Ohio’s budget came out this week. Since we’re an environmental blog, we’ll cut to the chase and focus on the $7 billion for transportation.
When many states are reading the tea leaves about transit, Ohio is doubling down on highways. The budget is gambling big money that Ohioans will get excited about driving on highways again.
Take the $429 million ($757 million after the debt is paid) Portsmouth Bypass. This 16-mile, four-lane highway has been floated out there for more than a decade and now is getting money from debt on the Ohio Turnpike. In wild and scenic Scioto County, the plan is to cut down 493 acres of woodland, pave over 32 streams, 55 acres of farmland, put a bridge into the Little Scioto River, demolish 40 single family and 10 mobile homes. The purpose of this highway? To help the poor people its displacing. The need? That’s on shaky ground, too. The Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) notes that the six state routes that run between Lucasville and Portsmouth don’t have a congestion problem—their “Level of Service” or congestion never dips below a C which is considered good.
When the U.S. Department of the Interior reviewed the Portsmouth Bypass FEIS, it had some serious concerns. For instance, they wanted to know why Ohio considered the 500 acres of forest they were about to chop down not worth replacing? The state’s response? Because it’s not “virgin” forest and its already been fragmented by logging. That didn’t exactly sit well with the federal authorities, but they approved the plan anyway. Not before noting, though, that the highway itself was likely only the beginning of the forest, stream, and natural habitat destruction. The Interior Department said that if the purpose of the road was economic development, then certainly more interchanges and development was planned and that would mean more destruction of forest, river, streams and animal habitat.
On the back bench of the House, a small group of lawmakers representing a large constituency of transit riders living in Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Dayton, Toledo and metropolitan areas were calling for Ohio to wake up to a demographic shift happening across the country that has led to growth in transit use. The majority’s own Statewide Transit Needs study found a lot ($74 million to be exact) of need for transit being unfulfilled in Ohio. Lawmakers scoured the couch cushions to come up with $1 million more for transit—statewide. But, even that has been eliminated in the final budget. There were 109,129 rides taken on public transit last year in Ohio.
We’re trying to understand the “bah, humbug” thinking here. Perhaps the lawmakers who gave and then taketh away—including Democrats Bill Patmon and Martin Sweeney from Cleveland and John Barnes representing a district in the eastern suburbs—were only calculating the $7.3 million state transit budget against the benefit of 417,000 passenger miles served by Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus’ transit lines last year. Do they think transit only provides $17 worth of benefit per passenger mile?
Perhaps they don’t realize that there are other tangible benefits to investing more in transit. Take the Texas A&M Transportation Institute’s rigorous study of the lost productivity and tailpipe emissions from places with real congestion problems. Their Transit Mobility Report from 2012 figures that Clevelanders are penalized 31 hours a year for a citywide total of 34,980 hours stuck in traffic. Moreover, that wastes 17,481 gallons of gas and produces 350 million pounds of CO2. They figure $736 million is the cost to employers and the environment for this idle waste of time. Transit avoids these costs, but it works best when we insist as a region on building higher density, walkable communities.
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On the brighter side, Columbus and its transit agency (COTA) plus five major corporations with leases downtown inked a deal this week where the employers will offer free transit passes. The pilot project secured a grant from the Columbus area transportation agency MORPC. The businesses came on board after realizing that a two-year waiting list at existing garages meant two things: building really expensive car storage and using up valuable land, or trying a lower cost alternative of trying to shift 5% of downtown workers to use the bus. The move will put Columbus in the company of progressive (read: attracting young talent) cities like Boston, Minneapolis and Boulder who have figured transit into their growth plans.
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Smart Growth America has an idea to make our transportation system more accountable: metrics. In fact, metrics are the law Congress passed in the 2012 transportation bill. If you want to show support and ask policy makers to make investments in transportation accountable to a “fix-it-first” metric at the federal and regional level, check out their online petition.