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Three fixes for highway happy Ohio

Marc Lefkowitz  |  04/08/15 @ 1:00pm  |  Posted in Vibrant cities, Transportation choices

We’ve looked over Ohio’s five-year, $7 billion transportation budget and found it lacking any real vision for how to make the state more sustainable.

Sustainable transportation leads to vibrant cities and towns; it needn't encourage more driving on an ever-expanding network of highways and roads.

<br />Typical low density development near highway interchange on I-271 in Northeast Ohio. It's expensive to build, with little rate of return.

Ohio should be asking, how does spending $7 billion on transportation make people healthier and happier? To put teeth into this question, the federal government is now requiring states and municipalities to measure the performance [pdf] of transportation. Ohio will follow suit and devise metrics for ODOT’s budget.

Someday, hopefully soon, Ohio will filter its investment in roads—the bulk of which today is spent on building and repairing highways—through a more rigorous discussion of the mounting costs of its car-dependent transportation system: costs of car ownership, road maintenance, oil dependence, air pollution, climate change, obesity, road rage, etc.

Thankfully, Cleveland and other Ohio cities have examples to follow. Seattle, Denver, Minneapolis, Memphis, Chattanooga and the list goes on are offering more transportation choice with their budgets. Is it any surprise they are attracting young talent by the bus load?

Minneapolis is in the news for growing five times faster than Chicago. When its mayor announced his goal to grow the city to 500,000 people in ten years, he proposed to do so “…without putting a single additional car on the street.”

How do we get started? By taking the metrics discussion seriously. Our recommendation is to set a metric in Ohio that places all investments through this lens—does it reduce the need (and costs) to drive? If not, it’s probably not the right investment.

Ohio's spent decades building spread-out suburbs and investing trillions of dollars in a transportation system for motor vehicles to serve all the far-flung destinations. Here are some ideas for doing things differently.

  1. Change the mission of ODOT from building highways to supporting community development. The metrics in the state around transportation today are focused mainly on congestion relief. But the most successful cities in the world have congestion. They don’t need to be relieved of traffic, they need fewer reasons to spend time in the car.
  2. Turn highways back into farms / keep farms from becoming highways. A scan of Ohio’s $7 billion transportation budget from 2016-2019 shows how much Ohio bet the farm on building highways during the last three decades. The schedule of projects is dominated by “preventive maintenance” of highways. Set a goal that transportation investments reduce the need to drive. Then promote a plan for transportation that provides people living in cities and suburbs with better, cleaner options like walking, biking, and transit.
  3. Build more density around transit. Northeast Ohio can develop a system that supports transit through compact land-use zoning and development incentives near bus and rail stations. Ohio’s transportation budget can be part of a transit-oriented development plan through investments in new stations and infrastructure that encourages transit use such as sidewalks and public space improvements (lighting, green space, artwork) so that people choosing to live nearby will want the car free or car lite option

With leaders who are committed to these ideas, Ohio can make more active lifestyles, cleaner air, and vibrant, resilient communities the outcomes of a more fiscally and environmentally sound transportation policy.

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Robert C. James
3 years ago

Ohio needs forward-looking state-level leadership and decentralization of state power to the three key (maybe 4 if we're also counting Toledo) metropolitan regions to facilitate these badly-needed changes in our transportation policy. Unfortunately, this is unlikely while raging fool reactionary conservatives of the Fox News/Tea Party variety dominate the Republican party, and the Republican party controls state government with pitiful opposition from all of us who desire something far more rational and beneficial from our elected government. Gov. John Kasich and his smug retro love of 1950s suburbia doesn't do anything at all for moving our cities forward. We need forward-looking visionary leadership in the vein of Columbus' Mayor Mike Coleman.

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