Cleveland transit chief looks to D.C. for more infrastructure funds

Cleveland joins other jurisdictions nationwide in seeking more federal funding to upgrade and replace transportation infrastructure.
Cleveland joins other jurisdictions nationwide in seeking more federal funding to upgrade and replace transportation infrastructure. | Contributed photo

The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA) is among the top 20 transit systems in the country.

Yet GCRTA CEO Joe Calabrese said his transit system has $135 million in backlogged infrastructure projects because of a lack of funding.

And Cleveland is not alone. The U.S. transit system needs $87 billion worth of infrastructure updates, Calabrese said.

Cleveland’s system has $75 million earmarked from its current budget for building and infrastructure updates.

“We have two rail stations under construction,” Calabrese said. “Last October, we cut the ribbon on a major rail station funded with TIGER 1 grant money, and we’ll be cutting the ribbon this August on another rail station upgrade from TIGER 4 dollars. Those were both 50-year-old rail stations.”

The TIGER program is a competitive grant program run by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The Cleveland transit system is also buying 90 new buses, though it really needs to replace 220, Calabrese said.

Overall, Calabrese said he would give the city's transit system a grade of C- to D+.

“I’d say we’re comparable to other rail systems in the country,” Calabrese said. “We need more infrastructure; we’re in the same state as the nation’s roads and bridges, and we have lots of waterways.”

Last year, buses could not run on two bridges because the structures had deteriorated to the point that they could not take the weight -- and there are 65 bridges in the greater Cleveland area.

Calabrese supports legislation recently proposed by U.S. Reps. Jim Renacci (R-OH), Bill Pascrell, (D-NJ), Reid Ribble, (R-WI) and Dan Lipinski (D-IL), known as the Bridge to Sustainable Infrastructure Act.

The act, if passed, would index gas- and diesel-user fees to the rate of inflation. Additionally, the legislation calls for the creation of a bipartisan, bicameral Transportation Commission no later than Sept. 1. This group would be charged with determining a path forward for sustainable funding, and would be advised to consider all options.

“I am supporting any legislation that results in additional funding for our nation’s infrastructure,” Calabrese said.

Calabrese said he has spoken with Renacci, part of whose district is served by the transit system, and has testified twice in Washington about the importance of additional funding.

“I think it’s important that Congress moves the needle. The gas tax hasn’t been increased in years. Cars are getting better gas mileage, and that’s causing our infrastructure to fall into a deeper state of despair. If this is a bipartisan bill that can be approved, I certainly support that.”

Calabrese said that like many other systems, his has had to increase rates over the years, but he said he believes Cleveland’s transit costs are comparable to other comparable systems across the country.

“Our customers have told us they’re willing to pay more rather than having services cut. We feel good about where we are.”

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U.S. Department of Transportation

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