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Making Complete Streets real in Cleveland

Marc Lefkowitz  |  08/16/11 @ 3:00pm  |  Posted in Transportation choices, Transform

Cleveland is preparing to join the ranks of cities investing in transportation as a good purchased by all taxpayers, including those who use the roadways by 'non-motorized' modes (biking, walking and transit, for example).

Assuming the whole council votes the same way a joint health and transportation committee did yesterday, by January 2012, Complete and Green Streets will be the law in Cleveland, requiring the city to invest up to 20% of the project total in every road building and reconstruction project on facilities that make it safe and enjoyable for more modes, but also saves the city money through 'green' performance areas such as ultra-efficient lighting and natural stormwater capture.

The city is already engaged in some green practices, said Jomarie Wasik, director of Capital Projects, such as replacements of street lights with ultra-efficient LED bulbs and a handful of pilot projects for pervious pavers at city-owned parking lots such as its Collinwood Recreation Center and Kennedy School. This new law will put an end to the piecemeal approach, she said.

A major caveat that emerged during the drafting of the ordinance-a $1 million spending cap-still stood after the committee deliberated for 3 1/2 hours, with councilmen Zack Reed and Jeff Johnson heating up the proceedings, pointing out that bike lanes have been conspicuously absent from their east side wards. But, for bike, health, senior and transit advocates and sponsors of the legislation including committee chairs Matt Zone and Martin Keane, the airing of past grievances threw into stark relief the need for a law that removes some of the politics and favoritism for equity, up-to-date urban street design standards and perhaps some transparency. The spending cap was still a point of concern for cycling advocate Kevin Cronin of Cleveland Bikes and for Johnson and Reed, who sees the cap as an excuse to disqualify bike lanes from some projects but not others.

The city's Office of Sustainability Chief Andrew Watterson said the cap is necessary for the "super big" projects, which he admitted are not the vast majority, but would protect the city against the likes of a $320 million proposed Opportunity Corridor. "The city would be required (with a 20% cap but without a $1 million not-to-exceed) to come up with $60 million. It wouldn't be able to afford to meet its own law."

Reed was unconvinced, stating, "My concern is (bike lanes) weren't getting done, period. I like under this new law that it will get done, but I still don't think we need this $1 million cap. I've been around here long enough to see projects that didn't have enough money for bike lanes or street trees and then, 'boom' the money appeared."

Watterson said the $1 million cap would not prevent the city from seeking and spending more money if it can be found, but he didn't speculate where those sources of additional funds would come from. He adds that the oversight committee, on which he'll have a seat, understands the limits of $1 million, but still figures that plenty of bike lanes, crosswalks and signals, street trees and other 'traffic calming' and 'green' elements will materialize.

"We haven't been engaging in this way in the past about how we manage stormwater and stripe in a bike lane, which gives the appearance of narrowing the lane and can calm traffic," Watterson said.

The new law, added Zone, starts a new chapter in the city's history when so many pretty plans were drawn but, as Reed and Johnson attest, were rarely built because nothing required them.

As it stands, Cleveland's law will put it in the company of only three other cities, including Seattle, requiring both Complete and Green Streets simultaneously. Still, the wider ambitions of the ordinance and subsequent policy and its oversight committee will have to be judicious about how it spends $1 million, Cronin said. With competing interests and inflation, more projects will be disqualified in the future.

Watterson is more sanguine. "We're not concerned about (the cap) for 99% of the projects. Striping in a bike lane is relatively inexpensive compared to a bioswale," he said referring to a tree lawn that can serve double duty as a plant-based stormwater filter. These 'green' features may also simply include less expensive trees.

Northeast Ohio Sewer District Stormwater Program Manager Kyle Dreyfus-Wells also testified that the District is looking at targeted investments with a funding commitment from its green infrastructure program to the city's green street projects. They will have to be in the District's priority areas (which are currently in neighborhoods with heavily polluted urban waterways of Kingsbury Run, Doan Brook and Walworth Run.

Doan Brook's proximity to Glenville might make for a happier Johnson if bioswales, pocket parks and bike lanes are added to Superior Avenue, which intersects with the brook and makes for a natural bikeway connector between east and west sides, he said).

GCBL reported in May that the District is committing $42 million to an estimated eight to ten large-scale green infrastructure projects in the 81 square miles of its service area, the majority of which is in the city of Cleveland (with a small sliver in Shaker Heights).

"It's up to our partners at the city to identify where these projects go," she said, adding that the District will prioritize projects that capture more stormwater close to where it falls using 'green infrastructure' such as bioswales, wetlands or trees. "We have to look at how to get water there. If you have to rebuild streets and put sanitary lines in, that's more expensive than if you can redirect it by controlling the water that 'sheets' off pavement."

Some important additions and considerations came through the planning committee led by Wasik and Watterson, who invited Sustainable Cleveland 2019 STAT to appoint a delegate (the group selected UCI Planner Chris Bongorno). The as yet to be named oversight committee (most likely chaired by city department heads such as Traffic Engineer Rob Mavec and Wasik, staff from RTA, the Sewer District, the Office of Sustainability) will also include an independent seat, perhaps filled by STAT or from the emerging BikeCleveland advocacy group or similar nonprofit entity).

STAT also provided feedback to the effort for the creation of a Complete Streets toolkit to ensure that best practices are continually adopted at city departments involved with street design and construction. The 2019 work group also recommended continual training for professionals, and a system of metrics. Metrics will be part of the policy, Zone assured. "We want to see tangible metrics, such as miles of linear bike paths and number of street trees."

Johnson took it a step further, challenging the effort to iron out what a pedestrian friendly street means. He expressed concern about the situation on E. 105th Street where traffic signals haven't been updated (with timers and camera sensors) in many years, and the response to stop and go (really fast) car traffic was to remove signals.

"I'm requesting a reevaluation of the traffic lights on E. 105. If the philosophy is to create a more pedestrian friendly street, then removing lights doesn't seem to slow down car traffic. The city removed a light in front of a senior center and now the seniors have to figure out where to cross."

(As an aside, the city did a good job figuring out traffic calming by 'removing' traffic lights on Mayfield Road in Little Italy – the lights actually stayed in place and were placed on a permanent flashing yellow loop while enhanced cross walk treatments were put in place – this has maintained steady traffic flow, reducing the speed-up-to-the light effect).

Early in the proceedings, Councilman Jay Westbrook had the day's 'moment of Zen' when he suggested that the City's Division of Traffic Engineering should be renamed the Division of Traffic and Pedestrian Engineering. While his half-jest pronouncement caused a defensive reaction on the part of city officials, it is actually a brilliant idea worth consideration (not only the name change, but a shift in mindset might result).

The Complete and Green Streets ordinance passed unanimously out of the committee and heads to the council as a whole for vote tomorrow (Wed.) where it is expected to pass. The next step after that is writing the policy where the details of implementation such as the all-important new urban street design guidelines, metrics and financing that the city is expected pursue will be done.

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