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ideastream, Civic Commons enter bike, transit debate

Marc Lefkowitz  |  06/06/14 @ 10:00am  |  Posted in Transportation choices

How are suburbs, towns and cities responding to the rising tide of Millennials, Baby Boomers and knowledge economy workers moving to Northeast Ohio and looking for places to live based on culture and amenities like bike lanes and transit? This question was on the minds of about 100 people at Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA) Strategic Plan forum this week at ideastream hosted by Civic Commons.

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NOACA Executive Director Grace Gallucci kicked it off by reporting that the region’s transportation agency has re-written its vision statement to include guiding principles such as, building a multi-modal transportation network and preserving roads instead of adding new ones. In part, the move to be more sustainable is the agency’s response to new demographies, she said, and because the region cannot afford to add or expand roads anymore.

“Northeast Ohio can be described as flat...population growth but increasing its occupied land mass by twenty five percent,” Gallucci said. As a result: “It’s going to take more money to take care of the infrastructure with less people to pay for it.”

A panel followed by large groups discussed how NOACA could help the region transition from car-dominated plans to serving the needs of those more interested in biking, walking and taking transit.

No one on the panel, which included four NOACA board members and representatives from ODOT, Bike Cleveland and GreenCityBlueLake, disputed Gallucci’s claims.

Moderator Mike Shaferenko of Civic Commons started by asking about the benefits of regionalism.

“If you analyze any problem, it’s important to get the scale right,” answered David Beach, director of GCBL. “Transportation and housing markets, air pollution and water pollution all play out at the regional scale. The city of Cleveland losing population is not a problem that the city can deal with without the region.”

The panel debated what will make a “fix-it-first” policy meaningful.

“We have a fantastic infrastructure system in place already,” Bonnie Teuwen, former director of ODOT District 12 (Northeast Ohio) said. “To think about expanding out without the revenue...well, why not improve what’s already there?

Teuwen, now at the Cuyahoga County Department of Public Works which spent $20 million on road and bridge construction in 2012 (down from $32 million in 2010), sounded supportive of a new approach to asset management.

“If we’re going to resurface a road,” Teuwen said, “it means picking the roadways that are the worst.”

NOACA board member and service director for City of Wadsworth, Chris Easton, expressed the conflicting views of thinking regionally while attracting a flood of residents, mostly from within region, with new infrastructure.

“Why is preserving more important? These are basic assets. If you put one lane mile down (a lot is) depending on that and the maintenance. Wadsworth had a lot of growth, and the tax base doesn’t keep up. We realized that current revenues are not going to keep pace, and we increased taxes.

“By the same token, we can’t ignore congestion. How much should we dedicate to preservation and how much to expansion?”

Shaferenko asked Easton to answer his own question.

“Engineers use (a standard called) state of good repair,” Easton said. “Is ‘poor’ good enough for us, or do we have a higher standard?

“In Wadsworth, we set a lane mile life,” he continued. “We set the bar that every lane mile within 10 years has to have at least 12 years left on its life. NOACA’s process will be to decide its calculus on state of good repair.”

In an earlier interview with GCBL, Gallucci expressed the need for NOACA to rethink its calculus on state of good repair. She used the example of a road that ranked an 80 (good condition) being funded for resurfacing ahead of a road ranked a 40 (poor). Gallucci, who was hired in 2012, said that routine practice at NOACA “doesn’t work.” With budgets tight and sprawl now seen as a costly venture, a more systematic approach could eliminate waste and prevent unneeded roads.

Reinvestment opportunity could be a part of the new NOACA, suggested panelist and GCRTA Chief Executive Officer, Joe Calabrese.

“Remember how Euclid Avenue was 10 years ago when no one would invest?” he asked. “I wouldn’t have taken the Republican National Committee on a tour of Euclid Avenue this week without (the Euclid HealthTech Corridor).”

Jacob Van Sickle, Executive Director of Bike Cleveland, was more blunt in his assessment of the need to shift gears from expanding roads to a focus on the rising demand for multi-modalism.

“The idea of adding capacity if we can’t maintain the capacity we have should go away,” he said. “It’s not doing a service to us or our children.”

Beach added that the pressure to modernize agencies like NOACA is coming from climate change.

“The system we have is completely unsustainable,” he said. “With climate change we need to transition to something better like bike lanes and transit. That will take investment and change.”

What is the link between preserving, not expanding, our current roads and climate change? Shaferenko asked Beach.

“It starts with our land-use patterns,” Beach said. “As we expanded infrastructure, it created a lot of air and water quality problems. And by focusing on existing communities we could blunt some of the impact of sprawl.

“I think we need a different kind of system,” he continued, “that promotes walkable urbanism, like the vibrant cities around the country. We are underserved for vibrant locations around Northeast Ohio. That’s where we should be putting our investments.”

Hunter Morrison, Executive Director of the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium and a panelist, said the region used transportation to expand its footprint, but doesn’t have the residential base to pay for it.

“We’ve grown a region for 5 million people but we have 4 million,” Morrison said. “To add to that infrastructure basket is a formula for economic failure.”

Panelist and Laketran General Manager Ray Jurkowski said it will be very hard for Northeast Ohio to expand its transit system to meet the demand without a more willing partner in Columbus. The problem is especially acute in Lake County, where 1 in 5 people are over 60 years old. In the next 10 years, that number is expected to grow to 1 in 3.

“The paratransit system that LakeTran runs is considered one of best,” he said. “The problem is the financing is very fragile. The gas tax hasn’t been raised in 20 years. There’s a greater need to rely on public transportation, yet there is no dedicated, reliable source of funding in Ohio to meet those needs.”

Calabrese hopes that the business community will rally and call for a change in funding at the state.

“Every day I hear on the phone, ‘we need tax payer money,’ he said. “It’s important, too, for businesses. Ernst & Young’s new building in the Flats wouldn’t have been funded without access to Waterfront Line. We heard that Key Bank employees wouldn’t go to Tiedeman Road because of a lack of transit there.”

Apocryphal or not, cities and regions that have a robust transit system, it turns out, are the greenest. According to the Amalgamated Transit Union, one person switching to ride the bus, train or subway can cut annual carbon emissions by more than 4,800 pounds.

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