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Talking transit, green alternatives with NOACA chief Grace Gallucci

Marc Lefkowitz  |  06/04/14 @ 1:00pm  |  Posted in Biking, Transit, Walking

On the eve of NOACA’s Strategic Plan discussion at ideastream, we revisit our lengthy conversation with the transportation planning agency’s (relatively) new Executive Director Grace Gallucci about her ideas for improving multi-modalism in the region.

NEO idea for transport<br />Hundreds of cyclists participate in May 2014 Critical Mass rideNew school<br />University Circle will have a two new Rapid stations including this one at Cedar Hill.

We asked Gallucci and other leaders to share how Northeast Ohio might transform itself with a greatly expanded public transit system. We spoke about the need for big picture and practical steps to reduce car dependency and boost green alternatives like biking and transit. Below is the extended version of our conversation with Gallucci about NOACA’s plans and its opportunities with the $50 million in transportation funds it approves every year.

Where do we start working on a big, transformative vision for transit in Northeast Ohio, recognizing that it might take awhile to achieve it?

I don’t believe we can limp along. We’re fortunate to have decent transit. It’s a great legacy. But, we want to take it beyond day-to-day management. We need to think big and act big.

How do we move transit beyond managing best we can within our current realities and talk about a bold vision for transit?

We’re reacting to money available. We have to think beyond that to, how do we want it to look and fit into livability principles...

What does that look like?

In building a regional vision for transit, it needs to include other aspects of multi modalism. I went on an international studies trip to Quito, the capital of Ecuador and Santiago, Chile. They came up with a transformative vision.

Take a map, figure out the problems, and build it. I could draw for you what I think we need. Multiple BRT corridors that fit into a whole system similar to Curitiba (Brazil). They couldn’t afford rail, but still developed it like it was rail along with the city.

If we’re going to have a “hub-and-spoke” system, that’s fine. That works well for our region if we’re really trying to revitalize our core.

I’ve been asking people to dream big on this next question—if Northeast Ohio had a new, large infusion of capital funds, what investment(s) in transit would you like to see?

I don’t think we should be hoping for a big infusion of cash. Even if Ohio was going to provide it, I think ODOT’s Transit Study is saying, ‘yes, there does need to be transit in Ohio, but in the rural parts of the state. I’m saying, we need transit in Columbus.

Ohio has a gas tax (28 cents from every dollar). We should open it up (it’s currently restricted to highway use) and create something for transit. Lorain County needs transit. Brunswick needs transit.

If there was a big, bold plan for transit in Northeast Ohio, how would it get built? What do you say to those who think we should prioritize maintaining RTA and not expand it?

I’m a big supporter of, if you put together a big plan and it’s reasonably priced, voters will go for it. Clearly, we have to maintain the existing system, but, we can be developing a plan that does both (dream big of expansion and maintain the existing system).

Here’s another way of thinking about it. Denver as a region never in its wildest dreams considered transit 25 years ago. But, as they saw population growth and wanted to build up the area, they put together a master plan for transit and put it on the ballot. A 25-year plan that is similar to what’s happening in Los Angeles. In 1993, they opened the first line, and now have a transit network.

It’s going to be competitive, and (Denver) did that by laying out the plan. It shows visually and through public meetings what they want the system to look like.

Be explicit. If it’s a BRT system, what is the cost, timeframe, plan, and do you get the money through a 20 year levy?

I don’t think we’ve done that at RTA, ever, a master plan (Gallucci was former budget director at RTA). Their long-range plan is about keeping the system we have.

Is there popular support and political will to expand transit as a vehicle for development in Northeast Ohio? Can NOACA do this, or will it be RTA?

It depends on how we want to view it. If we want to make it a Cuyahoga County plan, then it has to be a RTA.

There’s support in pockets. Lorain County Commissioners have made it clear to me they want transit. I’ve had little bits and pieces of conversation. As soon as I get my asset management plan (a stronger policy that fixes the roads that need it most) approved as a board-level policy...

Currently, NOACA’s money for maintenance, almost 50% goes to fix roads without adding capacity. But all of it could be approved for road widening and new roads. So, we were funding things that were an 80 (good) ahead of a 40 (bad condition) because they got their application in first. That doesn’t work.

NOACA signed an agreement with other MPOs in the northern part of the state for inter-city passenger rail—what does this agreement mark in terms of a new, localized solution to transit?

It’s a huge deal. ODOT was not happy. They thought we were going to implement high-speed rail money. Ohio has an earmark from Rep. Marcy Kaptur to do HSR between Detroit and Cleveland. That money has never been used because the Governor killed the rail program. That money is still sitting there. I talked to Kaptur; we can still use it for high-performance rail and eliminate delays between Toledo and Cleveland.

I was able to convince our Association of Regional Councils to join the Midwest Rail Association so we can seek our own funding. ODOT will leave us alone.

For Cleveland, it includes improvements in the corridor from Amtrak station downtown in Cleveland to Toledo. We want to make the downtown (Cleveland Amtrak) station truly multi-modal and fit in with the neighborhood.

It’s also been suggested that the MPOs could advocate for changes in state policy. Are there any policy changes that NOACA sees as priority to improving the share of multi-modal funding?

I think the change is at the legislature, not at ODOT. At the state, we have the flexibility to do more transit from highway money. How do we convince the governor to do that?

Ultimately, is it reasonable to expect that we could set an attainable goal for mode split for Northeast Ohio, and, of course, the follow up question would be, what collectively can the MPOs, the municipalities and private entities do to contribute to that mode split?

When I worked at RTA in Chicago, I developed performance measures for Chicago’s 6-county region that suggest we want improvement in mode share. I would probably lift most of those. We should be more like Chicago, with more commutes being part of transit and things like the number of available jobs within a 30 minute commute by public transit.

(NAOCA) just recently hired a transit planner, Kelly Britt. And I hired Cathy Sarly as director of planning from ODOT. She’s an engineer who’s a big thinker. I also created a research and analysis unit (looking at) funding and performance measurements. I need a director.

Final thoughts on transit—the vision for the future and starting to make it happen now. The plan you mentioned seems tailor made for NOACA to lead especially if we thought about all of the region’s RTAs as one—merging them together actually or for this purpose?

RTA in Chicago was the parent organization for CTA (Cook County), PACE, Metro (which linked) all six counties through commuter rail. They operated the day-to-day, and RTA controlled the budget, $4 billion. That’s probably where we want to be here. Merging or a parent organization, it can work in a lot of ways, but New York and San Francisco are two models. Chicago is probably the weakest, but they are looking to do a wholesale merger, too. It does work best for a bold plan for expansion. My board supports that. I talked a lot about that during my interview process.

Also, I’d like to mention that there are some proposals in the Obama Administration’s budget where they have outlined a stronger leadership role for MPOs. With that will come more direct allocations rather than it going to the state.

In Chicago, I was on committees at the national level at DOT. When I came to Northeast Ohio, (DOT said) we like the work you did in Chicago, but as an MPO leader we want you to continue to be on committees. It’s a big deal. So, I’m on the national committee for asset management and safety and performance measures. By the way, they told me, the budget is going to come out and you’ll like it.

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