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Joseph Calabrese

CEO and General Manager

(David Kidd)

(David Kidd)

Fifteen years ago, when Joe Calabrese moved from central New York to become the transit director in Cleveland, one of the first pieces of advice he heard was, “In Cleveland, suits don’t ride buses.”

Calabrese has changed that -- big time -- by wholeheartedly embracing the mode of public transportation known as “bus rapid transit.” BRT lines have transformed cities across the globe. But American cities’ BRT efforts have tended to be half-hearted, watered-down versions. When Calabrese came to Cleveland, the business community along the Euclid Avenue corridor was clamoring for better transit options. Light rail was too expensive, so Calabrese focused on BRT. But he insisted from the start that his agency would “do it right or not at all.” 

Thanks to his efforts, Cleveland today has the best bus rapid transit system in the nation. The first line -- a nine-mile route known as the Health Line -- opened eight years ago. It feels more like a light rail line than a traditional bus route. The vehicles are 63 feet long with five sets of doors on each side. They pull up to elevated platforms like rail cars. Passengers pay their fares before they board. The route has less frequent stops than most bus lines, and the buses travel in their own lanes, with higher speed limits than other vehicles and signals that speed the buses along. All told, Health Line buses go three times as fast as normal city buses. 

It’s had a big impact on the city. Annual ridership on the Health Line is now 60 percent higher than it was on the route it replaced, which was already the busiest in the city. It has spurred some $6 billion in economic development along the route. Encouraged by its success, the city opened a second BRT line a year ago. 

Of course, the BRT system isn’t the only thing that Calabrese oversees. As head of the Cleveland area’s transit system, Calabrese is also responsible for buses, heavy and light rail lines, and even a system of downtown trolleys. Riders seem happy with all the transit options: One of Calabrese’s first moves at the agency was to guarantee passengers would “ride happy or ride free,” a policy that still remains. Only six or seven passengers claim free rides a day, which comes out to once every 32,000 trips. 

What Calabrese brings is “patience, stability, leadership and an incredible ability to stay out of the political mishegas,” says former Cleveland Mayor Jane Campbell, who served on the transit agency’s board after leaving the mayor’s office. “That,” she says, “you cannot overestimate. Nobody gets more credit for getting BRT operational than Joe Calabrese.”

-- By Daniel C. Vock

Read about the rest of the 2015 Public Officials of the Year and watch his acceptance speech below:

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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