Channel 3 News spent five eight-hour days counting the number of passengers on the Waterfront Line

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CLEVELAND -- Some workers in The Flats call it the "ghost train." And for good reason. They say the Waterfront Line often operates with few passengers or none at all.

It's been about a year since the light rail has been back in full operation. The Waterfront Line runs 2.2 miles each way from Terminal Tower, along the river, passing through The Flats to the Cleveland Municipal Parking lot on the lakefront. Since it resumed full service, the Waterfront Line runs every 15 minutes throughout the day and evening seven days a week.

"It's a turkey, and it's the worst possible turkey for RTA," said Norm Krumholz, an urban studies professor at Cleveland State University who served as Cleveland's planning director for 10 years under Mayors Perk, Stokes and Kucinich.

Krumholz says the Waterfront Line was a dumb idea when it was built in 1996. He still feels the same today, arguing it has done nothing in the way of attracting a transit-riding public.

"Not enough density and not enough jobs, particularly of people who don't have automobiles. That's the key," said Krumholz.

The line was built before Joe Calabrese took over as RTA's General Manager.

"It wasn't my idea. But in 10 to 20 years, it will be thought of a very visionary project," Calabrese said.

"Don't hold your breath," Krumholz replied. "You don't build $70 million projects for an if-come project."

RTA says it costs $578,000 to operate the Waterfront Line -- a small percentage of its $275 million overall operating budget.

Channel 3 News spent three eight-hour days counting the number of passengers on the Waterfront Line. The check found 199 passengers on board 151 trains -- an average of only 1.3 passengers per train.

Bethany MacKay works downtown and wasn't at all impressed.

"It seems kind of few to me. It doesn't seem like it's justified, the trains coming and going as often as it does," she said.

RTA reduced service in 2009 but resumed full operation a year ago. RTA did its own manual count a couple months later and found about 500 passengers a day on weekdays -- more than three times the number that Channel 3 News found.

"I'm not saying it's great, but we're working to improve it," said Calabrese.

RTA argues Channel 3's numbers were lower because we counted passengers at The Flats East Bank station.

"So if people were getting on in the Muni Lot and coming and getting off at the Rock Hall, you never would have seen them," Calabrese argued.

We agreed. So Channel 3 News spent another two full days counting passengers who boarded at the Muni Lot and got off at the East Ninth, or Rock Hall, stop. We found some passengers but not many -- only 47 on 64 trains. That's not even one passenger per train. Despite the low numbers, RTA has no plans to cut service again.

"You want to know that if I get a call from my son's school that he's sick that there is a way to get home," Calabrese explained.

"RTA has to defend turkey as best they can," Krumholz said.

RTA believes ridership will grow as development along the East Bank and the lakefront grows.

"Unless we're offering the service, those developments won't happen," said Calabrese.

RTA says it's only a matter of time until ridership is so high that you'll need more than two hands to count passengers. Clevelanders are hoping they're right.

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