NOACA, the regional agency which shepherds in plans for transportation, air and water quality, started updating its policies and shifting priorities—from an enabler of a car-centric transportation system to one that reflects a fiscal austerity of a state still feeling the effects of the recession—at its quarterly board meeting today.
The five-county metropolitan planning organization (and the state) prioritized driving over the last 20 years—adding 300 lane miles of highway from 1990 to 2010 even as population growth flatlined, according to the agency’s VibrantNEO 2040 Plan.
But, in the last two years, new leadership at its board, executive suite and staff level are approaching their role with an eye fixed on the many broken streets in Northeast Ohio first. Led by Executive Director Grace Gallucci—who headed up transit finance at Cleveland and Chicago’s RTAs—NOACA introduced policy that would bring it in line with emerging expectations for lower-carbon forms of transportation like biking and transit and align its policies with federal laws like the Clean Water and Clean Air acts.
The reform efforts were outlined in a strategic plan in 2014 and are starting to materialize as policy aimed at bringing NOACA in compliance with its bylaws, societal expectations of acting to forestall climate change, and demographic changes like a recent uptick in urban population and transit and bike use.
The biggest example may be the policy of funding where the need is greatest. NOACA’s board today approved an update to how it defines its funding categories and will approve 90% of funding to Urban Core Communities, whereas in the past it supplied 80% with the expectation that communities cover 20% of the bill for multi-million road projects.
With the state cutting back on its Local Community Fund, some cities have been hard pressed to come up with the local match.
NOACA removed Chagrin Falls, Oberlin, Woodmere and Lodi from Urban Core and added Bedford Heights, North Olmsted, Seven Hills and Willoughby to keep the category at 38 communities which meet a threshold of urbanized area, street density, population density, age of housing, and property value. It represents 60% of the population.
Some board members took issue with including wealthy suburbs like Bay Village with property values above the threshold in the Urban Core Communities. Others expressed concerns that “social demographics not financial need are being looked at.”
“We’re talking about population densities in excess of 6,000 people per square mile versus 94 people,” a board member responded. “We can have huge impact based on density.”
NOACA also updated the category for Environmental Justice communities -- they have to meet criteria such as 25% minority and 15.4% low-income populations. NOACA bases its criteria on federal figures, said NOACA staff.
The agency then approved funding up to 100% of projects in 20 Environmental Justice communities which include Cleveland, Cleveland Heights, East Cleveland and Bedford.
Some board members complained “isn’t this giving them special treatment?”
University Heights Mayor Susan Infeld, who also represents East Cleveland, responded, “These are populations that are disadvantaged. If you’re poor, you might not be able to afford a car. You might not even be able to afford transit. You might be able to afford a bike and you might need a bike lane.”
In another move, NOACA’s board set a policy for how it will use Ohio Turnpike Toll Credits, which the state has promised Northeast Ohio $7.6 million annually for the next five years. The agency will prioritize the Toll Credits being used for local match money in Core Urban Communities, Environmental Justice and for the transportation alternatives program known as TLCI.
Some members complained that “funding should go to roads and bridges, not social engineering or widening the roads for bike lanes.”
Gallucci responded that the $1 million annual TLCI budget is used primarily for surface road improvements.
NOACA’s annual Surface Transportation Program budget which is unrestricted by criteria such as impacts to land-use, air and water quality, still receives the lion’s share, $27.5 million, this year.
The board approved 175 projects in its Overall Work Plan without any discussion. In addition, it approved its application to the state’s TRAC Program for projects above $12 million with little to no comment. Among the asks is $384 million to work on Deadman’s Curve and $34 million to widen State Route 18 in Medina (which elicited no comments; however, there was a protracted debate about the Transportation Alternatives Program, which routinely falls short of paying for a long list of projects—from transit lines, streetscape improvements, crosswalks and bike lanes—for hundreds of miles of roads over five counties receiving $2.75 million).
The board also approved its first State Infrastructure Bank project, which is a zero interest loan backed by the State of Ohio, for a bridge and road project totaling $10 million on Highland Road in Euclid. NOACA also appears poised to tap the state for another guaranteed loan of $10 million for widening and adding a roundabout to Nagle Road where a highway interchange on I-90 was approved by NOACA for Avon in 2007 under a cloud of controversy that it would soak up needed funds.
NOACA’s board also approved a $250,000 contract to develop a Transit-Oriented Development Scorecard for the region. AECOM, the world’s largest transportation planning and engineering firm, won the contract. Ken Sislak, head of the firm’s national transit planning practice which employs 400 in the Cleveland area, answered questions about TOD and the expectations of the plan.
“NOACA will have a tool that it can use and update to evaluate properties to invest in around transit based on demographics, transit use and real estate analysis,” explained Sislak.
AECOM’s transit team is producing similar analysis of the corridor for RTA’s Redline Extension Study.
The TOD Scorecard project received a $50,000 boost from Cleveland Foundation, St. Luke’s Foundation and Cleveland Neighborhood Progress (CNP). Sislak explained that it will work with some of the firms who CNP hired for its W. 25th Street TOD Study.