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Driven away: ODOT will continue to fund sprawl until 2017

Marc Lefkowitz  |  06/20/14 @ 2:00pm  |  Posted in Transportation choices

When Plain Dealer Editorial Board President Brent Larkin sounded off this week about the diminishing returns for a shrinking city and flat region still betting the farm on sprawl, it led us to wonder, what is behind it and how could we flip the paradigm to a region that is growing up and in?

In 2008, GCBL director David Beach pointed out in his “transportation manifesto,” it will take a combo of vision and will to return the balance from where we stand today.

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If we really want to go beyond wringing our hands about sprawl, we should start by taking a closer look at what projects are in the pipeline — what is funded by ODOT for the next four years. We scanned the entire 430 page ODOT funding schedule for 2014-2017—it is staggering how many projects will widen roads to and within new suburbs and traditionally rural towns. Essentially, it is a roadmap to moving cars around instead of investing in place.

Wider and more roads often sound like a beneficial thing, but as Wired explained this week, adding roads only boosts the demand for that road—resulting in a shorter drive until everyone knows about it.

Cognitive dissonance is one way to describe Ohio’s $2 billion four-year transportation budget. Its pipeline will continue to induce demand and then offer to fix the “problem” when it breaks. Meanwhile, the real, serious concern about revenue projections for Ohio and its metropolitan areas worsens. Even this week’s Hail Mary from Congress to finally raise the federal gas tax will only add fuel to the fire.

What needs to happen before we give ODOT even more money to play with is an overhaul of the system similar to what NOACA Executive Director Grace Gallucci is calling for in devoting at least 50% of the transportation agency’s annual budget for projects that fix and improve the roads we have (and can barely afford) to keep up.

The second thing that needs to happen after getting serious about a fix-it-first strategy is to clear the pipeline of more and wider roads that are adding to the state’s fiscal strain while fueling unsustainable land-use patterns (more on that in a minute), and replace them with projects that promote walkable urbanism.

The few projects on ODOT’s list that support quality of life in urban areas staggers the mind when you consider Larkin and local leaders like Brad Whitehead of the Fund for Economic Future’s calls for a new direction. But then, how much does the ODOT list disconnected from the ideas being expressed in the upper echelons of the power structure in Cleveland?

To be fair, we happen to live in a time when half of Cleveland’s share of the road dollars will be soaked up in the (region-serving) $1.5 billion Innerbelt Project and its $360 million set of bridges. We can’t do anything about that. But, we should know better than to invest another $369 million in an extension of the I-490 highway known as Opportunity Corridor. Is this the best use of limited public dollars? The state is bonding or raising funds from debt service to the I-80 toll road to pay for Opportunity Corridor. The federal government is kicking in $6 million, and the county is pitching in $16 million.

In addition to the Innerbelt and Opportunity Corridor, Ohio is investing heavily in highway and road capacity. ODOT will sell $136 million in bonds—again, debt investments which Bloomberg News questioned for soundness—to pave the way for two more lanes on I-271 in between I-480 and Summit County. Highways have ballooned the region’s footprint, Beach says, in a short time and have led to more cars on the road.

Where are Ohio’s priorities? The 430-page $2 billion list is a windfall for highway builders opening up access to once-rural places and more lanes for driving in new suburbs. In our area, which is one of the most urban in the state, the list of projects is weighted toward getting people out onto highways or driving through rather than inviting people to get out of their cars and stay.

Even urban projects like Cleveland’s West Shoreway conversion to a boulevard read like they were designed by highway engineers. The West Shoreway is on the list for $34 million to be repaved, but to call it a boulevard when highway ramps will remain and intersections were deemed too slow, is a bit of a stretch. To be fair, the West Shoreway will get $11 million for a bike path that will connect West 25th Street with Edgewater Beach. The other bright spots for quality of life on the list include:

  • $2 million for stage 3 of the Towpath (from Steelyard Commons to Literary Road in Tremont)
  • $8 million for stage 1 of the Towpath from Harvard Avenue to Steelyard.
  • $14 million for stage 4 of the Towpath from Steelyard to Canal Basin Park in the Cleveland Flats
  • $9 million for a reconfiguration of Van Aken, Warrensville and Chagrin roads to support a transit oriented development

The projects that will be unlikely to support a stronger core and reinvesting in legacy cities far outnumber those that do (as an aside, ODOT spends more on herbicidal spraying along the highway than it plans to spend on bike lanes). Here is just a sampling:

  • $22 million to widen Bagley Road between Cleveland and Middleburg Heights
  • $15.4 million to widen Royalton Road in North Royalton
  • I-422 between Solon and Bainbridge will get $5.9 million
  • $13 million to widen Chagrin Boulevard in Woodmere near Eaton
  • $8 million for sound walls on I-90

Again, wider roads “induce the demand” for more driving, the source of 28% of our region’s CO2 pollution. Unfortunately, this road agenda is moving in the wrong direction. We need a new agenda that focuses on transportation choice, that is serious about climate change, tackling our fiscal crisis, duplication of tax service through fragmentation. That agenda is about moving away from the sprawl model of the last 50 years and back to the Main Street model that will continue to be attractive for the next 50.

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