped up outbound from Tower City for a moment and then slowed down rapidly on a straight line of a track. 

One of the main culprits of slow speeds on RTA tracks is dated track ties. RTA replaces about 6,000 rail ties every year, whicht will last about 40 years. Because of their age, the ties prevent train drivers from reaching faster speeds. In fact, 1 in 10 miles of RTA’s tracks isunder “slow go” orders. RTA’s tracks are safe, but their age prevents trains from operating safely at higher speeds and delivering better service to riders.

Modern trains require modern tracks, which is something that RTA is still struggling to achieve.  

Cleveland is rising. With the Sherwin Williams HQ slated to open no later than 2025, development of the Irishtown Bend is ongoing, and ambitious plans for the city’s waterfront will require RTA to modernize. 

Public transit attracts people to downtown from across northeast Ohio and makes a living in Cleveland easier for current residents. RTA needs to make transit convenient and more attractive to people by implementing modern tools like live wait times and taking a proactive approach to maintaining its system.

Disclaimer: This article in no way reflects the views of The Cauldron and its staff. It only reflects the views of the columnist.

Author: Joseph Nappi

I write about politics, public transit, and current events. I am currently a political science major at Cleveland State University