Despite Progress, Cincinnati Not Viewed for Policy Leadership Across America

After surveying 89 mayors from around the United States, Boston University’s Initiative on Cities found that the chief concern amongst those surveyed was an increasing worry about maintaining and funding new infrastructure.

The analysis surveyed mayors from cities of varying sizes, including Cincinnati, and attempted to find the most pressing issues facing American cities.

With roads, mass transportation, and stormwater and wastewater management were the biggest concerns, the mayors specifically alluded to their historic reliance on the federal government as a partner in tackling these big-ticket issues. But more and more mayors around America have lost faith in both federal and state leaders in being reliable partners on large infrastructure projects.

In fact, a recent report authored by Aaron Renn at the Manhattan Institute looks at the issue many cities are facing when it comes to fixing combined sewer overflow problems. In the past, these infrastructure fixes were largely funded by the federal government, but have since become unfunded federal mandates that have led to enormous rate increases across the country, particularly in older cities.

Not all of the infrastructure issues were big ticket items. One such example was the support for bicycle infrastructure. Increasingly popular among America’s mayors, some 70% of those surveyed expressed their support for bike-friendly initiatives.

“Everyone understands that if you want to attract Millennials, you have to have biking infrastructure,” noted one of the surveyed mayors, who are allowed to remain anonymous, in the report. “And if you have bike infrastructure, you are going to upset people.”

Aside from infrastructure, major national news stories from 2015 seemed to factor into other concerns expressed throughout the country.

Those surveyed shared overwhelming support for reforms in policing, regardless of political party. Workforce development programs, initiatives to control rising housing costs, and policies focused on addressing poverty and inequality were all major issues of concern.

While housing prices were an area of major concern for those surveyed, there are large differences in opinion on how to tackle the issue. Some mayors expressed a willingness to emphasize affordable housing mandates even if it stymies development, while mayors of less prosperous cities were less likely to focus on affordable housing.

An area of potential concern for Cincinnati is that while it has gained national attention in recent years for its positive gains, many other mayors from around the country are not looking to the Queen City for policy guidance. Of those surveyed, Cincinnati was mentioned by less than 5% of them as a place they have looked at for inspiration.

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.

Knight Foundation Announces Nearly 150 Finalists For Cities Challenge

The Knight Foundation will announce their list of finalists in the Knight Cities Challenge today. The finalists have been pulled from a collection of more than 4,500 ideas submitted through the challenge to help improve the vibrancy of cities throughout America.

The competition, as with all Knight Foundation grants, is limited to the 26 communities where the organization focuses its efforts. The nearest cities to Cincinnati include Akron and Lexington – both of which were places where the Knight brothers once owned newspapers.

“Through the challenge we want to find new voices and new ideas that capture the three key ingredients of city success—talent, opportunity and engagement,” said Carol Coletta, Knight Foundation vice president for community and national initiatives. “We see these as essential to the challenge and to building stronger futures for all of our cities.”

Akron has become a bit of a darling in the Knight Foundation group as many efforts originating their so tightly align with the non-profit’s core values. In fact, this past October Akron grabbed national headlines when it staged a 500-person dinner on an underutilized highway in the heart of the city – an effort the Knight Foundation supported financially.

The winners of this year’s challenge will be awarded grants to implement their ideas from a pool of $5 million. The target, program officials say, is to invest in civic innovators who help cities attract and keep talented people, expand economic opportunity and create a culture of engagement. Such a model is similar to what People’s Liberty has taken on here in Cincinnati.

Three projects that may prove of interest to leaders here in the Queen City include the Tree Debris to Opportunity project in Boulder, and the New Flavors Food Truck project in North Dakota.

In Boulder, city officials are looking to turn tree debris into an opportunity by training members of the community looking for new skills into collectors and artisans. Through the project, participants would work with the city to collect tree debris and turn it into furniture and art – thus improving the cleanliness of the city and providing the participants with new skills.

In Cincinnati, such a program could potentially help bolster Mayor John Cranley‘s Hand Up Initiative which is aiming to lift 4,000 Cincinnatians out of poverty, while also helping improve the cleanliness of city neighborhoods.

The proposal for the New Flavors Food Truck looks to capitalize on the continued popularity and low-cost of food trucks. In this effort, the organizers would use a generic food truck to provide opportunities to new immigrants to start new food service businesses or restaurants.

With Cincinnati placing a growing interest in embracing and growing its immigrant population, an idea akin to this might serve as a good building block to empower those individuals.

The Knight Foundation will select the winners from this pool of nearly 150 finalists later this spring.

Federal Reserve Finds Cincinnati Out-Performing Many Of Its Regional, National Peers

The Vice President and Senior Regional Officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland‘s Cincinnati Branch, LaVaughn Henry, says that the Cincinnati Metropolitan Statistical Area continues to show positive signs in recovering from the Great Recession, and is moving toward a position of long-term growth.

At approximately 2% higher than its pre-recession level, Henry says that per capita GDP in the Cincinnati area is out-performing other nearby metropolitan areas, along with the rest of Ohio.

Likewise, the unemployment rate is lower in Cincinnati than other metropolitan areas nearby. It is currently 4.1%, the lowest level in a decade. However, employment is still nearly 2% below its pre-recession level in the Cincinnati region.

The construction industry has seen large employment gains in the area, driven by increased home sales but also by Cincinnati’s ongoing center city construction boom.

Henry reports that the region’s manufacturing is also growing healthily, surpassing the growth seen both nationally and state-wide. This growth, he says, reflects increased demand from the aviation and automobile sectors of the U.S. economy. These two sectors, however, only account for 4% and 10% of the metropolitan GDP, respectively.

Larger sectors like transportation and utilities, while still seeing growth, are increasing at a slower pace.

Stars Aligning for Cincinnati to Chicago High-Speed Rail

4123288130_f7b778d9d5_bLocal and national developments show positive signs for America’s oft-criticized national passenger railroad company, Amtrak. A railroad reform bill introduced in the Senate contains many positive changes for Amtrak and local support continues to grow for increased service on Cincinnati’s tri-weekly train to Indianapolis and Chicago.

The Railroad Reform, Enhancement, and Efficiency Act of 2015 (RREEA, S.1626) was introduced by Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Roger Wicker (R-MS) to improve Amtrak service across the nation. The bill addresses several different issues for the railroad, including expansion, funding, and leadership. It also provides an increase in funding levels for the railroad through 2019.

In terms of leadership, the legislation would reorganize the board of directors for the railroad, with two representatives for the heavily traveled Northeast Corridor, two for long-distance routes (the Cardinal), and two for state-supported lines. There would also be one “floating” member.

The RREEA also includes several sections that fuel possible future expansion of the national rail network by establishing a committee to facilitate communication and cooperation between states and Amtrak on state-supported routes. In addition, it would require Amtrak to work with an independent agency to evaluate all routes and review possible elimination of routes, expansion or extension of current routes, or the establishment of new ones.

While calling this clause problematic, the National Association of Railroad Passengers acknowledges that this text includes a “comprehensive framework for analyzing a route that recognize the unique benefits rail service provides.”

Section 301 of the act explicitly requires that the Department of Transportation set up a program to assist the operating costs of launching or restoring passenger rail transportation. The section seems to be a nod towards the amount of routes cut from the system over Amtrak’s 40-plus years of operation.

Additional clauses provide mechanisms for cooperation between states and the federal government, when it comes to addressing the backlog of capital projects within the system, Amtrak’s money-losing food service, and the restoration of service along the Gulf Coast, a line that has been out of commission since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

After the deadly derailment in Philadelphia in May, safety across the network is a major component of this legislation.

Both sponsoring senators touted the bipartisan nature of the bill and Senator Wicker’s office released a statement identifying the national passenger rail system as an “integral part of our overall transportation structure and our economy,” and thanking Senator Booker for his support and help in creating the bill.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation voted on July 13 to include the RREEA Act into the broader transportation bill, the Comprehensive Transportation and Consumer Protection Act of 2015 (S.1732).

In the Cincinnati metropolitan area, support continues to grow for the expansion of rail service in the area, especially to Chicago.

The City of Hamilton recently applied to Amtrak for a stop and has passed a resolution of support for increased service. Nearby in Oxford, home of Miami University, initial approvals have been set to create a station for Amtrak, and efforts are currently underway to identify the exact location for that facility.

The effort has also gained support from the University of Cincinnati Student Senate, when they passed a resolution 31-1 in support of increased rail service to Chicago, citing Chicago as “an important transportation hub for students’ co-op travels, as well as an economic destination for students, staff, and faculty alike.”

According to All Aboard Ohio’s Southwest regional director, Derek Bauman, the UC student government president is also coordinating with other local university student governments to obtain resolutions of support; and in addition to Hamilton, both Norwood, where Amtrak employs local workers, and Wyoming, where the Cardinal line runs through, have also passed resolutions of support for increased passenger rail service.

Hamilton County commissioners also unanimously approved a resolution pursuing a feasibility study.

Going forward, Bauman says that there will be a need for increased cooperation and support from local Metropolitan Planning Organizations along the route. In Columbus, the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC) has actively supported the implementation of a Columbus-Ft. Wayne-Chicago rail line; and in Northeast Ohio, a consortium of local MPOs have banded together and formed a sub-group to support increased rail service to the region.

From here, leadership at All Aboard Ohio says that they hope the OKI Regional Council of Governments will take a similar approach on behalf of the Cincinnati region.