“We’re really hoping that there is going to be very few people who can no longer use RTA, but there are going to be some people who have to transfer. Have to go from a bus to a bus or from a bus to a train or a bus to a train to a bus to get where they are going.
“But it was important that they could still get to work and support themselves.”
Back to Basics
Coming into a transit agency for the first time any new general manager is going to want to take care of issues they feel have been plaguing it and generally put their stamp on the system. When Joe Calabrese came to GCRTA he was faced with four major planned projects and found that they weren’t actually the issue at hand.
“I went to a public hearing about extending the red line beyond the airport,” Calabrese says.
“A customer was there at the public meeting and she said I live in Berea, which is south of the airport. I take the bus from Berea to the train station.
“The buses sent to pick me up in Berea were all 18- and 19-year-old buses. And three days last week the buses broke down before they got to the train station. Shouldn’t you worry about those things first?”
Calabrese says this was the impetus for his “Back to the Basics” plan for RTA, which he says breaks down to some simple must haves: a good quality product, customer service, image and financial health.
“I had to sit down with the board a few months later and say we’ve got these four major projects, but you know there’s no way we’re going to get federal funding to do them. No way we can financially operate them. We’ve got to pick our best of the four and really get back to the basics,” Calabrese says.
“And to a board member they all [had a] big sigh of relief, because we’ve got to focus on our core mission. And at that point we replaced almost our entire fleet in a 3- to 4-year period. We had one of the youngest fleets in the nation because we had one of the oldest fleets in the nation.
“So my philosophy has always been you should give a bus a Christmas party at its 12th anniversary and then give it a retirement party that same day because it costs half as much to maintain a six-year-old bus as a 12-year-old bus.”
Calabrese says that though the federal regulations stipulate keeping buses for 12 years, he says you shouldn’t keep them much longer than that. And RTA hasn’t. Currently its average fleet age is 6.5 years.
“We can’t buy any more buses because we wouldn’t have anything to replace,” Calabrese says.
Rapid Transit Vehicles
As I mentioned above, Joe Calabrese doesn’t like to refer to the line running on Cleveland’s Euclid Avenue as a bus rapid transit line. He prefers “rapid transit vehicle” and this line is arguably as close as you can get to rail without steel wheels.
Ohio’s first New Starts project, “Health Line” was designed, developed and built like a rail system harkening back to when streetcars ran along Euclid Avenue. The buses were designed with doors on both sides and even have the same horn as a light rail vehicle — not just the same look, the same sound, too.
“We had to design the vehicles, which was a multifaceted process,” Calabrese says.
“In the end we worked with New Flyer to develop them. We actually paid them about $1.9 million to design the vehicles.
“No manufacturer wanted to build what Joe wanted. They wanted to build what they build. We said, well if you build this there may be a market for it. And they said well, if we build this there may not be a market for it. So we said hey this is what we want. We will pay you to do the design development testing to take it down to Altoona, but if in fact there is a market for this over and above what Joe wants we want our money back.
“So basically we did a royalty agreement with them. We got all of our money back. These vehicles now have been sold I think in 14 or 16 different cities. I think it worked out very well for the industry, not just us.”