Getting the transportation
Something revolutionary has been happening at the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency. During late 1995 and early 1996, a task force has been quietly working to develop a scoring system to rank transportation projects proposed in the five-county region.
To give you a sense for just how revolutionary this is, consider how things worked in the past. A new development would bring traffic congestion to a particular road. In response, local officials would demand that their county engineer or the state widen the road, add a highway interchange, or at least improve the traffic signals.
The implementing agency would then go through the formality of getting the desired project listed on NOACA's Transportation Improvement Program (the TIP) so that it would be eligible for federal funding. It didn't matter if there wasn't enough money to build the project right away. The project got listed with the expectation that, sooner or later, it would happen. And the order in which projects happened often had less to do with the regional benefit of the particular project than its readiness (e.g., how quickly the engineering work could be completed), the availability of local matching funds or local politics.
Most projects did get built eventually. It was NOACA's job to expedite the process, not ask a lot of questions that would slow down growth. So few people asked whether it made sense for the region to be promoting more automobile use or whether we ought to be expanding roads to subsidize development in rural areas.
But the transportation planning climate has changed in the past four years since the passage of the federal Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act and new budget constraints at the state and federal levels. Now the federally mandated goal of transportation no longer is simply to move more cars faster, but also to improve accessibility, quality of life, air quality and energy efficiency with a mix of various transportation modes. Planners at NOACA are supposed to balance these factors and are now "fiscally constrained," meaning that the TIP has to be a short list of projects that the region can really afford, rather than a long wish list.
All this means that NOACA has to make tough choices like never before. A couple of years ago, it started developing a framework for choosing, by adopting an excellent list of general planning principles. (Principle 10, for instance, says, "It is the intent of the NOACA Board to encourage efficient, compact land use development that facilitates mobility, saves infrastructure costs, preserves environmentally-sensitive and agricultural lands, and enhances the economic viability of existing communities within the region.")
Now the agency is developing specific criteria so that it can evaluate how proposed transportation projects live up to the principles. In early drafts, the criteria include technical factorswhether a project will preserve the existing system (based on condition of pavement, bridges or bus fleets); whether it will improve the efficiency of the system (reduce congestion, reduce air pollution, reduce transfer times between travel modes), reduce peak demand (e.g., rush hour traffic) and so on.
But the most interesting criteria proposed are for projects that would add capacity to the transportation system, such as new or expanded highways. They include questions such as: Was the problem defined in such a way that there could be a multi-modal solution? (For instance, is the question how to move more cars faster past a certain point or how to create the most efficient mix of driving, walking, biking and transit?) Or, does the project enhance the quality of life for adjacent property or does it degrade quality of life in terms of visual aesthetics, noise, accessibility?
There will also be scoring of land use impacts:
Such criteria are meant to favor projects in existing urban areas. Extra points also may be given to projects in communities with higher population densities.
If successful, NOACA's new criteria will force transportation planners to systematically evaluate whether each proposed project meets the agency's goals. The right questions will be built into the system.
That will be a great leap forward for NOACA. But it still won't solve the problem of sponsorship. NOACA is not a sponsoring or implementing agency. It only approves projects. NOACA may devise criteria that will favor high-density, transit-friendly developments in the city, but if the only projects proposed are ones promoting low-density suburban sprawl, that's what will get built.
NOACA officials hope the new scoring system will send a clear signal about what projects are desirable, so that project sponsors (county engineers, local communities, ODOT) will start planning projects that will meet the goals of the region.
In the next several years, we'll see if it works. And we'll see what happens when projects start being rejected. What will happen, for example, when a suburban mayor is told the road to his or her new office park scored low and does not merit funding? We'll see then if NOACA will be able to take the political heat.
For more information about NOACA's transportation priorities, call Ron Eckner or John Hosek at 216-241-2414.
Instead of thinking of going places, think in terms of being places. That is, think in terms of establishing desirable places close to one another. Transportation is what you have to do to get to places inconveniently located: the less the better. For an occasional adventure, transportation is great and the world needs people not only going to foreign places but learning about them in depth and with sympathy. However, when it comes to travel to keep a vital urban lifestyle together, the less that is necessary the healthier your life and your environment.