This September, I caught the Red Line to meet with Birdsong. A very occasional transit rider, I found the Tower City station far less populated than past trips. Downtown was barren. A band played on Public Square for an audience of four. The RTA headquarters on West Sixth Street, though, buzzed with mask-sporting employees arriving from lunch, carrying brown bags through an automated temperature-taking station. Thirty-seven transit workers had been infected with COVID-19 by then, and most, luckily, had made a full recovery. Even amid the virus, RTA was as essential a service as they come, and its employees simply couldn’t stop moving. Birdsong was no exception. She sat down far on the opposite side of a large conference room table, her light-blue blouse and shirt combination playing off the color of her surgical mask.
Birdsong started her tenure with RTA on that same Tower City platform I traversed to get here. On her first day, she spent rush hour there, meeting with riders, shaking hands and hearing firsthand what needed changing.
“I wanted to be able to have that experience, to be more tactile, instead of just sit at the desk and do a video. I think people appreciate it,” Birdsong says. “And I wanted them to also see me. I’m very different than what you are probably used to, as far as the leadership of RTA. It’s no secret. Yeah, I’m not a man. Yeah, I’m not over 50.”
Birdsong paid similar visits to the RTA bus garages and the rail yard, meeting as many of RTA’s employees as she could. Her message was the same one she was sending to riders: change was coming, and she embodied it. “It was so that people could see me. Because I look like a lot of the folks that drive our buses and clean ’em up,” says Birdsong. “It was nice to be able to shake everybody’s hand and break bread with people, and really hear what the issues were.”
One of those issues was the lack of a contract with the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents vehicle operators and mechanics. “That’s a sore spot with me,” Birdsong says, pausing to emphasize her point. “That’s one of the first things we tackled.”
The talks had dragged out for years under the previous administration, much to the chagrin of the union employees that make up the majority of RTA’s workforce. “We were two and a half years of trying to get a contract,” says William H. Nix Sr., the union president. “But she came in, and in two and a half months, we were able to get a contract.”
A number of other big efforts were supposed to really get rolling this spring, like a bus system overhaul that transit advocates had long pushed for. But COVID-19 presented a more immediate crisis.
It also brought on the first public criticisms of Birdsong’s tenure. Bus drivers and train operators were especially in danger, and RTA initially struggled to source personal protective equipment for them, drawing criticism from the union. “The way COVID-19 was hitting at that stage, it was scary, it was dangerous,” says Nix. “Our members were worried about being out there on the road.”
In response, Birdsong set up twice-weekly information sessions with the union, made sure communication blasts went out to all employees and media, set RTA’s upholsters to sewing masks and implemented daily deep cleanings. Masks were also made mandatory on RTA vehicles, plastic shields were installed and the agency was able to forgo any layoffs. “The [union] membership so far feels good, they see progress,” says Nix. “They see that she didn’t cut them, go after layoffs at the time.”
In addition to protecting her employees, Birdsong says that there was a personal dimension to her COVID-19 response. She was pregnant, and as the pandemic was getting worse, her belly was getting bigger. “Not only was I responsible for RTA, and the lives that come in here every day, I was growing a life at the same time, and I was responsible for that as well,” says Birdsong. “I took care of myself, but I had to take my own fear out of it, because I felt responsible for so much more. It was a constant reminder. Being with child through that, you don’t forget to put on a mask, you don’t forget what the risk is.”
Birdsong’s son arrived in May, and she left for maternity leave at her home in Cleveland Heights, which she shares with her husband and her bulldog Sebastian. She returned in August, just as the long-term effects of the coronavirus downturn became evident.
After the chaos of 2018, 2019 was a budgetary respite, driven by modest growth in sales tax revenue. But 2020 has been a financial hurricane. Ridership has been hurled groundward, with passenger fare revenue projected to decline by 45% this year. Sales tax receipts are a site of devastation too, projected to decline by nearly 10%, a significant hit to RTA’s largest lifeline. The lean times are expected to continue into 2021 and 2022. RTA projects that income from passenger fares should bounce back over the next two years, though not quite to pre-COVID-19 levels. But sales tax revenue is expected to inch back up by only 1% next year, and only 5% in 2022.
The agency, luckily, received $112 million from the CARES Act, which it has used to fill in the budgetary gaps. It temporarily cut service as ridership numbers plummeted early this year, but has now returned to 93% of its pre-COVID-19 capacity. Only a few routes were cut, and those were the least frequently used, like the downtown trolleys. “At this point, our calculations show that we should be able to get through the end of the year without any layoffs,” says Birdsong. “I’m very proud to say that.”
What happens when that money runs out, though, is anyone’s guess. The only sure thing is that RTA’s reliance on the sales tax, which makes up about 70% of its revenue in an average year, straps it to the engine of the economy. A roaring recovery helps RTA. A slow one hurts it. Neither scenario, though, does anything to stop the long-term ridership declines that still fuel worry over RTA’s direction. If anything, the coronavirus has forced the issue: While RTA manages through the present crisis, it, and Birdsong, must also think about its future.
Birdsong's problem is simple: Clevelanders love their cars.
We take a lot of pride in the fact that we make them here, or at least the steel and parts that go into them. We live in a region in which car ownership is assumed, however unfairly, to be the default — only 4.6% of people in Cuyahoga County use public transit to get to work, and the average commute time is less than 25 minutes. That car-centrism, egged on by near-constant highway development, has encouraged Northeast Ohio’s job centers to sprawl beyond the area that RTA is built to service, cutting off many people from a path toward a better future.
“The service is needed in those areas [like Lorain] to connect to growing job areas, or health care. Look at the closing of Lakewood Hospital, and moving it to Avon. There’s no transit there,” says Stocking, who rides RTA to house visits for his job as a diabetes educator. “We need some kind of a vision that’s going to actually serve people, and get them where they need to go beyond just the Cuyahoga County line.”
Planners have dreamed of that kind of thing for decades. RTA was originally conceived as a five-county system, before Cleveland’s political dysfunction restricted it to Cuyahoga County. A regional system was also part of the 2014 Vibrant NEO 2040 plan.
A regional system does, indeed, still capture the imagination. Tax revenue from exurban counties would shore up RTA’s finances. But more importantly, a system that could link, say, someone living in Glenville to a manufacturing job in Elyria via bus or train would open up opportunities, bring back riders and boost the economy. In addition to that, a regional system would bring with it tons of everyday fun: imagine enjoying lunch in quaint downtown Medina or browsing an exhibit at the Akron Art Museum without the mind-numbing hour or more drive, there and back, on the freeway.
Birdsong learned hard lessons from Nashville, and isn’t ready to talk about whether RTA will eventually propose a regional system, or even a new tax referendum in only Cuyahoga County. But she does say the prospect of regional transit sounds interesting. “I think it’s possible,” Birdsong says. “If we were to move down that road though, we’d have to talk about funding tied to that sort of concept.”
Therein lies Birdsong’s greatest challenge. Any idea for a revamped RTA will bring with it a need for more money, which means the public narrative around public transit in Cleveland must first shift away from crisis and catastrophe and decline, and toward showing the opportunities that transit can open up for the average Clevelander. Right now, Birdsong says, she is focusing on small but significant ways to do that by improving RTA’s customer service.
During her introductory tour of the paratransit garage last year, for instance, Birdsong noticed that paratransit riders were often waiting far too long to schedule a ride, or when a van showed up, it took a long time for it to get passengers to their destination. Right there, in the call center, she launched a plan to overhaul the call system software, and riders are now being scheduled and getting where they need to go faster.
“Traditional public transit is sometimes behind the eight ball when it comes to technology and overhauling the process,” says Birdsong. “That’s what I’d like to hone in on in the next few years, to make our product even more improved, so when people actually hop on it they have a totally different experience than they did before, and there’s no denying the difference.”
The ultimate goal, Birdsong says, is for Clevelanders of all stripes to come to see themselves as possible RTA riders. “We have to make sure we serve the neighborhoods, and not just the central business district. We have to be able to serve the areas where you don’t just see the homeless person riding, you’ve also got to see the business person,” she says. “It’s going to be a slow process.”
RTA recently completed five “pillar studies,” which looked at RTA’s economic impact, fare structure, finances, rail car issues and a system redesign. RTA and Birdsong are pulling them together into a 10-year strategic plan, which she says will put RTA’s operational house in order so that it can consider more strategic goals.
In September, RTA also decreased the price of an all-day pass from $5.50 to $5, a decision lauded by riders’ advocates, and has continued its long quest to upgrade the trains, reaching $132.6 million of the $300 million total it needs.
Even with all those changes, however, Birdsong confesses that transit is still not top of mind in Cleveland. But she’s working hard to get it there.
“I have to make it function to the point where it’s kind of like in the beginning, when I was living in Chicago. It didn’t make sense for me to hop in my car. It’s kind of like, ‘Why aren’t you on the bus or train?’ ” says Birdsong. “That’s the kind of shift that I have to make sure that we do.”