EXCLUSIVE: ODOT Expected to Announce Major Shift to ‘Fix-it-First’ Policy

While Ohio’s gas taxes and population have remained flat over the past decade, the Ohio Department of Transportation has continued to add capacity to roadways across the state – in some cases even building entirely new roadways to add to the state’s existing infrastructure. This may all soon be ready to change in what is being called a “major” policy shift in Columbus.

According to employees at ODOT who were briefed at an internal meeting on the matter recently, the nation’s seventh-largest state is poised to announce in the coming months that the days of roadway expansion are over. Instead they say that ODOT will embrace a future focused on maintenance and preservation of its existing network of more than 43,000 miles of roads and 14,000 bridges.

While officials say the move is economically driven, it also comes at a time as activists around the country – including numerous cities throughout Ohio – are increasingly calling for governments to embrace a “fix-it-first” policy.

An increasing number of states have been adopting such policies, with Michigan being one of the first when it enacted its Preserve First program in 2003, and California being the largest when it joined the fray last year.

The forthcoming announcement from ODOT, however, goes a step further than that.

In addition to focusing funds on maintenance and preservation, ODOT officials also say that they will abandon their “worst first” approach to fixing existing roadways. In doing so they say that the new program, called the Transportation Asset Management Plan, can save the state an estimated $300 million over the next six years – money that can then be redirected to other preservation activities like cleaning, sweeping, sealing and micro-surfacing.

The idea here, similar to healthcare or household maintenance, is that it is often much more economical to make steady improvements rather than waiting to make repairs until the asset is too far gone.

“It’s finally sinking in that we cannot continue on this unsustainable pace of highway expansion,” said an ODOT employee who spoke to UrbanCincy on the conditions of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

According to ODOT’s own internal estimates, current funds will not be enough to maintain Ohio’s existing system by 2019 – the time when the Ohio Turnpike bonds are gone. Thus, without a major new source of revenue like a gas tax increase, ODOT intends to completely get out of the highway expansion business, and shift all funds to maintenance and rehabilitation.

“Most projects will occur before a road becomes severely compromised, and will be based around maximizing the service life of a particular road,” the ODOT staffer continued. “Long story short, ODOT isn’t going to waste its money on patching up a road as a temporary fix that will simply deteriorate again quickly because of major structural problems.”

There is no clear idea as to whether highway expansion projects currently on the drawing board will be impacted by this, but it appears likely that they will unless they receive capital funding through TRAC prior to 2019.

Such news could be damning for projects like the recently proposed Eastern Bypass or what is left of the Eastern Corridor project. At the same time, it could be the positive jolt needed for projects like the Western Hills Viaduct, which is in desperate need of an estimated $280 million fix.

Metro Looking For Feedback On How To Improve Regional Transit System

Over the past month, Metro has been hosting public listening sessions in order to get a better idea for what current and would-be transit riders are looking for out of the region’s largest transit provider.

While the five sessions have been completed, Metro is still accepting feedback through an online survey that takes about five minutes to complete. Agency officials have not said when that process will be closed, but they say that the goal is to compile the data by the end of the year.

This public feedback process falls in line with growing speculation that Metro will ask Hamilton County voters next fall to approve a sales tax increase that would pay for expanded bus service throughout the county. As it is now, Metro is almost exclusively funded by the City of Cincinnati, and thus primarily provides service within those boundaries. Service outside of those boundaries costs riders extra – a situation that would be removed should voters approve the sales tax increase.

“At the end of the day, the transit system belongs to the people,” explained Jason Dunn, SORTA Board Chair. “It is our job to be good stewards of the transit system and uphold its mission. Ultimately, we’ll use this feedback to help us make decisions that will set the agenda for transit in the future.”

The public is asked to weigh in on a number of key items in the survey, including where bus service should be extended, and what kinds of operating schedules are preferred. The survey also asks about whether real-time arrival display boards, enhanced shelters and ticketing machines would be desired. All of these are items Metro has been adding over recent years, but at a modest pace.

In relation to service operations, Metro officials ask about adding more direct crosstown routes, park-and-ride lots, operating buses earlier or later, increasing weekend frequencies, and adding service to major commercial corridors like Glenway Avenue, Hamilton Avenue, Vine Street, Reading Road and Madison Avenue.

Each of these corridors have been identified for more robust service akin to what has been done along Montgomery Road, which features the first Metro*Plus route in the region. While not full-blown bus rapid transit, Metro officials see it as a step in that direction with its more frequent service, enhanced bus shelters and less frequent stops that allow for faster travel.

Of course, without a dedicated regional transit tax many of these improvements will be difficult to accomplish, or take many years to realize. In the most recent round of TIGER funding, Cincinnati did not apply for any transit-related projects, nor did it even compete for any funds in the recent distribution of the FTA’s Transit-Oriented Development Planning Pilot Program.

While City Hall focused its TIGER grant applications on the Elmore Street Bridge and Wasson Way, both of which were unsuccessful, Metro officials said they did not apply for the FTA funds because they did not believe they had projects ready for successful consideration. But some local transit advocates disagree.

“Our elected officials and administrators are asleep at the wheel,” said Derek Bauman, Southwest Ohio Director of All Aboard Ohio and Chair of Cincinnatians for Progress. “Pools of money exist, particularly at the federal level, for all types of transit planning and construction. We must at accept that times have changed, prepare for the modes of transportation that people are demanding today, and then avail ourselves to resources to make it happen as they become available.”

An additional meeting will be held to gather public feedback from young professionals on Wednesday, November 11 from 6pm to 7:30pm at MORTAR Cincinnati in Over-the-Rhine. Metro CEO and General Manager Dwight Ferrell will be there to take part in the Q/A, and the first 50 people in attendance will receive a free $10 stored value bus pass.

Metro officials say that all of the feedback from the listening sessions and online survey will be considered by the newly created Metro Futures Task Force, which is made up of community leaders who will then present their findings to the SORTA Board in early 2016.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect an additional public meeting that will be held on the evening of Wednesday, November 11.

National Citizen Survey Shows Perceptions of Hamilton Continue To Improve

With the recent announcements of two major new employers, London-based Barclaycard and Colorado-based StarTek, bringing hundreds of new jobs to Hamilton, it may come as no surprise that the city performed comparatively well on the 2015 National Citizen Survey.

Made available to residents in nearly 550 other localities throughout the United States, the NCS is considered by most counties and municipalities as the standard-bearer for collecting meaningful qualitative data and providing informative, actionable feedback.

At the survey’s conclusion, each participating community received an in-depth report that summarized their residents’ responses in three areas: community characteristics, governance and participation. In aggregate, these are compiled to give a general overview of the community’s livability and quality of life. Embedded within this, the questions collect residents’ thoughts about eight key aspects that are central to any community: safety, mobility, the natural environment, the built environment, recreation/wellness, education/enrichment, and community engagement.

While the comparison to other communities is certainly useful, what’s most telling is how the Hamilton of today compares to the Hamilton of its not-so-distant past.

When lined up against its results from the 2011 NCS, the city saw positive gains in a nearly two-thirds of the survey. Not only did the city improve upon those areas where it had been lagging for decades, it also continued to bolster its status as a high-quality, cost-effective producer of public utilities and public goods.

From its best-tasting water, its increased hydroelectric energy production, to its publicly accessible natural-gas station (the first and only in Greater Cincinnati); Hamilton has proven that it is indeed possible to effectively provide public services through economically uncertain times.

It wasn’t all great news, however, with some of the lowest scores falling within the realm of transportation. In particular, few residents responded positively to questions about public transit and traffic flow, both of which have been notoriously subpar for a city of Hamilton’s size. By comparison, nearby Middletown, which is smaller than Hamilton, has had direct access to Interstate 75 and its own four-line public bus system for decades.

Within the city proper, there are only three bridges that connect the city across the Great Miami River within the city proper, all of which carry local roads. Further complicating this is Hamilton’s lack of any highway-grade road infrastructure of any significance as well as numerous at-grade railroad crossings on both sides of the river.

The city is attempting to address some of these transportation issues by moving forward with the $29 million South Hamilton Crossing project, while also lobbying to restore regular passenger rail service.

Public transit of any kind is non-existent in Hamilton, which only frustrates this situation even more. In response to this, city leaders say that they are working to improve relationships with Butler County and other entities within the county, including Middletown and Miami University, to improve public transit offerings.

In particular, the Butler County Regional Transit Authority has essentially absorbed operation of what had been independent bus services in Middletown and Oxford in order to build connectivity among the county’s population centers. BCRTA also maintains routes to West Chester and Tri-County Mall in coordination with Cincinnati’s Metro bus system.

UrbanCincy To Host Definitive Debate On Proposed Parks Tax at Niehoff Urban Studio

Cincinnati Parks Levy Community ForumWhile the presidential election happens next year, there is plenty of excitement on this November’s ballot for Cincinnatians. In addition to the much publicized ballot item that would legalize marijuana in Ohio, there is also an item, Issue 22, that would raise property taxes in the City of Cincinnati in order to provide capital funding for park land and facilities.

The proposed 1-mill tax would be written into the City Charter, and become what is essentially a permanent tax.

Early on the proposal gained wide-spread support, but has since been riddled with controversies. As such, it has become one of the hottest news items of late.

For those not familiar, the proposal was rolled out and explained as providing a dedicated funding source to cover capital expenditures for a number of projects at Cincinnati Parks, including helping address an estimated $55 million in deferred maintenance.

Since that time, however, opponents have charged that the way the proposal is structured gives too much power to the mayor and that it would become a slush-fund with little to no checks and balances. Further adding to the controversy has been the heavy involvement of existing and former politicians that have come under scrutiny lately for potentially improper use of public funds to bankroll the pro-tax campaign.

On Tuesday, October 20, UrbanCincy will host a debate on the topic with Green Umbrella, Tri-State Trails and Queen City Bike at the Niehoff Urban Studio in Corryville. While other debates have taken place on the issue so far, this is the first and only debate that will feature Mayor John Cranley (D) – the initiatives most prominent proponent – live and in person.

Mayor Cranley will be joined at the event by Don Mooney from Save Our Parks. The due represent the leading voice on both sides of the equation. The idea is to gather the public for a community forum to learn more about both sides of the issue, regardless of where you may or may not stand on the matter.

I will be joined by Tom Neyer Jr. of Mainstream Strategy and University of Cincinnati history professor David Stradling to moderate the discussion.

The Cincinnati Parks Levy Community Forum is free and open to the public. It will take place from 6pm to 7:30pm at the Niehoff Urban Studio in Corryville. The location is well-served by Metro bus service and is within a block of a Red Bike station. Those interested in attending are kindly asked to register in advance online so that proper arrangements can be made at the venue.

New Parks Levy Plan Appears to Scrap Vision for Westwood Square

Imagine a picturesque park that is easily known as the center of a neighborhood district. A square with lush landscaping, a stage for plays and space for a farmers market. It’s a square that is easily the envy of Hyde Park or Mt. Lookout or Oakley. That was the vision of Westwood Square.

Westwood Square was born out of the month-long city-wide charrette that helped formulate the city’s four form-based code districts. The vision was further refined in the fall of 2012 by community groups Westwood Works, Westwood Civic Association, Westwood Historical Society, Westwood Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation.

As part of the process, citizens, planners and engineers looked at the problems Harrison Avenue had been causing the neighborhood. Serving mostly as a four-lane connector to Cheviot, ideas were floated to design some traffic calming measures for the corridor.

The idea was that Westwood should not be a place for cars to fly through on their way to downtown, but instead a place to be visited and enjoyed.

Through this process, which was championed by then Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls (D), the team came up with the idea for a central square. By taking a section of Harrison Avenue at the intersections of Epworth and Urweiler Avenues, the square would be constructed to deliberately force vehicles to slow down and turn to navigate around the public gathering space.

City planners found that they could create an opportunity to form a community green space, slow traffic and make the area safer for people walking and biking by implementing such a change.

After MadCap Puppet Theater moved into the old Cincinnati Bell switching station, they cited the plan as one of their main draws to the area. Theater director John Lewandowski spoke about that plan, and the hopes for the neighborhood last year on The UrbanCincy Podcast.

During the 2013 mayoral campaign, Qualls lost to Mayor John Cranley (D), who spoke against the idea of form-based codes during the campaign, and has continued to challenge them ever since.

The recent parks levy announcement from Mayor Cranley and other city leaders included a notable change to the long-held and developed plans for Westwood Square. The adjustments to Harrison Avenue, and creation of the square, are now gone.

Instead, City Hall is now calling for $2 million to renovate the existing green space adjacent to Westwood Town Hall. The new vision will do nothing to slow the traffic at the intersection and appears to make feint aspirations at building the kind of place originally envisioned by the community in 2012.

Such changes were first hinted at during Mayor Cranley’s campaign, and emphasized during his inaugural State of the City address last September.

While specific details for the new plan have yet to be provided, the end result is now expected to be a major departure from the form-based approach that was first laid out.