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The story of how a bridge can get built

Richey Piiparinen  |  03/15/10 @ 9:00am

A narrative tells a lot, not only ordering what has happened prior, but also relating things in a way to portend what could enfold. Given recent positive events, perhaps it's time to re-visit how the argument for a bike-ped path has evolved, and then to a larger extent: in what kind of context did this particular issue's evolution play out.

We will begin in and around 2005 during which time public concern was growing that ODOT was not listening to community input regarding design of the Innerbelt. In a letter dated late 2005 to ODOT, the late Congresswoman Tubbs-Jones states she has worries that constituent issues are not being addressed, and that the "bridge proposal cannot and should not be considered a done deal". Echoing her sentiments, Congressman Kucinich, in a letter dated July 2006 says there is little documentation to the effect of why ODOT is leaning to one particular bridge or another. Further, Kucinich bemoans the logic previously given that "the public can't be provided with…technical documentation because ODOT is too busy listening to the public".

There is record back then of citizenry concern as well. Jim Sheehan of the Ohio City Bike Co-op shared his concerns with ODOT that in their development of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) so little attention is paid to a key component-a bike-ped path-that would, well, impact the quality of both built and natural environment. He goes on, lamenting at the lack of citizen input: "Cyclists and pedestrians have not been identified…solicited, or shared information with". In a Feb. 2007 letter which paraphrases a letter he wrote to ODOT in 2004, then Director of EcoCity Cleveland, David Beach, concurred: "Over the past three years, I have worked with many stakeholders to try and persuade ODOT…But my pleas have been largely ignored." Perhaps knowing the window to access is closing, Beach requests "that these issues now be addressed as part of the EIS process."

Now, some early reasons for "no" to the bike-ped path began trickling out in 2006. In an ODOT memo dated Oct. 13 of that year, reasons include: "The path will be high, subject to traffic noise, and wind…" And then further: "To protect the people from traffic and to protect the traffic from people [italics mine] the path would have to be separated from traffic by an impassable wall." Also, in an inter-office communication dated July 2006, ODOT states such a path is unlawful and publicly unneeded. EcoCity Cleveland disagrees, stating, among other things, the law. And public need. ODOT responds again, saying, well, while it may be lawful another law states it is unneeded if there are alternatives, citing Detroit-Superior and Lorain Carnegie as examples. Other reasons for "no" in the letter include cost, the winter, and how such a "signature and iconic" bridge is an invitation to a terrorist. Meanwhile, late 2006 brings news that the project is on hold as the planning outside of the bike-ped path is a bit of a mess. Yet still, in what would be a harbinger of the future, the press gets on board. The Cleveland Planning Commission too….

And so in 2007 and much of 2008 we waited, and while we waited bridges with multi-modal access began arising like steel and brick reminders across the country. Reality, as such, is hard to defend against. Fast-forwarding, then, to 2009, ODOT releases a preliminary EIS in March that documents relatively little of the actual public demand for design. Still, the feds accept. And so ODOT now has the paperwork in order to proceed with the building of the bridge as to how they see fit.

Sensing a marginalization, the outcry from advocates for access picks up. In April 2009, Mark Lefkowitz writes about how ODOT-in the release of its EIS-claims no major impacts will be felt. Lefkowitz wonders how they can make such claims given "ODOT's framework and therefore its process have been flawed from the beginning". In what would be (and have been) many calls to action, the post ends with an invite to public commentary during ODOT's EIS presentation. So the public commented. Many times. And the comments were noted, somewhere in the pages of the final EIS (good luck with that). But the response was the same: crickets. ODOT had their paperwork. And so, frankly, they didn't seem to care.

Things change quickly, though, and perhaps the first growth of the momentum came at the Nov. 5th Cleveland Planning Commission meeting in which ODOT presented bridge designs in front of a packed house of advocates. The good news: ODOT conceded that bike-ped access could use a little further developing, offering, then, to develop the Abbey Ave Bridge and retrofit W. 20th to Lorain Carnegie. The bad news: no multi-purpose path. No way. We were too far down the pipeline with this, ODOT claimed. It was then that the Planning Commission members, gently, began to ramp up their rhetoric on record, stating that possibilities are only possible if and when imaginations are allowed to do what imaginations do: create, and break molds. "Maybe you figure out…this isn't just about cars moving over the river," said Commissioner Lillian Kuri to the ODOT rep. Heads were nodded, silently: they'd take the advice down I-71.

And so what followed, then, was a process over the next few months in which advocates attended planning meetings every two weeks to prod the Commission members to do something-anything-that could make the Innerbelt a point of pride in 50 years as opposed to one of regret in 10. The result: a formal resolution stating on the record that those that judge the schematics of how Cleveland gets laid out advise that it gets laid out sustainably, with vision. Particularly, the Commissioners wanted wording in the RFPs inviting request for alternative designs: one with a multi-purpose path, and one without. The logic was simple: let's let the actual bridge designers determine what is or isn't feasible. After all, three build-design teams were to be paid $1 million stipend each just to come up with ideas. So let's get our money worth. Alas, there was a new reason for no, however. One that could ultimately seal the deal. Specifically, according to Commissioner Bob Brown-who as the Planning Director was also put in an advisory role for the Innerbelt as the City rep-ODOT said revisiting the design as such was impossible, as the project would lose $85 million dollars of time-limited ARRA funding.

Still, as the groundswell swelled up from the Planning meetings so the word began to spread in the press. In a November 11th post Steven Litt called for advocates to develop an image of what they were after and so the advocates gathered for a charrette and developed this. Weeks later other stories appeared in the Scene and PD's Op-ed pages. Nationally, word got out as well, as the likes of Streetsblog and Rustwire covered the Dec. 6th rally in which nearly 100 advocates braved the cold as point of visual demonstration. In short, momentum came with Christmas.

And then with the New Year came some extraordinary advances. Particularly, elected officials such as Rep. Kucinich and Sen. Brown began taking the case to the feds, to find out in fact if what ODOT was saying was true-that a city gets punished for demanding in its design: vision, equity, sustainability, and health. And the answer they got from the feds was encouraging: there are no hard and fast rules here, especially since we are an administration encouraging new ways and forms. New outlooks. And then the press coverage grew still. On radio and TV. And then a rap video was made. And the mayor heard it. And so the word grew like a fire spreading. Until just a few days ago ODOT's own boss of bosses said: get it done…

The excuses are over. The games-while unfinished-are done. There is either a new way in front of us, not only literally, but in the ways of a process that either allows the voice of a public to grow into a darn good bridge that will carry us forward, or that will again silent us as we watch from below as the cars pass over our head. But for now there is no time for any of that, as the story is being written-and given how the narrative is flowing I like our chances. Of being able to look down from a bridge. At a city called Cleveland we love.

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