I had a lot of people question my sanity when I told them I was heading to Cleveland for an upcoming cover story. The fact is that Cleveland could easily be transit’s best kept secret. I’ve been to cities touted for their transit systems and still had to spend hundreds of dollars for a taxi just to and from the airport.
What most of those naysayers don’t know is that Cleveland is brimming with transit options — bus, rail, subway, BRT RTV. That last one you may not recognize. Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA) CEO Joe Calabrese refuses to call the Euclid Avenue line by the more familiar bus rapid transit name, instead preferring Rapid Transit Vehicles.
“I do not call them buses,” Calabrese says. “Buses shouldn’t cost $900,000.”
It’s this no-nonsense approach that Calabrese brings to every part of his system. He prefers to be involved in most aspects, including leading the tour of a transit magazine editor personally. This approach fits his transit background perfectly.
Emerging from graduate school in 1975, Calabrese faced an uncertain time with skyrocketing oil prices and a call for more public transit investment. Presented with opportunities with Mobil Oil or the Central New York Regional Transportation Authority (CNYRTA), he saw transit as the future, but he had no experience. So he dove into the deep end.
“I knew nothing about public transit,” Calabrese says.
“I said I would love to come and work for you and he wanted me to really head up his labor relations and the training department. But I said you know I really wanted to learn the industry first. So he gave me six months to learn the industry.”
So Calabrese began what is likely the first version of Undercover Boss.
“I got enrolled undercover through the bus driver training program for 30 days. I drove for 30 days. I then went into the maintenance department. I worked as a mechanic. As a servicer as a hostler. I worked in the parts room. I worked as a dispatcher. I worked on the radio. I worked as a station master and a number of things,” Calabrese says.
“And then I said OK, now I think I’m ready. Because when I sit down across from that 20-year bus driver and tell him or her how he or she could have done this better, not that, I’ve got that experience, but at least I want to have a better idea how it should be handled.”
Calabrese would work his way up through the ranks at the CNYRTA for the next 11 years, including being assistant general manager for eight years. Then an opportunity presented itself and he moved to the private sector with his own company.
“Myself and a friend had an idea to be entrepreneurs. We became entrepreneurs. We quit our jobs. We left. We started a company called Metrovision of North America. We installed, operated, serviced and maintained public information systems for some of the major transit systems around the country,” Calabrese says.
After several successful years the company was sold and transit pulled him back in, “My phone rings at 7 a.m. that morning and it’s my old [CNYRTA] boss saying I’m going to retire now are you ready. So I said yes. I went back as executive director/president there for six years.”
From there Calabrese moved to another RTA, this time the Greater Cleveland Transit Authority (GCRTA) looking for that next step.
“I think in Syracuse we had things under control,” Calabrese says.
“I wanted to make a career move. This was a multimodal city. And to go from a medium-sized system to a large system with light rail and heavy rail and a proposed New Starts project somewhere in the pipeline. I thought that would be challenging and be a good career move. And it was.”
Calabrese came to GCRTA under a three-year contract, but after a year in Cleveland he went to his board seeking more continuity.
“The staff needs to know that I am going to outlast some of them,” Calabrese says.
“Because a lot of it is they see this guy come and go and come and go. And we can outlast them. And that’s too prevalent in the industry.