In the epic struggle between states and metropolitan areas to control the shrinking pie of government funding, much is at stake. Underlying who gets what, transportation figures largely into how regions develop, i.e. do they sprawl or are they more walkable?
Ever since Eisenhower presided over the national highway system in the late 1950s, states like Ohio have assumed a central role in transportation: Big government contractor.
In the latest move, Ohio informed metropolitan leaders that money from a federal program aimed at reducing car congestion and improving air quality (CMAQ) would no longer be theirs to decide how to use. Ohio Department of Transportation will now divvy up $60,000,000 which was routinely sent on to regions’ Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs).
Metro leaders have expressed their displeasure. Consolidating transportation at the state will pit regions against each other, they say. It comes at a critical moment when cities are seeing an inflow of people who are more interested in riding streetcars than in sports cars.
“Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Columbus typically got the largest share of that funding,” explains a local government official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The smaller MPOs decided that wasn't fair and lobbied the State to get the funding distribution changed.
“We are now competing against projects in rural Ohio for the same funding,” she continues. “It isn't fair to the large cities that have poor air quality and need the funding, but that was the decision at the State level.”
In the alphabet soup of transportation funding, CMAQ is small potatoes. In comparison, Ohio used the Turnpike to create $1,000,000,000 in debt for new road projects including the $330,000,000 Opportunity Corridor. Also, the state levies a tax every time you fill up your tank and has lavished it on new roads, lately, in sparsely populated areas. The latest is the $429,000,000 Portsmouth Bypass, a new, four-lane highway that Ohio will build in a remote corner of Scioto County.
Meanwhile, Ohio ranks 46 out of 50 in population growth and has the nation’s 4th largest highway system to maintain.
“We spend too much on new capacity and not enough on maintenance,” says Jason Segedy, Executive Director of AMATS, Akron’s regional transportation agency. “Ohio tends to view federal funds as ‘free money’ and undertake capacity expansions that they probably wouldn’t embark upon if these federal funds were unavailable for this purpose. While there are always exceptions, I think most capacity-adding projects (especially in a shrinking region like ours) are not cost-effective.”
Segedy would like to get Ohio out of what he calls “a strategic mistake” in adding more roads and highways. He would shift the state budget from new to resurfacing and allow regions greater flexibility in how to use it.
“ODOT should streamline TRAC (its prime funding scheme) to allow funding for new capacity in only the most extreme situations,” he advises. “Particularly those involving safety on freeways. Sometimes new lanes are the solution there."
NOACA's Executive Director, Grace Gallucci, recently asked ODOT to review TRAC in light of their $30,000,000 request to fix existing roads. Gallucci would also like to tap into TRAC to improve transit, such as much needed upgrades to regional passenger rail.
In the near term, Northeast Ohio faces the prospect of losing millions in CMAQ funds to other, less populated and cleaner (air) parts of the state. Will that translate to a new, better focus on projects?
The latest round of proposals from NOACA includes the usual traffic signal studies ($19M), new buses (for Laketran’s transit system—$18M). Recreational trail proposals ($11M) include the Redline Greenway—a conversion of the land around the RTA Redline on the Near West Side—into a public access greenway with a bike trail. The list also includes a highway interchange widening in Westlake ($7.7M). (The government official who spoke anonymously observed that, in the new, competitive environment for CMAQ, the Westlake highway exit expansion will probably score too low to win funding.)
The problem with CMAQ, Segedy feels—its aim misses the heart of congestion and air quality issues.
“I don’t think CMAQ is the answer for alternative modes of transportation,” he says. “I’d like to see much of it rolled into Transportation Alternatives so that transit, bike, and pedestrian projects could directly access the funding without having to undergo an apples-to-oranges comparison with highway projects.”
Currently, Ohio invests $11 million of its $1.8 billion annual transportation budget on enhancements for biking and walking.
Segedy does credit Ohio for increasing its urban paving program this year. But, he would like to see a new era of cooperation between state and local governments. He would rally it around a fix-it-first policy which was in effect at ODOT under previous administrations.
“Improving the condition of our urban roadways is not just something that ODOT should be responsible for. It is something that MPOs (and most of all, the local governments themselves) need to prioritize.
“The model in Ohio, and in the rest of the U.S. has been that federal (and many state) funds go for ‘the new stuff’ and local funds go for repair. Many of Ohio’s shrinking cities are advocating for expensive new roadway capacity projects while their own streets crumble. That’s not smart public policy either.”
The Cleveland and Akron region could follow the practices of the more effective planning agencies who have set clear goals and priorities in their long-range plans and then evaluated projects based on whether they help meet those goals, says Chris McCahill of the State Smart Transportation Initiative. The Washington-based policy group praises the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Plannning (CMAP) and the Wasatch Front Regional Council (WFRC) in Salt Lake City, Utah.
“For example, CMAP has modeled a ‘preferred scenario’ and it evaluates projects based on whether they fit that vision,” says McCahill. “WFRC has done something similar with the help of a group called Envision Utah.”
Northeast Ohio’s Sustainable Communities Consortium, led by 100 organizations including NOACA and AMATs, is the equivalent to Envision Utah. Its VibrantNEO plan has been seen as a blueprint to how the Cleveland and Akron regions could move in a similar fashion, if they so choose. NOACA, for example, is building its Strategic Plan, which may bring new performance metrics like reducing carbon emissions or shifting modes, from the VibrantNEO data. The hope is regions like Northeast Ohio will lead the way—offering a preferred scenario of how to rebuild and emphasize a sustainable transportation system to get there.