Even though Northeast Ohio’s transportation agency, NOACA spends only 7% of its budget building new roads, Executive Director, Grace Gallucci says, make no mistake; the region is still expanding its roads and highways.
“There’s two billion dollars of transportation funding in Ohio,” Gallucci offered at the City Club last week. “We’re kidding ourselves if we think capacity isn’t being increased.”
It is unsustainable, says Gallucci, to maintain the current road system while expanding it further. Slow population growth and lower density development has contributed to an estimated $1.8 billion backlog of road work in the five-county area that NOACA serves.
“There has to be a way that older, slow-growth regions like ours fund road maintenance,” Gallucci said. “If I want to go ask for an Opportunity Corridor or $300 million for new capacity, I can. But, if I want $300 million to maintain what we have, there is nowhere I can go.”
Gallucci has joined with other heads of metropolitan planning organizations, which are local intermediaries that help direct federal transportation funding, in asking state lawmakers and the Ohio Department of Transportation to carve out a portion of the biggest source of federal funds, the Surface Transportation Program (STP), for maintenance purposes.
Jason Segedy, who, until last month, directed the Akron-area transportation agency, AMATs, also addressed the City Club. He agreed that a more fiscally conservative policy is needed in order to shift more funding from expansion to preservation.
He noted how the Interstate highway system, starting in the 1950s, had a deleterious effect on cities.
“Highways hollowed out cities by making it easier for people to move away from them,” says Segedy, who was promoted to City of Akron Director of Planning.
Cities like Cleveland and Akron may have complied, he said, because of short-term gains from selling infrastructure services, most notably, water, to suburban communities.
But, with Millennials and Baby Boomers moving back into cities, a tide is turning. For example, Akron is moving ahead with a plan to remove a portion of its Innerbelt because it is so infrequently used.
“It will free up 30 acres of land for redevelopment,” he says, adding that new housing is needed to attract more residents.
Akron also plans to pursue a Road Diet Analysis that AMATs completed last year. It identifies the top tier of roads, such as Main Street downtown, that are wider than necessary and can be made more bike and pedestrian friendly.
“One advantage of an overbuilt system is it leaves a lot of room for other modes,” said Segedy.
NOACA, too, is supporting road “diet” conversions. For example, Gallucci noted that Shaker Heights was awarded a Transportation for Livable Communities (TLCI) grant to convert some of the existing space on its main thoroughfare, Lee Road, so that bike lanes can be added.
Gallucci noted that NOACA could formalize its approach while meeting a goal outlined in a 2015 Strategic Plan to build a sustainable, multi-modal transportation system.
“We can set targets to shift modes,” she said.