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The reckoning for ODOT?

David Beach  |  01/19/09 @ 9:41am

Our state's transportation system is about to hit a wall of problems. The maintenance bill for a massive amount of aging roads and bridges is coming due. The major transportation funding source, the gas tax, is less reliable as motorists shift to more fuel-efficient vehicles. And everything from concerns about climate change to the growing market demand for affordable transportation choices and walkable neighborhoods is making people ask whether the current transportation system - characterized by dependence on the automobile and the promotion of steadily increasing demand for greater mobility through sprawling suburbs - can be sustained.

How can we avoid the crash? It won't be easy. The current system is perpetuated by entrenched bureaucracies like ODOT, automobile-centric policies at all levels of government, and powerful interests like highway contractors and the auto industry.

During the past year, however, I saw hints that even agencies like ODOT are being forced to realize that the current system is not sustainable. I saw this while serving on a big state task force that was charged by the Governor to set new transportation priorities for the 21st century.

It was an all-the-usual-suspects-at-the-table kind of task force - everyone from the highway contractors and the trucking industry to advocates of transit and urban revitalization. And the final task force report, which was released earlier this month, includes a mixed bag of recommendations.

On the positive side, the report calls for:

  • Developing a more multi-modal transportation system that offers greater choices.
  • Developing a statewide transportation plan that will align transportation investments with state strategies for economic development and reinvestment in existing communities. This will include state grants to integrate transportation and land-use plans with emphasis on increasing market share for transit, walking and bicycling, as well as for rail and waterborne freight. (The integration of land use and transportation is critical, as the density of land uses determines what transportation modes are practical.)
  • Providing state incentives to promote regional collaboration.
  • Improving public transit service and providing dedicated state funding for local transit systems and passenger rail.
  • Starting passenger rail service in the 3-C corridor (Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati).
  • Funding "complete streets" pilot projects to demonstrate street designs that accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists, as well as motorists. (While good to see, this recommendation should have been stronger. "Complete streets" should simply become a basic policy.)
  • Reducing the carbon footprint of transportation. The task force report says, "There are several ways the transportation sector can directly reduce carbon emissions. These include actions designed to reduce Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT), expand the use of alternative fuels, promote energy-efficient practices and facilitate the application of smart technologies. Ohio can reduce carbon emissions further by directly linking transportation investment decisions to sustainable land use practices that are transit supportive, which have the affect of reducing VMT." (The fact that ODOT is acknowledging the need to respond to climate change is a victory indeed. The next step will be to commit to a specific goal for carbon reduction and develop a strategy for meeting the goal.)
  • Adding flexible new revenue sources that can support all modes of transportation, unlike the current state gas tax which is restricted to roads.

If these recommendations were really implemented, Ohio's transportation system could begin to move in a more sustainable direction.

However, on the negative side, the task force report also talks a lot about adding capacity to highways to reduce traffic congestion and handle much greater volumes of truck freight. Moreover, the current gas tax would remain in place to continue funneling most transportation funds exclusively to road projects and perpetuating the status quo.

The report also lacks specifics in many areas. For instance, while it contains nice language about creating a more multi-modal transportation system, it never defines what success would be like. What is the target for percent of trips made by transit or bike? How much can driving be reduced by programs for urban revitalization and compact land use? How much freight can be shifted from trucks to rail? And what is the strategy for producing the desired results?

ODOT staff members say that such targets and strategies will be developed as planning continues in the coming months. Thus, it will be important for reform advocates to remain engaged in the process.

Meanwhile, media coverage of the task force has focused on recommendations for raising additional revenue and the politics (extremely difficult) of increasing the state gas tax. Indeed, it's tempting to be cynical about the task force and view it merely as a vehicle for justifying an ODOT bailout.

If that ends up being the only result, then the task force will have been a waste of a lot of people's time. But if the recommended policy and planning reforms are put into practice, then it will have been worthwhile.

Imagine if ODOT actually made it a priority to reduce carbon emissions from transportation by 80%. Such a priority would force many other positive changes, from cleaner, more fuel-efficient cars to reduction of vehicle miles traveled. Now is the time to keep up the pressure on ODOT and the Governor to adopt such changes - and develop a truly sustainable transportation system for the 21st century.

Go here for the GCBL vision of sustainable transportation.

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