For years, Northeast Ohio transportation planner, NOACA, has acted as a quiet but powerful force expanding the region outward. Recently, though, NOACA has signaled a desire to become more fiscally and environmentally responsible.
For the past three years, the agency responsible for a $40-50 million transportation budget has produced VibrantNEO, a regional sustainability plan. Now it is introducing its own plan which offers to steer a new course. In its Overall Work Program, NOACA indicates that it is prepared to better coordinate when and even if roads get paved.
That’s a big change from business as usual. NOACA essentially acted as a pass-through for federal funding during the 1990s when the region's economy was based heavily on highway expansions and new interchanges artificially inflating the value of farmland and attracting shopping center developers. It operated on a first-come, first-served basis with an implicit agreement between suburbs and city that each could and did expect to have their road paving or widening project approved. NOACA largely complied regardless of whether another road badly needed repairs first.
The 2015 plan reflects a push in a new direction—to “fix-it-first.” Under the agency’s new leadership, it would rightsize the transportation system to the reality of seven years of deep recession, losing thousands of jobs all while expanding the region’s physical footprint.
It was extensive research from VibrantNEO that underscored the need to rethink the region’s approach. The 100+ groups have agreed to a new outlook on roads and economic development. The report recommends caps on new roads (2.75 miles for every 1,000 new residents), and policy that would invest the constant flow of federal money in ways that build up existing communities and healthier alternatives to driving. The plan noted that Northeast Ohio’s sprawl had contributed to a 21% increase in miles driven even while the national numbers pointed to Millennials driving 23% less.
VibrantNEO was a wake up call, and now NOACA’s plan and the statements from its new Executive Director, Grace Gallucci, indicate a new era of responsiveness. Two key points from their plan:
- NOACA offers with its Asset Management Program to be more proactive about how it will evaluate the condition and the need to repave roads. Rather than relying on a system where communities that have the most resources get their applications prepared first and then dole out the money until its gone, NOACA will actively plan and evaluate where the roads that have the most need are located. The idea is to prioritize funding that fixes roads ahead of expanding or widening them (adding to the region’s fiscal burden). This shift will likely precipitate the need for NOACA to do more planning in communities of need, i.e. those which lack capacity of staff planners.
- To achieve greater fiscal solvency and a better environment, NOACA plans to refine its performance measures of how it’s doing. Their bosses at Federal Highway Administration have always expected the agency to peg the region’s transportation investments to specific metrics. And since NOACA also serves as the region’s air quality monitor, performance measures could, for the first time, lead to investments that reduce vehicle miles traveled and lower carbon emissions (which are higher per capita here than across the country).
Both transit agency bosses and sustainability advocates have spoken in favor of NOACA expanding its parameters for funding bike and transit projects. Instead of narrowly defining biking and transit as “alternatives” and thus finding only scraps from their total budget, the agency could invite more low-carbon options into its surface transportation program. In other words, cities in NOACA’s membership should be prepared, as it pivots to fixing roads, to redirect the money it was going to spend on new roads into creating better places—and that could mean more bike lanes and bus-rapid transit lines.
Speaking to an audience recently at ideastream in Cleveland about its strategic plan, Gallucci promised that NOACA wants to build a sustainable, multi-modal transportation system.
“We have the Millennial generation making it very clear they want more options,” Gallucci remarked. “They are interested in alternative forms of transportation, particularly biking and transit. We have to listen to our customers. Same with the Baby Boomers retiring at enormous rates and not driving as much. We have to make sure those folks can get around if they can’t drive.”
The hiring in 2012 of Gallucci, a financial expert who worked for Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority and Chicago’s RTA, was the first hint at a tide turning for the region.
At the July, 2014 NOACA Board meeting, GreenCityBlueLake Director David Beach spoke in support of Gallucci and the agency’s efforts to adopt a more forward-thinking strategic plan. To make it impactful, Beach said, the plan needs two things. Clear goals and a strategy for achieving those goals. Beach is unambiguous about the most important goal.
“Given the trends—everything from the preferences of Millennials for reduced dependence on cars to the need to be more resilient in the face of climate change—we need to change the mode split so we have much better options for transit, biking and other alternatives.”
Bottom line, NOACA needs to set a target for Northeast Ohio’s mode split, and then design a plan that achieves it. Currently, Cuyahoga County’s mode split—or, commuters who use something other than a car—is 8.3% and Cleveland approaches 16%. Setting a target for mode split sets the table for plenty of positive things to happen.
Beach has this way of framing it: How can NOACA help to support and accelerate the new trends that are making the region more livable and sustainable? How can it help to build the future instead of the past?
He goes on to very directly answer his question in this blog post, describing in detail the five goals for NOACA that will lead to a sustainable transportation system. The way forward, Beach concludes, is to not repeat the mistakes of the past.