No more
business as usual?

The region's $4.7 billion
transportation plan seeks to break
our sprawling highway habits,
but will it make a difference?

This article, originally published in the October 1993 issue of EcoCity Cleveland, describes the struggles of local planners to consider sprawl when making transportation improvements.

Progressive Insurance has a traffic problem. The company is building a new corporate headquarters in the eastern suburbs of Cuyahoga County, and soon hundreds of additional commuters will be clogging the highway interchange at I-271 and Wilson Mills Road.

In the past, transportation planners would have rushed to alleviate the anticipated congestionadding lanes to Wilson Mills Road, installing new traffic signals, modifying the freeway ramps. If a major employer or developer created a traffic bottleneck, it was up to the taxpayers to fix the problem with more concrete.

However, an interesting thing happened last month at the board meeting of the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA). An emergency resolution was introduced calling for NOACA to conduct a traffic study of the Wilson Mills Road area. The resolution's sponsorsthe surrounding communities of Highland Heights and Mayfield Village, the Ohio Department of Transportation and Cuyahoga County Engineerwanted the study in a hurry so road work can be completed before Progressive's headquarters opens in 1995.

But the resolution didn't slip through unchallenged.

"Why is this an emergency?" asked Cleveland planning director Hunter Morrison.

Perhaps recalling how Progressive had once planned to build its headquarters in downtown Cleveland rather than on the fringe of the metropolitan area, Morrison wondered why the resolution had not gone through NOACA's transportation advisory committee where it could have been analyzed in detail. He and other board members questioned how the Progressive project could be linked to public transit and what would be the impacts on the entire I-271 corridor.

As a result of concerns like these, Progressive will get its traffic study, but it will be different from the studies NOACA has done in the past. Instead of just studying how to expand the roads, it will first study how to reduce the number of cars using the roads, especially during rush hours.

For example, planners will work with local transit authorities to improve public transit service to the area. And they will work with Progressive and other employers to provide incentives for employees to leave their cars at home. Progressive has already started talking with NOACA's Rideshare program about organizing car and van pools for employees.

It will be difficult for such "transportation demand management" measures to succeed in the case of an office building on the edge of suburban sprawl with workers living all over the region. Car pools can only go so far to compensate for fundamentally bad, low-density land use. But at least traffic reduction is on the agenda now. It's a positive sign.

The plan

Positive signs can also be found in NOACA's recently updated Long Range Transportation Plan. The plan provides the framework for how Cuyahoga, Lorain, Medina, Geauga and Lake counties will spend $4.7 billion of transportation funds by the year 2010. Perhaps no other single plan will have more influence on the future development of our region.

The plan is noteworthy because it does not call for major new highway projects beyond those already in the planning pipeline (although those projects are substantial). Thus, it assumes that the regional highway system is essentially complete.

The plan allocates about three-fourths of its spending to maintain and improve the efficiency of our existing transportation system. This includes highway and bridge repairs, bus replacement, high-tech equipment to monitor traffic flow ("smart highways"), traffic signal improvements and park-and-ride lots. It also calls for initiatives to reduce demand on the system through rideshare programs, staggered work hours, employer-subsidized transit passes, a regional policy to reduce free parking in the suburbs, and increased telecommuting from homes.

Just as significant, the plan attempts to set new policies for adding transportation capacity. The committee writing the plan debated three possible policies for new transportation investments:

1) Business as usual. Support present development and infrastructure patterns by investing in highway capacity at suburban locations where congestion exists today and where it is forecasted to be in the future. Put more bus lines out on the metropolitan fringe to support suburb-to-suburb movement. Create new opportunities for development with new highway interchanges and new highway corridors.

According to a draft of the plan, this "no intervention" policy would give state and local governments, developers and businesses a welcomed sense of continuity. But it would promote more sprawl, more outmigration of population and tax base from the core of the region (Cleveland and Cuyahoga County), and probably greater air pollution.

2) Focus on a compact core. Encourage compact land development and infill of abandoned urban space, while discouraging sprawl and low-density development. Invest in transit radiating from the central city (realigning RTA's Red Line with a downtown subway and developing commuter rail lines to bring workers into the central business district). Widen freeway bottlenecks coming into downtown and use the new capacity for high occupancy vehicles during rush hours.

This policy would represent "a major change in the way state and local governments consider infrastructure," says the draft plan. "It is not at all compatible with present development trends and forecasts." But, combined with other policies, it could strengthen the core of the region while reducing development pressure on surrounding rural areas.

3) Radical shift to public transit. Taking into account the threat of sanctions for continued air pollution violations, put little or no investment into any transportation infrastructure capacity. Transfer large amounts ($75-100 million a year) from state and federal highway accounts to transit systems. Devise an intensive multi-county transit network and increase subsidies for rideshare alternatives. Encourage developers to build new subdivisions and office parks around transit services.

This option would require major policy changes at the federal and state levels, and possibly a change in state law for transfer of state gas tax revenues to public transit. Even with greater support, however, it's not certain that transit can wean many people from their cars, given all the other public subsidies for the automobilelow gas taxes, free parking, etc.

A new day?

At its October [1993] meeting, the NOACA board is expected to adopt the second policy described above, with the addition of some of the weaker transit recommendations from policy three.

This could "change the relationship of public officials with private developers and with the state," says the draft plan. "With the proposed policy in hand, local officials may request developers to make residential and commercial buildings accessible by transit. Local officials may ask state transportation planners to bring emphasis to the oldest parts of the urban freeway system instead of to the rural parts. Local officials would show a preference for transit and high occupancy vehicles over single occupancy vehicles."

The prospect of such a policy is prompting talk about "a new day" for transportation planning in Northeast Ohio.

"What we're trying to do is so different and so significant that we don't even realize it yet," says NOACA executive director Howard Maier.

The planning paradigm is changing from growth and expansion of infrastructure to maintenance and greater efficiency. It's changing from single-minded highway planning to a consideration of complex transportation systemsthe interaction of all modes of transportation (car, train, boat, airplane, bicycle) with land use. It starts to recognize that compact land useputting people and places close togetherreduces the need for transportation in the first place.

Enforcing a new paradigm

Setting a new policy and enforcing it are different matters, however. The draft Long Range Plan is full of limp recommendations like "encourage compact land development" and "try to encourage developers to build more transit-oriented subdivisions." There are no specific strategies for making these things happen, no goals for measuring progress.

"There's no way to link up the policy recommendations with the land-use decisions of local municipalities," said Cuyahoga County Planning Commission director Paul Alsenas at a recent meeting. "You need specific prescriptions on how to do it. You can't do it by encouraging and hoping that enlightenment will somehow happen."

Could regional agencies like NOACA start denying transportation funds to municipalities if they don't conform to certain land-use guidelines? Perhaps. But don't look for it to happen soon. And don't look for it to happen without the backing of a state land-use law.

Indeed, Cuyahoga County officials are still smarting over last year's debate about a proposal to widen I-71 in Medina County and I-90 in Lorain County. They rightly questioned the projects on the grounds that additional highway lanes could promote sprawl and weaken the entire region, including Medina and Lorain counties. But they backed down after Lorain County officials played political hardball and threatened to stop funding for transportation projects serving Gateway.

"We haven't had the political will to confront these issues in an honest way," said Cuyahoga County Commissioner Timothy Hagan, who chaired the NOACA committee drafting the Long Range Plan.

Ultimately, it will take courageous political leadership and strong public support to manage regional transportation and development in a more rational, ecological way. If we don't do it, we will keep running into problems like Progressive Insurancecompanies that create impossible situations with their edge city development and then expect the rest of society to bail them out.

"We're behind the curve on all these things," Hagan acknowledged. "That's why we need changes in the Long Range Plan and why we need more debate on sprawl issues. Many of the things we approved perfunctorily before will have to be viewed through a different prism."



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"There's no way to link up the policy recommendations with the land-use decisions of local municipalities," said Cuyahoga County Planning Commission director Paul Alsenas. "You need specific prescriptions on how to do it. You can't do it by encouraging and hoping that enlightenment will somehow happen."


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