News: Charlotte Exclusives

Next Stop, Cleveland?

Millions spent on light rail, the Ohio city still tops in poverty

The recent Census Bureau statistics are grim. A third of Cleveland’s residents live in poverty and jobs are scarce. Local government is broke and city leaders reduced to hoping residents pass a $68 million tax increase next month just to stop the bleeding. Police officers and firemen have been laid-off, teachers fired. Garbage collection is scaled back.

In sum, the basic functions of local government are breaking down in Cleveland.

Yet a decade ago local Cleveland officials, including current Charlotte Area Transit System chief Ron Tober, believed spending millions on a light rail system was a priority for Cleveland, one which would serve as an economic engine for area for years to come. The $70 million Waterfront rail line that Tober once staked his reputation on a current transit official now calls a “nightmare.” Despite widespread praise from mass transit fans and lobbies, Cleveland’s rail system has helped to siphon resources away from critical municipal needs.

There are lessons here for Charlotte. First, it is not that Ron Tober is somehow uniquely responsible for Cleveland’s woes and will cause similar distress to Charlotte. Tober seems to be perfectly representative of municipal mass transits managers and no doubt has Charlotte’s best interests at heart. And that should be cause for concern.

In Cleveland then and in Charlotte now, local officials simply assume money spent on light rail will pay off in the long run. Part of that is because the fantastic start-up costs of rail projects cannot possibly be recouped in the short run. But it is almost as if local leaders view light rail as some sort of insurance policy against civic distress, or better still, as a kind of diversification of a city’s transportation portfolio.

Yet the case of Cleveland presents yet another example of an investment in light rail turning into junk bonds. Charlotte and Mecklenburg officials need ask themselves exactly what kind of return on investment they expect from light rail, and steel themselves to bail on the idea should rail fall short of those expectations. The alternative is to continue to throw good money after bad until there is no money left.

In addition to the Tober connection, Cleveland and Charlotte share other characteristics of note. Ohio, like North Carolina, has the distinction of being one of the more populous states despite lacking a single huge metropolis. Population in both states is spread relatively thin with only a smattering of the high-density development which light rail needs to thrive.

Cleveland officials were warned of the density issue, but went ahead with their light rail plans. Sound familiar?

In fact, as a city with a much older center-city core, Cleveland would seem to be better suited for rail than Charlotte. In the lingo of Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, Cleveland’s old industrial base did not just offer “corridors of crap” ripe for transit-spurred redevelopment, but canyons of crap.

The key to such redevelopment, though, is that there must be some demand for it to build a real, non-subsidized tax base for the city. A light rail stop can certainly be a positive part of an overall development package, but it cannot create demand where none exists. Cleveland has manifestly not received the tax base bump it needed from its light rail investment.

Of course, the fundamental issue is far bigger than Ron Tober, light rail, or even development. It comes down to the spending choices local officials make. For over a decade officials in Cleveland pursued a series of high-profile, big-ticket public projects as if the underlying livability and solvency of the city would take care of itself. That has not happened.

A Rock N Roll Museum and a resurrected Cleveland Browns franchise, while doubtless morale boosters and head-line grabbers, did not pick up trash or put out fires. And a shiny new rail system could not put Cleveland on track for a bright future.