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The cost-effective transit solution that’s revitalizing Cleveland’s “Millionaires’ Row”

Cleveland’s HealthLine is one of only five bus rapid transit (BRT) systems in the nation, and a remarkable example of how investment in BRT systems can be leveraged to revitalize surrounding areas. Though America’s BRT systems still lag behind global peers, Cleveland’s Euclid Corridor Transportation Project has been described as the “most successful example of BRT in the U.S.” After years of debate, the HealthLine project rallied together federal support, commitments from several of Cleveland’s anchor institutions, and private investments amidst the 2008 Recession to build a cost-effective transit solution that also stimulated growth along its former hub of wealth, “Millionaires’ Row.”

The coveted section of Euclid Avenue once garnered international attention for its beauty and concentration of wealth. Millionaires’ Row was home to powerful industrialists including John D. Rockefeller, and at one point had a higher concentration of wealth than New York City’s Fifth Avenue. As in most industrial cities, the Great Depression hit downtown Cleveland hard, closing the majority of storefronts and leaving many residents living in poverty.

In the late 1980s, Cleveland used the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) New Starts program to explore transit alternatives. The analysis concluded that an aboveground electric trolley might be a viable option, yet implementation stalled. Then, in 1998, former Mayor and then Governor, George Voinovich, traveled to Curitiba, Brazil and saw first-hand how well a BRT system could function if properly designed. Curitiba was one of the world’s earliest adopters of BRT, which had not yet made its way to America. The FTA shared Voinovich’s interest, and the nation’s first BRT pilot project was born.

Euclid Avenue’s BRT system went through several iterations. Some of the designs were too elaborate. Some were too expensive. Some didn’t meet the FTA cost per user benefit rules. The city engaged in a lengthy analysis before agreeing on a $200 million budget – still high, but far from the billion-dollar underground subway system that was proposed decades earlier.

Once funding commitments were secured, the team began implementation. It would take nearly a decade to complete the design and construction, during which time Cleveland saw three new Mayors come to office. The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA) championed the project through each transition, spending significant time educating each administration about the project and how it could revitalize Euclid Avenue. Ambitious economic development strategies can unravel during leadership changes, however GCRTA – supported by Voinovich at the state level – kept the project in motion.

MidTown Cleveland, a nonprofit community development corporation (CDC), began to see an opportunity to leverage the project’s momentum to attract additional federal funding for the corridor. They launched an effort to have the project area designated as an Empowerment Zone by HUD, an area later rebranded as the “Health-Tech Corridor.” The designation allowed Cleveland to offer tax benefits to businesses willing to relocate to the district in exchange for creating jobs for local residents.

Anchor institutions near the corridor also sprang into action. Cleveland State University (CSU) revised its campus master plan to reorient towards Euclid Avenue. Instead of enclosing the campus, buildings and other open spaces were created to help revitalize the area. CSU invested more than $150 million in campus improvements along the corridor, including new student housing for a university that was once considered a commuter school. Meanwhile, the Cleveland Clinic and neighboring University Hospitals teamed up to purchase naming rights for the BRT system, and dubbed it “HealthLine.” The two hospitals agreed to pay a collective $6.25 million over 25 years in exchange for the naming rights, an amount that could jump to $25 million if certain benchmarks are met.

After much anticipation, HealthLine opened in October 2008. It proved to be a highly efficient system that residents quickly embraced. “The uniqueness is the rail-like design and the rail-like operation,” says Joe Calabrese, GCRTA CEO. “We really designed, built, and are operating this as if it were a rail system. The only difference is that [the buses] are operating on rubber tires.” The system has dedicated bus lanes, off-board fare collection, and at-level boarding. These components help save an average of 12 minutes of commuting time from end-to-end of the route. Within the first six years of operation, the HealthLine served more than 29 million customers and ridership was up 60% from the bus line that previously served the corridor.

HealthLine also sparked significant private sector investment along the corridor, despite the national economy’s downturn. Around the time of launch, Lehman Brothers was filing for bankruptcy, the federal government was taking control of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the nation was sinking into a foreclosure crisis. Remarkably, investment along Euclid Avenue continued. Over the next several years, residents moved into condos at the restored Park Building. Others moved into apartments at 668 Euclid Avenue, where a department store received a $65 million makeover that transformed it into a mixed-use building with offices, a restaurant and a gym. The restaurants outside of Playhouse Square that were once vacant now have long waits, thanks to an influx of theatergoers.

In total, more than $4.3 billion has been invested into the Euclid Avenue corridor. It boasts more than 7.9 million square feet of new commercial developments, 13,000 new jobs, and around 4,000 new residential units along the route. Euclid Avenue looks far different than when “Millionaire’s Row” was in its prime, yet the area has found a new kind of vibrancy. Its dramatic and multi-faceted turnaround over the past decade serves as an excellent example, not only of how BRT can be a cost-effective transit solution, but also of how transit investment can be leveraged for urban revitalization.

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