A series of public meetings is planned for January on Cleveland's multimillion dollar federal Railroad Crossing Elimination Project, which involves the construction of an east-west connector bridge over Third Street and the elimination of a low railroad overpass crossing that has been the site of thousands of truck collisions over the decades.
The two crossings at Inman Street and Third Street, respectively, bracket the Five Points area on Inman Street and the old train depot buildings along Edwards Street, forming part of a planned east-west corridor linking nearby communities to the downtown area, plans show.
Mayor Kevin Brooks and City Manager Joe Fivas said the bridge project is in its earliest steps, and the public's participation will help in weighing options on the best path forward as the planning phase of the project gets underway. The project recently got an injection of $27.5 million to fund project development, final design, land acquisition and construction. The U.S. Department of Transportation announced the funding in June, and the city is to provide a 20% match for the project, according to federal officials.
Brooks is enthusiastic for what he called a game-changer for downtown.
"This Tennessee trifecta of federal funding, state funding and city investment is going to revitalize and revolutionize both traffic and pedestrian movement in downtown Cleveland," Brooks said in a phone interview. "I'm particularly grateful to the city staff that worked so hard to achieve both the federal, state and local matches. The future looks bright for Cleveland."
The project will fundamentally change traffic patterns, Fivas said.
"Our goal is for this to be a catalyst, and it will certainly be something that will be a generational change in how the downtown works," Fivas said at his office in the Cleveland Municipal Building. "Essentially Inman Street will be more of a downtown street, a little bit slower with people having crosswalks and street trees. Most of the traffic will be diverted to Third Street, where that will be the through street. "
Trucks taller than the 10-feet, 10-inch height limit hit the railway overpass at least once a week, and that has been its history in Cleveland for decades, according to Fivas. Sometimes there are lengthy closures to remove the stuck trucks. Fivas' assistant, Beverley Lindsey, has a collection of photos, sent in by residents, of various trucks wedged under the overpass.
Moving trucks driven by inexperienced operators seem to be the most frequent vehicles stuffed into the gap, Fivas said.
A few hundred feet south, the crossing on the two-lane Third Street will be replaced with a flyover bridge so cars no longer cross the tracks where traffic on the current rough crossing faces a slight incline headed toward Wildwood Avenue.
A larger vision
The railroad crossing work will combine with a separate, federally-funded project for Third Street that redevelops it as the primary connector between the APD 40 bypass west of town to Keith Street downtown, Fivas said. Approximately $300,000 in funding through a Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation received a couple of years ago will help pay for planning costs for that project and its connections to associated projects. City officials, who refer to the funding as a RAISE grant, can reapply for another one to continue planning for the projects.
The bridge project presents challenges in connecting it to other areas also included in plans for redevelopment, Fivas said.
"What we've told our planning people is to make it so that it fits in with the surroundings, and it doesn't make it seem out of place," Fivas said. "That will be a design challenge."
A steering committee made up of stakeholders, including Norfolk Southern Railway, will begin work on the design process and begin building community support for the project.
"Once we have a design, we will activate that bridge grant, then we will activate the designs, and that will be the first piece that will be built," Fivas said.
The $27.5 million in federal funding for the bridge project, he said, will pay for the resulting plan, engineering for the flyover bridge and designs for links to other redevelopment.
There are five key needs the projects answer, Fivas said, first among them being safety, followed by improved efficiency for the local trucking industry and needed connections between downtown and the East Cleveland neighborhoods of College Hill and Blythe-Oldfield. Fourth among key needs is the redevelopment of the 55-acre former Whirlpool site along the route to help improve the transportation grid. Last, Fivas said, was the need to take advantage of opportunities to redevelop existing properties that can be utilized by members of the private sector.
The $27.5 million in funding for Cleveland is part of $570 million in grant funding awarded to projects in 32 states, federal officials said in a release in June. The grant program is part of President Joe Biden's Investing in America agenda.
"Every year, commuters, residents and first responders lose valuable time waiting at blocked railroad crossings — and worse, those crossings are too often the site of collisions that could be prevented," Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in the release. "As part of President Biden's Investing in America agenda, we're improving rail crossings in communities across the country to save lives, time and resources for American families."
Biden's infrastructure funding package was approved by Congress in 2021 with no support from Republican lawmakers in Tennessee.
Timeline for now
A plan must come before the design stage can begin, Fivas said, giving a rough estimate on a timeline.
"We hope to have the plan done by June or July of 2024," he said. "Then we will go immediately into design for the bridge. That will probably be a complex design, so that might take a year. We're probably a couple of years from starting the bridge."
As the project steering committee completes work toward a plan, city officials will set dates for public meetings.
"Public meetings could begin in January," Fivas said.
The meetings at first will be more of a question-answer session with initial information about plans but not all that many details, Fivas said. The city will advertise the meetings in advance.