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Columbus moves toward mode shift

Marc Lefkowitz  |  10/19/15 @ 10:00am  |  Posted in Vibrant cities, Transportation choices

The Columbus region has a plan to link transportation funding to new environmental goals. It has already started to redraw the map for roads that go outside of the urban area.

<br />Highway in to Columbus, OH. Image: City Data.

The Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC)—which has a $14 million annual budget, $4 million of which goes to transportation funding and $6 million to its Center for Energy and Environment—introduced a far-reaching goal to “reduce per capita energy consumption.”

MORPC's goals can be found in its 2016-2040 Columbus Area Metropolitan Transportation Plan (MTP). The focus is to reduce energy from vehicle travel. Specifically, the agency would:

  • Reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per capita
  • Increase the percentage of vehicles using alternative fuels
  • Reduce percentage of commuters driving alone, and
  • Increase percentage of commuters riding transit, bicycle, or walking.

It may be the first sign that Columbus intends to contain sprawl after going "all in" with low-density, auto dependent development in the 1990s (along the I-270 outer belt).

While MORPC hasn’t targeted a number with its VMT reductions or set a figure to its “mode shift” goals (i.e. 2% of the population biking to work), it has taken steps to change policy that acts as a temporary proxy.

In particular, the agency deserves credit for updating its roadway classifications. It’s a technical detail—with a potentially big ripple effect. The Roadway Classification System puts all roads in categories, like "major or minor arterial."

MORPC now has more categories for roads in urbanized areas, reflecting a shift toward asset management (also known as, “fix-it-first”). The big change that MORPC made is in redrawing the map to distinguish between urban and rural roads.

MORPC states that they will no longer automatically classify a rural road as an urban road as it crosses the boundary between the two.

Practically speaking, this could mean rural roads in the exurbs and intact rural areas might not qualify for funding as Federal Aid routes, but rather, they would be considered local roads. Local roads mean local communities are responsible for more of the funding to repair, widen or extend them.

“Functional classification should change at logical control points where changes in traffic volumes and patterns are measurable,” MORPC writes. “With de-emphasis of the urban boundary in determining functional classification, the transition from one classification to another could be located further into the urban area or be extended outward into the rural region.”

The change is part of a Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) guidance to metro regions.

Meanwhile, the Northeast Ohio regional transportation agency, NOACA, has been looking at the same reclassification, which FHWA recommends doing after each Census. When the reclassification of Northeast Ohio’s urban and rural roads was brought before the NOACA board recently, the issue was tabled over the objection of a minority of members with mostly rural, but rapidly developing land.

NOACA has calculated that $1 billion is needed in order to bring Northeast Ohio’s roads into what's know as "a state of good repair." Without shifting more than the current 85% of its funding to asset management, Northeast Ohio's backlog of roads in fair to poor condition would take 52 years to fix. That doesn’t count the $519 million needed to fix all of the existing bridges. Nor does it include the $300 million bill that RTA has for fixing its rapidly aging rail operation.

Redrawing the roadway classification system to reflect the need to fix Northeast Ohio's huge backlog of roadwork is a needed policy change. It would bring Northeast Ohio in compliance with federal transportation guidelines. NOACA has made a recent push to improve its core funding for asset management. Following Columbus' move to similarly update the map around where the logical terminus to "urban" traffic ends and rural begins would lead to greater fiscal conservatism and fewer pockmarked roads for everyone.

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