Downtown Signal Study Stuck in Political Traffic

Every weekday tens of thousands of commuters in downtown Cincinnati struggle in traffic to get onto the highway and back to their homes in other neighborhoods or the suburbs. However, City Hall is stalling on taking advantage of a unique opportunity to capitalize on funds to study and re-time the traffic signals to benefit all road users downtown.

The last time the traffic patterns of the city’s downtown Central Business District were studied was in the mid 1990’s. Back then the city had about 80,000 workers (a New York Times article puts the number at 82,000 in 1991) which is about 17,000 more than the most recent Downtown Cincinnati Inc. count of 65,000.

There are plenty of other things that have happened in downtown Cincinnati since the last traffic signal study, such as the reconfiguration and realignment of Fort Washington Way, the building of the Banks development, an increase of over 10,000 residents and of course the Cincinnati Bell Connector streetcar.

A traffic study and signal improvements would benefit all modes of transportation downtown

The funds for the study would come from the Cincinnati Streetcar Contingency Fund, basically funds left over from the construction and startup of the system. The study would not only allow the city’s Department of Transportation and Engineering (DOTE) to conduct the study but also would fund much needed upgrades to signals across downtown.

This would allow for the city to implement a more robust and flexible traffic timing scheme beyond the archaic three phase programming of the current signal system which is only programmed for rush hour, non-rush hour and weekend traffic patterns.

In October, City Council voted to approve a motion to start the traffic study.  Since then, however, progress has been stalled for unknown reasons.  The study was discussed again in council chambers this week as Council members probed Metro and City Administration on streetcar operations.

Streetcar supporters are quick to blame the city leadership on stalling to create a narrative that the streetcar is a failure. And the response to that, to blame Transdev, the company that operates the streetcar, should not go unheeded. However; the city is stalling on a golden opportunity to modernize and coordinate downtown traffic for the 21st Century.

This is a project that would fit perfectly into the data driven decision-making vision this administration values. And maybe we will all benefit from time saved being stuck in traffic whether we are drivers, pedestrians, cyclists, bus commuters or even streetcar riders.

Cincinnati’s $109M Capital Acceleration Plan Ignores Adopted Bike Policy

On Thursday, the City of Cincinnati celebrated the start of its bold, new road rehabilitation effort. The six-year program will include the resurfacing and rehabilitation of aging streets, replacement of city vehicles outside of their life cycle, and establish a new focus on preventive road maintenance that city officials will save money in the long-run.

The $109 million Capital Acceleration Plan is a strategic policy shift at City Hall, and represents a large infusion of money into road repair. The new focus on preventive maintenance is particularly noticeable as it represents an eight-fold increase in spending on that front.

“This is much bigger than just spending money to improve the condition of local streets. CAP is about making an investment in the city and people who live here,” City Manager Harry Black said in a prepared release. “This strategic investment in our roadways and infrastructure will serve as the foundation of Cincinnati’s sustained long-term growth.”

City officials say that the investments will improve the condition of 940 center-line miles of streets over the next six years. In its first year, its $10.6 million for street rehabilitation and $4 million for preventive maintenance, officials say, will impact 16 different neighborhoods and improve 120 center-line miles of roads.

With so many streets poised to be improved over the coming years, many people advocating for safer bicycling and walking conditions on the city’s roadways were optimistic that across-the-board improvements could be made. In fact, their cause for optimism is not without cause. The City of Cincinnati’s Bicycle Transportation Plan, which was adopted by City Council in June 2010, calls for incremental improvements to the city’s bike network as road resurfacing projects take place.

“Many of the facilities recommended in this plan can be implemented in conjunction with already scheduled street rehabilitation projects,” the Bicycle Transportation Plan notes. “When this coordination occurs, costs for implementing the bicycle facilities may be reduced by over 75%.”

According to officials at the Department of Transportation & Engineering, such savings can be achieved since the capital costs can be shared for both sets of improvements, and labor costs can be maximized.

The Bicycle Transportation Plan goes on to state that City Hall will be opportunistic and take advantage of every occasion where bicycle facilities can be included with street rehabilitation projects or other capital projects. Taking such an approach, the adopted policy says, “will reduce costs to the lowest levels possible.”

City Hall, however, has fallen woefully behind on the implementation of the recommendations made in the Bicycle Transportation Plan; and the current administration has even made a point of noting that they do not generally support the idea of on-street bike facilities. Rather, Mayor John Cranley (D) and his administration have focused on investing in off-street recreational bike trails.

Such an approach has left many people who use bikes as a means of transportation frustrated; and with $69 million of CAP going toward road improvement projects, it would seem like a great opportunity to maximize the improvements by performing these projects in a manner that also improves safety conditions for the city’s rapidly growing number of people commuting by bike.

Based on statements from City Hall, however, it seems that it will prove more so to be an opportunity lost; and put the city in an impossible position to meet its adopted policy objectives within their target time frames.

For Economic Growth, Milwaukee Region Chooses Collaboration Over Competition

When Omnicare announced in late 2011 that they planned to move their headquarters from Covington across the river to downtown Cincinnati, it showcased the intense regional competition for jobs and economic development.

Due to the region’s particularly fragmented setup of multiple states, counties, cities and townships, a myriad of governments and development entities tout their respective advantages in workforce training, tax incentives, and infrastructure access, to lure development from out of the area, but also from neighboring localities; and companies have been more than happy to float from one place to the next in order to take advantage of those incentives.

Yet, data shows that while this desire to expand the local tax base is enticing, it amounts to little or no new jobs or income for the region as a whole. Rather, the habit is more cannibalistic in nature, especially given that cities today are competing not just with their neighbors, but also with far-flung metropolitan areas around the world.

While both unique and similar Cincinnati in many ways, Milwaukee and its surrounding areas have taken a wholly different approach to that of Greater Cincinnati.

When current Mayor Tom Barrett (D) was elected in 2004, he was intently focused on improving economic development within Milwaukee proper. To achieve this, local leaders came together to form the Milwaukee 7 – an economic development organization for the seven counties in the region. To help curb damaging intra-regional competition, the group agreed to a code-of-ethics where they promised to not steal jobs from one another, but rather focus on economic development cooperation.

M7’s metropolitan business plan is now the foundation for regional development, but the group also recognizes that a thriving region is dependent on an also-successful inner-city. For this, the City of Milwaukee develops its own economic development plan that uses ideas from, and coordinates common areas with, the regional plan. This helps connects local revitalization efforts with regional economic development strategies.

Again, rather than attempting to lure firms from outside the area, local officials recognized their competitive advantage in numerous areas and chose to reinforce those. Specifically, M7 identified the area’s competitive advantages in three areas: water technology; energy, power and controls manufacturing; and food and beverage.

To ensure that the region remains attractive and stays on the cutting edge of business and technology, local officials have created numerous entities to promote and develop industry throughout the region. Each of the three industry clusters have a respective local organization that has developed clear-cut plans to encourage innovation and collaboration to grow the industry.

Going a step further, the Milwaukee region has also created a global trade and investment strategy in order to attract foreign firms and capital.

The results of this intra-regional collaboration have been positive. In November 2015, UrbanCincy published a story about Milwaukee’s burgeoning water industry that is transforming a once-decrepit manufacturing area into a modern industrial center.

Like many other cities in the industrial Midwest, Milwaukee has hundreds of vacant industrial buildings and acres of abandoned land. Millions of dollars have been spent in redevelopment efforts, with areas like the Menomonee Valley seeing food and beverage industry expansion there, and a former Pabst Blue Ribbon brewery being converted into residential spaces to bring workers closer to the new jobs downtown.

In a region with one of the highest percentages of concentrated poverty in the nation, officials are hoping the efforts will ensure that redevelopment and economic opportunities are broad-based and accessible.

A regional talent partnership is being used to help grow talent that caters to the three industry clusters; and construction projects with public support are required to hire locally. Those firms help train and hire under-employed and unemployed Milwaukeeans through collaboration with organizations like the Wisconsin Regional Planning Partnership.

In the low-income, northwest section of Milwaukee, an 80-acre brownfield site called “Century City” is being redeveloped into a Center for Advanced Manufacturing. And with development booming in downtown Milwaukee, funds generated from those investments are being redirected into numerous projects in other parts of the city, like transportation and community development organization funding.

While it is too early to judge some of the results seen thus far, the Milwaukee region is now more productive than it was at the turn of the century, and it is adding both jobs and residents. At the same time, more citizens are employed, and wages in the area are higher than the national average.

The Cincinnati region has, in recent years, begun making concentrated efforts at developing similar programs. However, many of the programs have been focused at the city-level. Until the region establishes a similar regional partnership that gets everyone working toward the same goals, it is unlikely that similar results will be seen here.

As Challenges Persist For Central Parkway Bike Lane, Cyclists Look to Organize

With National Bike Month coming to a close, the rhetoric surrounding the fate of the city’s lone protected bike lane continues. Following weeks of discussion and political wrangling, the city’s latest politicized transportation project will be studied again after two initial reports were found to be inconclusive by some leaders at City Hall.

The debate is, perhaps not coincidentally, taking place while the city’s bike community is becoming more active in terms of numbers of riders, group rides and political activism.

Last night at the Mercantile Library dozens crowded the venue to hear a panel discussion and engage in discussion about the current and future state of Cincinnati’s bike network. Organized by Queen City Bike and other area advocacy groups, the event served as an opportunity for people to constructively discuss the good and bad about the city’s bike infrastructure.

First adopted in June 2010, Cincinnati’s Bicycle Transportation Plan has served as the official document meant to guide policy decisions at City Hall. Since its adoption, however, the planning document has largely sat on the shelf, with targets for the development of bike lanes and other infrastructure falling behind schedule.

Mayor John Cranley’s administration has made it very clear that they are not interested in the development of on-street bike lanes, particularly those that are physically protected from automobile traffic. In lieu of pursuing those targets, the Cranley administration has instead focused on off-street bike trails; while also providing the critical upfront investment to launch Red Bike.

“Under our public-private relationships and support of council and a very vibrant cyclist community, in my opinion, we’re going to be the most bike-friendly city in America in four years,” Mayor Cranley told Aaron Renn in 2014. “We have three major bike trails that can be connected on abandoned train tracks into downtown; and, candidly, we intend to get all three of them build in the next four years. There’s just nothing like it in any city.”

National studies have found that protected on-street bike lanes not only provide the greatest level of safety for both bicyclists and motorists, but also encourage a greater range of demographics to bike. According to the American Journal of Public Health, this is largely attributable to the fact that streets with protected bike lanes saw 90% fewer cyclist injuries per mile than those without.

When it opened in July 2014, the Central Parkway protected bike lane was the first of its kind in Ohio. Since then other cities around the state have developed their own protected bike lanes, but Cincinnati has gone back to discussing the merits of the project after a handful of motorists complained that it made the roadway more dangerous and confusing to navigate.

Those suggestions were refuted in a report issued earlier this month that found conflicts along the 2.2-mile stretch of Central Parkway with the protected bike lane are no different, or even safer, than on other comparable streets around the city; but that further experience and education is needed for motorists.

“The Cincinnati Police Department and DOTE both believe that as drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians become more familiar with the area and with the rules for the bike lane operations, there should be fewer conflicts,” the report concluded. “DOTE will continue to monitor conditions, and improvements may be made in the future as best practices evolve.”

Whether the future of Cincinnati’s bike infrastructure continues to focus on off-street bike trails, or shifts to a more balanced approach is yet to be seen. Queen City Bike is hoping last night’s event, and others to come in the future, will help grow the number of people advocating for a more robust bike network, but also refine the vision based around what it is the community wants to see pursued.

The Cranley administration has put forth a proposed budget that increases spending on bicycle infrastructure, but the overwhelming majority of that money has been tagged for off-street trails, not protected bike lanes or other sorts of infrastructure improvements.

City Council has until the end of June to review, make proposed changes and approve next year’s budget. This will give the growing bike advocacy community a strong opportunity to make their voices heard.

ODOT Looking For Public Feedback on Reworked Eastern Corridor Program

The Ohio Department of Transportation is looking for additional feedback related to transportation improvements for Cincinnati’s eastern neighborhoods and far reaching suburbs.

The survey comes after ODOT has said that they are backing away from original plans for the hotly debated Eastern Corridor project, which came under public scrutiny for its scope and potentially negative impact to established neighborhoods on the city’s east side.

While the project will most certainly not be moving forward as originally envisioned, public officials are still looking to get a grasp on what kinds of investments could be made to improve traffic congestion and mobility options.

So far, ODOT has held public meetings in Newtown and Mariemont, and will hold meetings in Anderson Township, Mt. Lookout, Fairfax and Mt. Washington in the coming weeks – the next of which will occur this evening, from 6pm to 8pm, in Mt. Lookout at Christ The King Parish Center at 927 Ellison Avenue.

Those unable to attend that or the other upcoming meetings, are being encouraged to complete an interactive web-based survey. Taking approximately five to 10 minutes to complete, the survey asks respondents to rank the importance of the types of transportation improvements needed for the corridor, while also asking for specific location-based improvement suggestions.

The survey and public feedback for this effort is focused on what ODOT calls Segments II and III of the project, and is not limited to those who live or work in the study area, but rather open to anyone who finds themselves passing through the area.

Early results from the survey show that respondents want ODOT to focus investments on improving public transit, biking and walking options, and travel time through the corridor. While the travel time option could mean many different things, it may be connected to the other two top rankings for multi-modal transportation enhancements.

Projects not specifically mentioned in the survey include the Oasis Corridor commuter rail line, which also has been on the ropes lately, and the Wasson Corridor, which is still unclear how it will proceed with respects to a trail only, or a light rail and trail combination.

As UrbanCincy wrote in June 2015, a new local access bridge crossing the Ohio River, from Columbia Tusculum to Dayton, KY, could also greatly help solve access and congestion issues on the east side of the region.

ODOT officials say that the online survey will remain open until Wednesday, June 15. After this evening’s open house in Mt. Lookout, the next meetings to take place in Fairfax and Mt. Washington will occur on May 4 and May 5, respectively.