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Talking points for the coming NEO transportation plan

Marc Lefkowitz  |  05/31/16 @ 2:00pm  |  Posted in Transportation choices

There are great expectation that Northeast Ohio will adopt a new language as it starts talking about a long range transportation plan. It could speak volumes for cars or speak up for streets as social spaces and healthy places.

Advocates for the latter approach are hoping the region’s transportation agency, NOACA, finds some good answers to its question, "how would you spend $10 billion to create the transportation system of the future?"

NOACA will hold a meeting to discuss its Long Range Transportation Plan tomorrow morning (Wednesday).

<br />Northeast Ohio had very little congestion on its roads (in red) in 2008.The past is not destiny<br />Northeast Ohio forecast spending lots of money relieving congestion in areas opened up for development by highway expansion and new roads in exurbia.<br />NOACA developed this matrix of congestion mitigation strategies in its 2013 long range plan.

The hope is Northeast Ohio stops chasing new highways and gets serious about the region’s growing list of roads in need of repair. The priorities could be improving the roads we have, and using the $10 billion to build a system that reduces pollution by encouraging lower carbon modes of travel. Many of Cleveland’s overbuilt streets could be transformed into interesting places, and connections that don’t require a car would be the priority.

Most of the region's transportation investments aren’t serving the region’s most heavily populated areas. There are sizable but fixable inequities in our car-centric system.

Northeast Ohio currently is a national example of what not to do in transportation. In a comprehensive analysis this month, The Century Foundation explained how Cleveland built itself out to an unsustainable size since 1948:

“This pattern of urban sprawl means that the same number of people now have to pay to maintain almost double the amount freeway and arterial roadway miles. And for their increased investment, they now get significantly deteriorated transportation performance. While the population actually decreased from 1982 to 2007, the amount of travel time spent in congestion in Cleveland went from 10 percent to 23 percent, and rush “hour” has increased from three hours to five hours.

"This is often identified as a transportation problem, but the reality is that our current transportation program actually enabled this situation, and looking to current policy for solutions will only make things worse."

A push for greater accountability

Northeast Ohio has attempted to solve the problem with the same set of tools. Even with low traffic congestion in 2008 (images above) the region at NOACA projected a level of congestion that would increase—just as the Ohio Department of Development population forecast/enabled more outmigration. As a result, most of the state and region's funds continue to be lavished on highways, interchanges and new roads away from populated areas.

The NOACA long range plan is an opportunity for the region to challenge the hegemony of this pattern and rein in the spending. NOACA's $40 million annual budget may not make or break it (ODOT's much larger budget will continue to subsidize this “forecast”) but it could contribute to more investments in fixing the existing system.

Looking ahead

When it wrote its previous long range plan (Connections 2035) in 2013, NOACA recognized outmigration followed highway investments—to the point where Cuyahoga County has one of the highest “commute in” (195,000 people) rates in the country.

Clearly, transportation influences the shape of communities. Washington is rethinking the priorities and requiring more accountability from those agencies it funds, like metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs).

“It is crucial for engineers to develop solutions that balance the needs of all roadway users and meet the goals of the greater community,” an article written for the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) explains. “Both motorized and non-motorized transportation infrastructure enhances access to jobs, schools, and essential services in a cost-effective manner.”

Northeast Ohio will likely welcome the new performance measures. NOACA has to be forward thinking in addressing the needs of where most of the region travels, and make the case for more of its funding to close the $1.5 billion cost to bring its roads into a state of good repair.

The purpose of the Long Range Transportation Plan is to create a roadmap of where Northeast Ohio is going to invest.

A long range plan can reward longer distances or how many people can access the street and other important elements that influence how a community looks and feels. FHWA this month took some fairly significant steps to help regions in the latter. For example, on roads where posted speeds are under 50 mph, projects will no longer have to seek a variance to reduce lane widths.

Ultimately, the long range transportation plan can both acknowledge the past and set goals that recognize it was a moment in time when the exuberance for driving spoke volumes.

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