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Akron transportation director, Jason Segedy's big vision for moving Ohio forward

Marc Lefkowitz  |  10/13/14 @ 1:00pm  |  Posted in Transportation choices

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.

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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.

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Jason Segedy
3 years ago

Nice piece, Marc. Thanks for writing it.

I'd like to weigh-in on what you heard from your anonymous source:

1) Re: "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."

Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati DID get the largest share of the CMAQ funding, but that's because they had the largest share of the population. Under the old system, $60 million was allocated amongst the MPOs (that have air-quality non-attainment problems and were eligible) on a strictly per-capita basis. Each MPO got roughly $10 in CMAQ for each person living in its urbanized area. The funding, on a per-capita basis, was totally equitable.

Which leads me to my main point - your source (in asserting that the change in how this funding works was a conspiracy of the smaller MPOs) is either privy to secret information that I am not, or is gravely mistaken, or woefully misinformed.

The CMAQ funding mechanism (that of per-capita distribution to individual MPOs) was done away with at the behest of ODOT, not of any of the MPOs. I don't know of one MPO in Ohio which wouldn't prefer to go back to the old system, given the choice.

ODOT's rationale in changing the funding distribution was that CMAQ could now be pooled with other funding sources to implement extremely large projects. The other rationale was that MPOs weren't spending their CMAQ allocations expeditiously enough.

I have largely never agreed with the overall efficacy of the statewide concept, but that was ODOT's rationale. My position (from my perspective) was that "it wasn't broken and we didn't need to fix it", but, to be clear, the change had nothing to do with an MPO lobbying effort.

The problem with ODOT's first rationale is that most large projects are not CMAQ eligible, since CMAQ cannot be used for additional lanes or for routine maintenance. Most large projects, at best, have small components that are CMAQ-eligible - components which could have been funded by an MPO under the old system.

It is still theoretically true that the new system could pool more CMAQ for a given project than would have otherwise been available - but this scenario, if anything, would be more likely to benefit the larger MPOs, since they are more likely to have the larger projects.

2) Re: "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."

MPOs are not competing against rural areas for this funding. Under this new statewide program, the CMAQ can still only be spent in MPOs areas that are also air-quality non-attainment areas, which are, virtually by definition, all urbanized areas. It is true that most of the air quality non-attainment areas contain small rural components (e.g. most of Geauga County, most of Portage County, etc.), but the odds of a CMAQ-eligible project being built in these rural portions of MPO areas are pretty slim.

Almost all CMAQ dollars under the new program will continue to be spent in urban areas. The only significant (and they are very significant) differences between the old and new systems are: 1) MPO local elected officials have much less control over funding decisions; 2) individual MPOs no longer get a guaranteed allocation of funding; and 3) the amount of time and effort to reach a compromise on how these funds are spent has increased dramatically, because now there are 8 MPOs competing for the same funding - with all of the equity issues (across modes and between regions) that you can imagine that entails.

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