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New Greater Cleveland RTA 'transit ambassadors' to help riders on the road and rails

Holding a microphone, Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority CEO India Birdsong Terry stands next to Police Chief Deirdre Jones
Nick Castele
/
Ideastream Public Media
Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority CEO India Birdsong Terry and Police Chief Deirdre Jones announce the agency's new transportation ambassador program.

The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority is deploying red-vested transit ambassadors on Healthline buses and at RTA rail stations to help riders in situations that don’t call for armed police.

The 10 unarmed workers will assist customers in navigating the transit system, RTA officials said at a news conference Tuesday. Ambassadors also will be called upon to defuse tense, but non-criminal, situations that arise on RTA vehicles.

The Rev. Charles Lucas, president of RTA’s board of trustees, said the ambassadors will function like peacemakers on the system.

“They’re going to get on these buses and these rails, and they’re going to bring peace to situations,” he said. “They’re going to take difficult situations that are all tied up and make them into a straight line.”

RTA also is hiring four social workers to accompany transit police officers. Both the social workers and the ambassadors have undergone crisis intervention training, according to the agency. The training includes de-escalation skills, self-defense, first aid, counteracting drug overdoses with Narcan and looking out for human trafficking, the agency said.

The transit agency’s leaders pitched the programs as an alternative way to keep people safe on buses and trains without summoning police every time.

“I know that they will do an amazing job,” Police Chief Deirdre Jones said. “Their goal is customer service, also while lessening the footprint of law enforcement on the system.”

RTA said the program will eventually expand to other routes and locations.

The rider advocacy group Clevelanders for Public Transit had encouraged a transit ambassador program as a way to resolve a fare collection impasse on Healthline buses that grew out of a 2017 fare evasion case.

In that case, Cleveland Municipal Judge Emanuella Groves ruled it an unconstitutional search for transit police to check Healthline riders for proof they’d paid their bus fare.

As a result, Healthline customers could no longer board at all doors of the double-length buses. Instead, riders must line up at the front in order to use the fare box next to the driver.

For now, RTA will not change the way it collects fares on the Healthline, Chief Operating Officer Floun’say Caver said. Ambassadors are not a replacement for fare enforcement officers, but they will be on hand to help, he said.

“We’re not going to go to all-door boarding immediately,” he said. “We’ll try to understand how our transit ambassadors are engaging and we’ll evaluate that. But, currently, the process will stay the same for all of our customers.”

Robert Winn, a volunteer with Clevelanders for Public Transit, said the organization was happy with any RTA move that could reduce encounters between riders and police over minor issues. Returning to all-door boarding on the Healthline remains a sticking point, however. Doing so would speed up the process of getting on the bus, he said.

“It should be fast and easy and seamless, and instead we have all kinds of confusion about fare payment and boarding and who can use which door,” Winn said.

Ridership plummeted at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, sinking 46.5% from 2019 through 2020, RTA noted in its 2022 budget proposal. That decline delivered an $18.6 million hit to fare collections, according to RTA’s latest financial report.

Although the number of transit riders is expected to inch up this year, monthly ridership remains well below pre-pandemic levels, according to the budget proposal.

Transit ambassadors have a role in the work of growing ridership again as Cleveland emerges from the pandemic, CEO India Birdsong Terry said. Ambassadors help RTA connect personally with riders, offering customer service to those who need it.

“This is really our commitment to the Cleveland community, in putting more boots on the ground and welcoming back to RTA,” she said.

Nick Castele is a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media.