Through a backdoor in the 4-acre warehouse, away from the clang of metal and flying sparks, is a morgue.
"This is called cold storage," says Casey Blaze. "You can see all the parts we've taken off."
Stacked on shelves and lined up neatly on the floor are parts — a motor here, an axle there — all salvaged from dead trains.
The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority's fleet of 40 heavy-rail trains, which service the Red Line, and 34 light-rail trains, which service the Green and Blue, operate with some of these cannibalized parts.
It's a necessity, since the cars were manufactured in the 1970s and '80s, and some of their parts are no longer made. Instead, RTA fabricates its own. A plan to replace the cars will come in 2020. For now, they'll make do.
"I can't call up a company and say, 'Send me over a gear box on an assembly,' " says Blaze, rail equipment manager. "They'll say, 'Huh? We haven't made those since 1993.' "
Such stopgaps brings RTA's situation into sharp relief. This year, RTA administration is proposing its first fare increase since 2009 — approximately 25 cents more for regular riders and $1.25 for paratransit. Cuts to sections of bus routes, frequency of service and consolidating routes are all on the table.
But fare hikes are just a blinking sign that Cuyahoga County's transit system, the largest in Ohio, is on the brink of a contraction.
In the immediate future, RTA needs assistance from the state — which would rather jump the turnstile than pay for transit. But in the long term, a key revenue source may be broken down on the tracks.
About 70 percent of RTA's revenue comes from a Cuyahoga County sales tax on goods and services. Another roughly 20 percent comes from the fare box.
The 2016 budget predicts a year-end general fund balance of only $6.7 million. If spending and revenue patterns continue unchanged, operating costs would hypothetically derail into the red by 2018. But RTA is required by law to balance its budget.
"Our goal is not to raise fares. Our goal is not to cut service. Our goal is not to upset our customers," says CEO and general manager Joe Calabrese. "But our goal is to reduce costs or find new revenue so that we can have a balanced budget."
Ohio is miserly when it comes to funding public transit. RTA receives nothing from the state for operations to pay employees, buy fuel and keep the bell dinging.
"Five, six, eight million dollars from the state would help us a ton," says Gale Fisk, executive director of RTA's Office of Management and Budget.
Instead, money is available for capital projects — big-ticket items such as the new Little Italy Red Line station, up to 80 percent of which was covered by a federal grant, and 12 trolleys for the Republican National Convention, which were purchased with federal money administered by the state.
It is, in effect, easier to get state funds to buy new trains than it is to pay for running them. That is, if you can get any money at all.
For each resident, Ohio contributes less than three tarnished quarters to public transit. "I compare us to our neighboring states: Pennsylvania, Michigan and Illinois," says Calabrese. "They average $55 per capita to our 62 cents. So is there a solution? Yes. The state needs to become a player."
During the 2015 budgetary process, Calabrese testified twice. He came back empty-handed. He was scheduled to testify again in February. Despite his best efforts, it doesn't seem he'll win. "Well, it doesn't mean you can't try," says Calabrese
Yet as RTA fights in Columbus, sales tax revenue, its primary funding source, is stalled like a locomotive belching steam.
In 2009, the midst of recession, RTA was slammed with a $19 million drop in sales tax revenue. It ended the year with only $2.9 million in the bank — enough to keep it running for three and a half days. Drastic cuts, including 245 layoffs, kept RTA afloat. In all, $30 million of operating expenses were chopped.
As consumer confidence bounced back, RTA's sales tax revenues grew with the economy. It ended 2013 with $31 million in the bank. Jobs and service were restored.
"There was some pretty nice growth in there," says Calabrese. "[Now] that growth is leveling off."
In 2016, sales tax income is predicted to plateau at around 3 percent growth — a pattern tied to the county's population loss. Yet people who live outside the county are still riding RTA. For instance, Calabrese says, up to 40 percent of people who use the park and ride lots in Westlake and North Olmsted live in Lorain and Medina counties.
Most of their purchases occur in their own counties, so RTA collects their fares but only a small fraction of their sales tax dollars.
It leaves stagnating revenue and greater need locked on a perilous collision course.
"I think greater regionalization is certainly something that we need to do," says Calabrese. "No doubt, the people of Lorain County would love for RTA to go and provide them service. But they need to understand they need to contribute to providing that service."
Partnering with neighboring transit systems could mean a consolidated future — one in which a single system could transport you from Akron to Cleveland to Lorain. But as always, the state would need to step up.
"You really need someone like the state to come in and say, 'Lorain County, we give you $100,000 a year for public transit. If you consolidated, we'd give you $200,000,' " says Calabrese.
Despite a worrisome outlook, Calabrese is bullish about RTA's future. Millennials want public transit, and so do the companies that employ them, he says. "You're starting to see companies like PepsiCo and McDonald's doing ads during the Super Bowl with people smiling on buses and trains," says Calabrese.
What a decade ago was regarded as a second-class mode of transportation is now desirable. The transit constituency is growing.
"Here in Cleveland, we've got University Hospitals, Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland State [University] to put their brands on our buses and pay us for it. "¢ They want to be part of public transit," he says. "These are things that make me feel good about the future."