By THOMAS J. SHEERAN, Associated Press Writer
CLEVELAND (AP) - A trolley style bus system is at the heart of an ambitious plan to revive a decaying retail corridor once known as "millionaire's row."
Planners envision buses resembling trolleys shuttling people along a 7-mile stretch -- now lined with vacant storefronts -- from downtown to museums, theaters and college campuses in University Circle.
The plan has been more than 20 years in the making and the hope is that when it is finally built the buses will also bring business to the area. Construction is expected to begin in 2004, and buses are scheduled to begin running in 2006.
The transit system test project is one of 10 being underwritten by the U.S. Department of Transportation to find an alternative to costly commuter rail lines.
Other demonstration projects are in Boston, Miami, Honolulu, Hartford, Conn., Charlotte, N.C., Eugene, Ore., Santa Clara, Calif., the Dulles airport corridor of northern Virginia and also San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Cleveland's Euclid Avenue -- once known as "millionaire's row" for mansions owned by industrialists including John D. Rockefeller and Samuel Mather -- is now a run-down commercial strip from downtown far into the city's east suburbs.
Its first blocks have been reclaimed by the renovations of grand old theaters, but the avenue quickly declines to rows of weathered and vacant storefronts.
Hoping to bring life back to the avenue, the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority has designed a plan to narrow the avenue from six traffic lanes to two and create a transit corridor in the center. The low-slung buses would swerve serpentine-style in and out of two bus-only lanes to drop passengers at islands on a median strip.
The bus and the traffic plan are still being designed, but the transit authority has already spent $13 million planning the $292 million project.
"We're trying to return Euclid Avenue to all of its glory," said project manager Dennis C. Albrecht, who remembers childhood shopping ventures to Euclid Avenue shops and department stores.
RTA estimates that the project could lead to 5,400 new housing units and $1.3 billion in investments along the corridor.
A component of the makeover is a landscaping plan with period lamp posts and sidewalk paving materials to spruce up the dreary streetscape.
"We're trying to create an environment, landscaping and less vehicles on Euclid Avenue to make it much more pedestrian friendly, give them a place where they're going to want to walk and talk and socialize and stroll down the street and stop, go shopping, go to the coffee shop," Albrecht said.
Joseph A. Marinucci, who directs real-estate development for the nonprofit Playhouse Square, said the upgraded transit system would "provide the connective tissue" linking the theater district and downtown to the museums and Case Western Reserve University.
That should lead to investment in jobs and tourist attractions along the route.
"People make investments in locations where people can be drawn to easily," Marinucci said.
The project has taken years to develop due to management changes -- Albrecht is the fifth project manager since 1983 -- and funding questions. RTA eventually made the project its top federal financing priority, effectively shelving other ideas including rail line extensions.
Some critics say the project should be curtailed in favor of upgrading an existing bus line that is Cleveland's busiest with 4.7 million riders a year.
"Perhaps it's time for RTA to look at short-term improvements instead of spending money on long-term projects that don't work," said Sheldon Lustig, a retired New York Central Railroad supervisor and now a railroad industry consultant.
He said RTA executives and board members should focus on extending bus service to growing job areas such as suburban industrial parks.
RTA has failed to create an attractive transit system, he said.
"The more inconvenient you make it, the fewer people will use it and they have proven it," Lustig said.
City Hall has endorsed the bus corridor plan, but there are still questions about the safety of pedestrians standing on a median with buses passing on both sides, and cars turning left across two lanes of bus traffic.
Still, mayoral executive assistant Ken Silliman said, "This project is one of the region's most important economic development initiatives."
Ryan McKenzie, who rides a bicycle several miles to work along the route, said the project should be more bicycle-friendly and shouldn't be using transit funds for non-transit items such as urban landscaping.
"I'm supportive of the effort to improve the corridor but to use transit money for streetscape beautification is something of a worry to me," said McKenzie, who works on urban environmental issues with the EcoCity Cleveland nonprofit organization.
RTA's general manager, Joseph A. Calabrese, told city planners that the agency was determined to resolve the safety issues.
"Just because it's new doesn't mean it won't work," he said.