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.

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.

Cincinnati’s Growth in Bicycle Commuters Third Fastest in America

Newly released data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that the number of people commuting to work by bike continues to rise all across the United States. The League of American Bicyclists took an in-depth look at these numbers and found that Cincinnati is one of the fastest-growing bicycling cities in America.

According to the data produced by the American Community Survey, Cincinnati has the highest percentage of people commuting to work by bike of any city in Ohio.

This places the Queen City in 31st place for the largest percentage of bike commuters in America. Columbus and Cleveland come in at 36th and 40th, respectfully. Toledo, meanwhile, was the only other Ohio city to crack the top 70 and came in at 67th.

“Cincinnati is leading the state in establishing bicycle commuting as a viable means of active transportation,” Frank Henson, President of Queen City Bike‘s Board of Trustees, told UrbanCincy. “We are coming to an understanding that bicycle commuting is safe, sustainable and a healthy choice for everyday transportation.”

What is perhaps more telling is that Cincinnati registered the third-fastest growth rate of bicycle commuters in American from 2000 to 2014.

During that four-year period, ACS data shows that Cincinnati saw a 350% increase in its percentage of bicycle commuters, trailing only Pittsburgh (361%) and Detroit (403%), and edging out Portland, OR (307%). Cleveland also clocked in amongst the top ten in this category with a 238% increase; while Columbus registered a 124% increase. For Cincinnati this builds on its impressive showing over the previous decade where it was a Midwest leader.

Industry experts note that a common thread between many of the communities registering the fastest growth rates is increased investment in bike lanes.

In fact, it was in June 2010 when Cincinnati adopted and began implementing its Bicycle Transportation Plan, which calls for 445 miles of on-street and off-street bike paths by 2025. While that plan mostly calls for non-protected bike lanes, best practices have quickly evolved and now protected bike lanes, like the one on Central Parkway, are widely considered the safest and most efficient alternative.

“Ironically, these days when drivers yell at me for riding in the street, they are just as likely to yell ‘Get in the bike lane!’ as ‘Get off the street!”, explained Margy Waller, who helps organize several group bike rides throughout the year. “To me this suggests that drivers understand the value of the bike lane for all street users. Unfortunately, the drivers don’t seem to realize that most streets don’t have a bike lane, but I bet they’d support more of them.”

While the growth in the number of people commuting by bike is impressive, it still accounts for less than 1% of all commute-related trips in Cincinnati. Implementation of the Bicycle Transportation Plan has been important in notching these improvements over the past four years, but that progress has been slow and inconsistent.

Beyond Downtown, Cleveland’s RTA Rebuild Spurring New Development

Amidst further positive national news for upgraded Midwestern rail service, All Aboard Ohio met in Cleveland for their summer meet-up. At the weekend-long gathering, the group toured the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority’s numerous heavy rail, light rail, and bus rapid transit lines.

Often unknown to outsiders, the Cleveland area boasts some 39 miles of rail transit, with daily ridership of over 53,000. As a result, Cleveland’s transit ridership dwarfs that of both Cincinnati and Columbus. Even though Cleveland is approximately the same size as Cincinnati and Columbus, its transit ridership is bigger than both of them combined.

In addition, All Aboard Ohio executive director Ken Prendergast led the tour and showcased the substantial amount of transit-oriented development that is taking place throughout Cleveland.

With the opening of Cincinnati’s first few miles of rail transit just over a year away, it made the tour particularly relevant. As a result, I was joined by a small Cincinnati contingent including City Councilman Chris Seelbach (D), SW Ohio Director of All Aboard Ohio Derek Bauman, and Price Hill community leader Pete Witte.

The group’s tour began at Terminal City Tower in downtown Cleveland, where inter-city trains once stopped and all rapid transit lines currently meet. From there we took the Green Line to the lakefront, passing large-scale transit-oriented development along the Cuyahoga River, the Port of Cleveland, Cleveland Brown Stadium, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and the city’s Amtrak station.

Negotiations are currently underway for the construction of a large intermodal hub where Amtrak is currently located, combining Amtrak, Greyhound, Megabus, and many local buses from Akron and other cities into one complex.

The Green Line’s E. 55th Street Station was showcased after having been rehabbed in 2011. It is part of GCRTA’s program to rebuild every station in its system. Nearby this still young station, an old hospital is undergoing a $75 million redevelopment that will refit it with apartments.

Changing to the Blue Line, the train ran through semi-suburban areas that reminded the Cincinnati contingent of the Wasson Corridor. Among these areas is the Van Aken District at the Warrensville Station at the end of the line. There, Joyce Braverman, the planning director for Shaker Heights, gave us a walking tour of the area and detailed the numerous transit-oriented developments currently under construction, including a $91 million residential development and a rebuild of a pedestrian-unfriendly intersection.

A newly renovated station – just four days old – greeted us at Little Italy along with the Feast of the Assumption Festival. In addition to the throngs of neighborhood residents filing in and out of the trains, redevelopment can be found nearby in University Circle. During an opportunity to speak with the president of University Circle Inc., he boasted about the area’s transformation from a run-down district with multiple surface parking lots into one of the city’s most desirable neighborhoods.

The numbers back up the claims. In just a decade, more than $6 billion in private investment has flowed to the neighborhood, generating some 10,000 new jobs and 11,000 new residents.

While serviced by RTA’s Red Line, this particular area is also anchored by Cleveland’s now famous Health Line BRT, which runs along Euclid Avenue to the center city and is the highest-rated BRT line in North America.

Through this station rebuilding program, Cleveland has used it as an opportunity to leverage an impressive amount of private investment in the surrounding areas. While success of downtown Cleveland has been well-publicized amidst the continued struggles elsewhere in the region, there are bright spots popping up along the city’s transit corridors. With more than 100 rail and BRT stations in the region, many more opportunities seem to be on the horizon.

The Location of Every Job in Cincinnati Mapped

Ohio Employment Dot Map

Two years ago, University of Virginia researcher Dustin Cable put together a detailed dot map based on the racial distribution of people in the United States. This work inspired another researcher to put together something similar, but for America’s job distribution.

Robert Manduca studies sociology and social policy at Harvard University. He says that while jobs and the economy are continuously discussed, we seem to know very little about where jobs are actually located. So what he did was examine the Census Bureau’s Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics data and then plot that information out on an interactive map.

The LEHD data is based on state unemployment insurance records, and tabulates the count of jobs by census block,” Manduca explained on his website. “Here, jobs are colored by type, allowing us to see how different industries and sectors exhibit different spatial patterns–some clustering in downtowns, others spreading across city and suburbs alike.”

The way the visualization works is that red represents Manufacturing & Trade; blue for Professional Services; green for Healthcare, Education and Government; and yellow for Retail, Hospitality and Other Services.

Upon examination of the map, you can see that some cities and regions have a much stronger concentration of jobs than others. When looking at Ohio from a distance, it looks like this pattern holds true for the state’s three big cities. That picture changes as a more detailed look is taken at Manduca’s research.

In Cincinnati, for example, the two largest job centers, downtown and uptown, are joined by the Mill Creek Valley and Blue Ash as areas with heavy concentrations of jobs. As expected, there is a large cluster of education and health jobs uptown, while downtown boasts the region’s heaviest concentration of professional service jobs.

Blue Ash then comes in as, perhaps, the most impressive job center for professional service jobs in the region outside of the center city.

The Mill Creek Valley, which generally runs north along I-75 from the Ohio River, serves as the region’s primary manufacturing and trade corridor. This industrial corridor is well-rooted in Cincinnati’s history, and is even reflected in the City of Cincinnati’s robust tax collections from these zip codes.

The research reveals how much of a barrier the natural landscape serves as when considering job distribution. Throughout the Cincinnati region, for example, you can see how the hills cut across the landscape.

The data also shows that while Cincinnati is often defined by an east/west divide, the distribution of jobs is far more north/south oriented than it is east/west. Of course, the same is true for the region’s population.