“With the average general manager probably being, you know, at one point in time it was probably about 3.5 to 3.9 years.
“So they made it a five-year contract, after four years they made it a 10-year contract, after eight years they made it a 15 year contract.
“So I finished my 10 years on Monday and I’ve got five years to go. It has been a lot of fun.”
Calabrese admits there have been a lot of changes since he arrived at the turn of the century and that it’s been very challenging, especially from an economic perspective.
Like many other cities, Cleveland has been hit hard by the current recession. But in this blue collar town the transit situation seems a little bleaker than other areas.
“We were down about $5 million last year in passenger revenue based on our projections,” Calabrese says.
“We were down more money from the state’s perspective. The state cut our funding again. It now totals a 75 percent cut since 2002.
“And the sales tax. We’re projecting this year the sales tax to come back slightly. We’re projecting a 1.2 percent increase of the sales tax.”
Unlike other agencies who may have a “rainy day” fund to fall back on when their operating funds run low GCRTA is reliant on its current operational funding due to past challenges.
“I think we’ve never had that rainy day fund that we could draw on,” Calabrese says.
“The reason being when our average annual sales tax went from an average of 5.6 percent per year [in the 1990s] to -1.2 percent [in 2001] to 1 percent per year, we’ve already spent our rainy day fund between 2002 to 2008 to minimize the cuts we needed.”
Unfortunately, GCRTA may have been on the leading edge of the current operational funding crunch agencies across the nation are feeling. Calabrese admits that while the agency may be getting spread thin, it will endure.
“When this cut came as quickly as it did and as dramatically as it did, and the fact that we’ve already trimmed a lot of the less productive services … we’ve already done a lot of the things maybe other people are doing,” Calabrese says.
“The quantity of service, I don’t know how many people it’s going to affect. It may make it less convenient for a lot of people, but it won’t make RTA unavailable to a lot of people.
“That’s really the job that our service planning team is doing now, and I have great confidence that they are doing it well.”
One problem facing Cleveland is a declining core population. As Calabrese points out, the city itself is half the size it was in the 1970s with a population now a little less than 450,000 when it once boasted almost 1 million. This among other factors, including funding, has forced GCRTA to cut about 4 percent of service in April, a difficult choice for any agency.
“We just completed a series of 12 public hearings on service cuts. It was not a pleasant thing to sit through,” Calabrese says.
“It’s one of those things when you sit through that the one very positive thing that comes out of that is you realize how important what we do is to so many people.
“In many cases people that don’t use public transit, and maybe even people that only use a portion of the public transit system in their city have no idea how important we are to others.
“It’s like me saying to you, ‘Fred, effective April 4th I’m going to take your car away.’ Take my car away? You can’t take my car away. How am I going to get to work? It’s that same reaction.
“We were telling our customers we were going to take their car away. I mean tough stuff.”
Calabrese says that the overall goal has been to retain as many riders on the system as possible, “It’s easy to say here’s our worst performing routes, let’s just cut those 10, 12, or 15 routes, but really we looked at route by route and route segment by route segment.
“We tried to combine routes, consolidate routes — have this route going through these people here, and having this route servicing these people there. To really come up with the best new RTA we can to alienate the least number of people with this new service plan.