The Battle to Build a Subway
In Cleveland 85 Years Ago
‘The efforts to build a subway in Cleveland got under way in 1917, a little over a decade after a chamber of commerce committee had reported that it was ‘only a question of time when a complete system of subways will be required in Cleveland.’ Cleveland was then the nation’s fifth largest city, a rapidly growing metropolis of about 800,000 people, many of whom were dissatisfied with the surface transit system, owned and operated by the Cleveland Railway Company. Although there was widespread sentiment that the city sorely needed a rapid transit system, there was no consensus about what kind to build or how much to spend. With the mayor, city council, and Cleveland Plan Commission unable to reach agreement, the city in 1918 retained Barclay Parsons & Klapp, a prominent transit engineering firm, to look into the issue. BP&K reported that Cleveland’s huge population and high riding habit made rapid transit imperative and recommended that it be built in two stages. The first stage called for a downtown subway consisting of short loops, a terminal, and feeder lines, all radiating from Public Square. Estimated to cost about $15 million, the subway, which would be leased to the Cleveland Railway Company, was designed to relieve traffic congestion downtown by removing the streetcars from the streets…The City Council voted in early 1920 to put a $15 million bond issue for a downtown subway on the April ballot. The bond issue provoked a fierce struggle, which in some ways resembled the battle in Pittsburgh a year earlier. Supporters, among them the chamber of commerce, the builder’s exchange, and the federation of labor, made the same claims that the subway would relieve traffic congestion downtown and could later become the nucleus of a rapid transit system…Opponents, among them the Civic League, the real estate board, and the Press and the Plain Dealer, countered that the subway would not provide Cleveland with rapid transit and that traffic congestion downtown could be relieved by tightening traffic regulations, rerouting streetcar lines, and adopting other less expensive measures…The Civic League was particularly incensed that the suburbs, by far the fastest growing part of metropolitan Cleveland, were not required to pay a fair share of the subway’s costs…By a more than 2 to 1 majority, the voters turned down the bond issue…The subway was dead. Although a few private companies made efforts to obtain a franchise to build a subway in the late 1920s, nothing came of them…The city would try again in the 1930s and 1940s, but it would never come as close to building a subway as it did in 1920.’
--From Downtown—Its Rise and Fall, 1880-1950, by Robert Fogelson, a professor of history and urban studies at MIT.