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Northeast Ohio roads might have to meet green, equity measures

Marc Lefkowitz  |  06/20/16 @ 11:00am  |  Posted in Transportation

NOACA, the region’s transportation, air and water quality planner, had an honest question for the state’s Department of Transportation which submitted a $15 million request for the Opportunity Corridor road addition last week. How does ODOT expect NOACA to pay for the project?

As the third and final phase of the $330 million connector between I-490 and University Circle—the ($293 million) new road segment from E. 55th Street to I-490—is prepared by ODOT for a contract bid, Myron Pakush, director of Northeast Ohio’s ODOT district office, came to NOACA seeking money for the first time.

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“(Opportunity Corridor) is a regionally significant project,” Pakush told a NOACA Transportation sub committee. “We have people coming from as far as Mansfield to University Circle.”

NOACA agreed in 2009 to include Opportunity Corridor on its Long Range Transportation Plan, said NOACA Executive Director Grace Gallucci, but has not agreed yet to how it will finance it since $15 million represents all of NOACA funding for surface transportation projects this year. Gallucci was seeking assurances from ODOT that it didn’t expect Opportunity Corridor to jump the line ahead of all other projects.

Pakush replied that ODOT will work with NOACA on a funding plan, and implied that it can advance the money to NOACA with assurances it will be paid back.

“So, if we committed to $1.5 million over 10 years, would ODOT agree to front the money and NOACA will pay that back?” Gallucci asked. “I’m not sure we’re able to make a decision until we know what ODOT can front. If NOACA exceeds the $5 million limit our board has set (per project on an annual basis), it would need to be put into debt financing. I don’t think ODOT is interested in jumping over all other projects on the (funded projects list known as the TIP).”

NOACA has already run up against a funding crunch this year when the State Infrastructure Bank ran out of money. That left a $42 million hole in NOACA’s budget which it expected for five road projects. NOACA is seeking an unusual agreement with the Port Authority to pay for those projects, and will encumber future funds from its Surface Transportation Project fund to pay for it. Adding $15 million for Opportunity Corridor to the agency’s main fund (STP) would require a Board resolution since it might exceed its limit (of 50% STP funds committed), Gallucci said.

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In an effort to bring it up to date with federal rules and meet a strategic goal of “building a sustainable, multi modal system” the NOACA Transportation subcommittee discussed policy updates.

In the wake of federal rule changes in 2014, NOACA reviewed its functional classification system. It may have found that too many roads were classified as major arterials. Based on criteria such as, are they regionally significant? it proposes to remove 76 miles of arterials -- many that have very light traffic volume—from the “National Highway System,” a designation that helps roads receive NOACA funds. An example is Vrooman Road in Lake County. Most are new roads in exurban areas, although, some concessions were made like Mentor Avenue, a mostly rural road in Lake County—except near the highway interchange.

Other policy updates—NOACA would like to remove barriers to cities that want complete streets elements. It would like to remove a required 10 to 20% local match for project sponsors to consider multi modal elements. It also wouldn’t rule out funding complete streets on roads that are currently “not expected to carry significant volumes of pedestrians and cyclists. We feel all roads should be evaluated for multi modal,” said a NOACA staffer.

Under the old rule, multi modal elements were evaluated simply by cost—with a $5 million cap. The revised rules will look at performance measures that will bring Northeast Ohio in line with national standards—multi modal projects won’t be ruled out by cost. They could be evaluated for their impact on air quality or if they make a significant connection.

This is an outgrowth of the federal “MAP-21” transportation bill passed in 2014 which required NOACA to introduce performance measures. The committee heard a proposal that Northeast Ohio measure the success of transportation investments on broader environmental and social equity goals. For instance, do they raise or lower the carbon intensity per capita or improve the access (%) to jobs within a mile of a bike lane and a bus line.

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