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No measure of where this could go: Ohio hopes to get smarter about transportation

Marc Lefkowitz  |  04/10/15 @ 10:00am  |  Posted in Vibrant cities, Transportation choices

Ohio’s $7 billion roadbuilding budget is a sop to highways of dubious value—chief among them the $429 million “bypass” of the town of Portsmouth (pop. 20,000). But it may be the last gasp of a dying industry.

When Congress last approved a transportation bill, in 2012, it came with an important caveat —the Highway Trust Fund is insolvent; time for some serious belt tightening.

Since then, we have “scoured the couch cushions,” writes former U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood.

As fewer people drive and cars become more fuel efficient, the gas tax which pays for roads no longer covers all the potholes in Cleveland and the Portsmouth Bypass pork (it’s the most expensive project in Ohio history) that passed through the 2016-2019 state budget.

Reading the tea leaves, Congress required more accountability in the form of something called performance metrics.

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For the past 60 years, transportation agencies have had almost no accountability for why budget busters like rural highways should be enjoyed by so few while the rest of us dodge craters on a daily basis. So long as plenty of people were driving gas guzzlers, the U.S. and Ohio could truck along with an unsustainable transportation policy.

To whit: since the 1990s, Northeast Ohio has added more than 300 highway lane-miles.

“Rather than stimulate growth, it has mostly served to facilitate sprawl and hollow out city centers,” writes Streetsblog.

The policy that reinforced the roadbuilding bonanza? Traffic engineers came up with Level of Service (LOS). It has produced more and wider roads; many of them dangerous by design. That’s because the metric of LOS is to move as many cars as fast as possible.

There is plenty of data to support this assertion: Ohio is currently considered one of the safer states to be a pedestrian or driver with 990 traffic deaths, 9,233 serious injuries and 269,078 crashes in a year (2013). Since Ohio has no plan or performance metric to reduce those numbers—just a logo on its web site that declares “Toward Zero Deaths”—its acquiescence to Congress about performance metrics to bring those numbers down should be good news.

A small item buried deep in Ohio’s current budget shows that the state is at least not ignoring Congress’ calls for more transparency and accountability. Ohio will consider whether metrics like LOS take into account community goals beyond traffic, such as, can roads move people efficiently, keep them safe, improve the environment and create attractive places in which to set up business?

In a report on the new performance metrics, the nonprofit Transportation for America (T4A) describes it this way.

“If performance means the number of vehicles that move through a corridor then the focus will be on wider, faster roads moving as many cars and trucks as possible. If it means person throughput then attention will be given to how many people are moved through the corridor by car, carpool, vanpool, bus, train, bike or on foot, and the design of the road will be a complete street meant to accommodate as many forms of travel as possible.”

Moving vehicles became the ‘go to’ goal in America because it represents the assumption that slower speeds and vehicle delay hinder economic productivity, T4A adds.

“When tested, this assumption often fails.”

They point to data from Eric Dumbaugh, a researcher in Florida who found that every 10 percent increase in traffic delay per person was associated with a 3.4 percent increase in per capita GDP.

Behind this wonkish data point is a common sense rule that every successful city has a little bit of traffic. Picture your favorite city -- now think, does it have some traffic and some congestion? The answer is probably yes.


“A local street that is a destination point for retail, restaurants and public space probably should not be expected to move vehicles in the same way as a high-speed connector road or highway,” adds T4A. “In fact, a street that is meant to be a destination but has little traffic is not successful. Defining roadway purpose and then identifying an appropriate performance or congestion measure is key.”

As it forays into performance metrics Ohio could take a page from its own ODOT Bike/Pedestrian Coordinator who produced a guide to writing an Active Transportation Plan. It contains a lot of good advice on how to articulate broader goals for transportation.

The challenge isn’t considering performance metrics and community goals, writes T4A, its in making them stick. That’s what DOTs who participated in a pilot project on the subject found. Someday down the road, Ohio might end up with one less highway and use that money for a streetcar in Columbus or a network of protected bike lanes in Cleveland and Cincinnati that pays for itself many times over.

* * * *

The T4A report has some valuable (for Cleveland) case studies. Take the City of Rochester, New York where they plan to redesign an urban highway with cross streets and slower speed limits. It is similar to Cleveland's West Shoreway project with one major difference. Rochester asserts that community goals of connecting the neighborhood is of greater value than the one offered by LOS. Cleveland could have benefited by this discussion of performance metrics when ODOT refused to fund cross streets on the Shoreway “boulevarding” project when everyone but ODOT wanted to create a nice connection between the near west side and the lakefront.

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