EDITORIAL: Cincinnati Leaders Should Implement a PAYT Waste Management System

As the new mayor and city council continue to get settled in to their new offices, we would like to suggest a policy reform that should be enacted immediately to help improve the city’s environment, balance its budget and give residents and businesses greater flexibility in terms of their trash collection.

Since the city debuted its new system of trash collection, it has been riddled with complaints from upset citizens and business owners unhappy about not being able to throw away the amount of trash that they generate. This is a problem since reports of illegal dumping have picked up in various neighborhoods.

At the same time, the new system represents an improvement over the old in terms of its efficiency. The city is now able to reduce staff levels on each garage truck, avoid safety risks associated with employees lifting and maneuvering heavy trash cans, and boost recycling rates. All of these reforms save the city money and help the city protect its workers from injury on the job.

In order to resolve the ongoing issues, while also preserving the advances that have been made, UrbanCincy urges the new mayor and city council to immediately implement a Pay As You Throw (PAYT) system.

Such a system is supported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) for its environmental sustainability, economic sustainability and its equity. What the USEPA has noticed is that communities using such a system have realized increased recycling rates, balanced and consistent revenue streams for municipalities looking to offset the costs of their waste collection, and improved equity in terms of how payments are made by the diverse range of users in the system.

As of 2006, USEPA data showed that 243 communities throughout Ohio were utilizing a PAYT system. Cincinnati should be the next.

When implementing a PAYT system, communities are able to choose from charging users a specific fee per bag or can of waste they generate. In communities where the capabilities are available, like Cincinnati, officials can be more precise and charge residents based on the weight of trash they generate.

Due to the potential complexities and higher administrative costs of managing such a variable-rate system, we recommend that city officials set a base rate for each 64-gallon can, with fixed prices for each additional can after that.

This is both a fair and effective means of managing waste collection. It allows users to generate as much or as little trash as they desire without any fear of exceeding the size constraints of their trash can. Those who recycle more, and discard less, are rewarded with lower fees.

If the new mayor and city council would like to pursue a version of this approach that could benefit low-income communities, then we would recommend developing a partnership with a local company or organization, or pursue grant money, that could cover the costs of any user within the city’s established empowerment zones. This would allow the city to continue to improve its financial standing and service delivery, while also working to aid residents and businesses within the neighborhoods that need it most.

In the last full year of budget data, the City of Cincinnati spent $11,320,530 on its Waste Collections Program. This was a $758,740 reduction from the previous year’s expenditures due largely to the elimination of 12 full-time equivalent staff positions. Meanwhile, there is no direct revenue source to pay for this program.

Of course, COAST and its allies successfully pushed through a broadly written Charter amendment in 2011 (Issue 47), which was opposed by the Cincinnati Regional Chamber of Commerce, that prohibits the City from assessing, levying, or collecting taxes or general assessment on real properties, or against the owners or occupants thereof, for the collection of trash, garbage, waste, rubbish or refuse.

What this means is that the City is permanently stuck with an $11-12 million hole in its budget every year. Most communities around the nation and throughout the region already charge their residents and businesses directly for waste collection. Cincinnati has been unique in being able to not directly charge for this service, but times have changed, and so must its policies. Waste collection should collect as much in revenue as is reasonable to help offset the costs to administer the program.

If the new mayor and city council want to get real about passing a structurally balanced budget while not severely degrading the services it provides its residents and businesses, then there should be no question about whether or not to implement a PAYT system as quickly as possible. We cannot afford to let allow an $11.3 million hole sit in our budget.

Implementing a Pay As You Throw system will help structurally balance the city’s budget. It will help improve our environment and the health of our communities. And it will improve the lives for Cincinnati residents and businesses who demand high quality public services with the flexibility they desire in their day-to-day lives. And most importantly, it has the ability to do all of this in an equitable manner for all Cincinnatians.

Should Cincinnati revisit the idea of an aerial tram between Downtown and Mt. Adams?

One of Cincinnati’s most unique and beautiful geographic features is its hills. They provide wooded hillsides, scenic overlooks and breathtaking cityscapes, but they also provide a headache for transportation engineers looking to connect the city’s neighborhoods with one another. While not a new idea, would it be worthwhile for Cincinnati to explore running an aerial tram from Downtown/OTR (near the casino) to the difficult to reach Mt. Adams? More from EarthTechling:

The aerial tram concept may just offer a workable solution for cities the size of Austin, which tend to face some real hurdles in developing any sort of mass transit system beyond that trusty urban stand by, the bus. That’s because any type of light rail or street car proposal often comes up against the major costs (and legalities) of acquiring land rights, which can be a maddenly slow process, and an expensive one. If a city tries to circumvent some of that red tape by building a subway system underground, construction workers may rejoice at the years of guaranteed work, but taxpayers often balk at the costs

An aerial tram, in contrast, has far less of a physical footprint, requiring only space for riders to hop on and hop off. Take a ride on Portland’s aerial tram on a weekend, and it will become clear that they also tend to become tourist attractions — not only because of their relative novelty in American cities, but because of the great views they offer.

Tree Planting to Kick Off Great Outdoor Weekend

578645_200276843483475_449462613_nTrees are a vital part of the health of urban environments. They soak up air pollution, mitigate storm water runoff and provide additional health and aesthetic benefits. But lately anyone traveling on Cincinnati’s roads and highways can see an increased number of dead trees poking through the thick canopy of brush on the side or the road or along the trails of Cincinnati forests such as Mt. Airy Forest.  It is true, the amount of dead trees have been increasing over the past few years. This is all due to a small shiny green insect called the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB).

EAB, an invasive insect that arrived in the country by way of boat through Michigan has slowly been making its way south to Ohio and Kentucky. In some wooded areas, over 40% of the forest canopy has been killed off due to this tiny pest.

This morning, the Green Partnership for Greater Cincinnati (GPGC), Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI), Green Umbrella, and the Cincinnati Zoo launch an initiative called Taking Root, which is aiming to plant trees in an effort to combat the decline of forests from EAB. Although only 12 trees will be planted at this morning’s event, the goal is to plant 2 million trees by 2020.

“The environmental, economic, and social benefits of trees is massive to our region. We live in an area that has always been and wants to be a forest,” Scott Beuerlein, Taking Root campaign leader told UrbanCincy, “There’s not much we can do about ash.”

According to research Cincinnati has lost 10% of its forest canopy due to EAB. The costs are equal to about $3.2 million in storm water management, air pollution mitigation, and energy costs.

The event, which will start this morning at Eden Park, will kick off the larger scale Great Outdoor Weekend, which is now in its tenth year. Great Outdoor Weekend will take place this Saturday and Sunday.  There are eight venues within the city including the Civic Garden Center, Park + Vine, and the Cincinnati Museum Center. The events are geared towards educating attendees on sustainability, rooftop gardening and of course tree planting. More events will be hosted throughout the Cincinnati region.

As  Beuerlein explained to UrbanCincy, “The main goal of the Great Outdoor Weekend is to connect Cincinnatians with outdoor recreation and nature education opportunities in their neighborhood, and create relationships there. These relationships have a mutual benefit: citizens have a way to learn, relax, exercise, make friends, entertain their kids, and connect to nature.”

Cincinnati Receives Federal Approval for Innovative Green Infrastructure CSO Fix

Last week the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved the solution proposed by the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati (MSD) for fixing its combined sewer overflows (CSOs) into the Mill Creek.

Cincinnati is one of many cities struggling to fix their CSOs, which are caused by a combination of higher water runoff and sewer systems that were designed to accommodate both stormwater runoff and sewage. What it means in real terms is that when there are heavy rain events, the stormwater fills up the sewers and then mixes with the sewage.

According to the EPA, raw sewage contains pathogens that threaten public health, leading to beach closures and public advisories against fishing and swimming, and is a problem that particularly affects older urban area.

Lick Run Project
MSD’s plan to reduce 1.5 billion gallons of CSOs from the Mill Creek will include the transformative Lick Run project in South Fairmount.

As a result, under a 2010 consent decree, the MSD was required to either construct a deep-tunnel system under Mill Creek, or conduct further analysis and propose an alternative plan. What is unique about Cincinnati’s approved plan is that it deviates from the standard ‘gray’ tunnel solution, and instead proposes using green infrastructure fixes to reduce stormwater runoff.

“We are very excited to move forward with our innovative wet weather solution that not only provides highly cost-effective compliance with our Consent Decree but simultaneously sets the groundwork to enhance our communities,” James A. “Tony” Parrott, MSD’s Executive Director, said in a prepared release.

In addition to the environmental benefits of Cincinnati’s alternative plan, it is also expected to save taxpayers approximately $200 million upfront and remove 1.78 billion gallons of CSOs annually from the Mill Creek.

The savings come from not building a new deep-tunnel system to accommodate the excess stormwater runoff, and instead aiming to reduce the amount of stormwater flowing into the sewer systems during heavy rains.

The green infrastructure solution being pursued by Cincinnati is already being viewed as a national model for other cities looking to clean up their waterways.

Lick Run View (Northwest) Lick Run View (Southwest)
The $192M Lick Run project would create a linear park through South Fairmount along a newly ‘daylighted’ stream. Images provided.

The hallmark feature of the plan is the $192 million Lick Run Project, which will ‘daylight’ the former creek through the heart of South Fairmount and creating a linear park that officials say will convey stormwater and natural drainage to the Mill Creek. This project alone is estimated to reduce overflows into the Mill Creek, from the largest CSO in the system, by 624 million gallons annually.

“This plan is good news for the residents of Cincinnati and for communities along the Ohio River,” said Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “Not only will this innovative plan ensure that significant volumes of polluted stormwater and raw sewage are kept out of local waterways, but it will also cost less than more traditional approaches, saving money for ratepayers and the city.”

In addition to the Lick Run Project, MSD’s phase one fixes will also include upgrades to the West Fork, Kings Run, and Bloody Run watersheds that will result in an additional 422 million gallons CSO reduction.

The combined phase one work is planned to take place over the next five years and is estimated to create nearly 1,000 full-time equivalent construction jobs.

MSD officials say that plans for phase two work will be submitted in 2017, and will aim to address CSOs in the Lower Mill Creek watershed. While the plans are not yet finalized, both MSD officials and regulators believe the final remedy will also use an integrated watershed plan approach.

Work on Smale Riverfront Park Progresses Despite Lack of State, Federal Funds

The $120 million Smale Riverfront Park will celebrate its next wave of progress two months from now when the Women’s Committee Garden and Duke Energy Garden are opened to the public – more than doubling the central riverfront park’s completed acreage.

According to officials from the Cincinnati Park Board, the project is still on-time and on-budget thanks to an influx of private contributions.

Originally, park officials had planned on approximately half of the project’s cost being covered by state and federal funds. While those funds flowed early in the project’s life, they have all but dried up over the past two years.

Cincinnati Central Riverfront Plan

“We got into this pretty aware of what the challenges were, but the biggest challenges thus far have probably been the state and federal funding,” stated Smale Riverfront Park’s project manager, Dave Prather. “It’s been a pretty big adjustment when half of the funding you were counting on hasn’t come, but thanks to the private funding we’ve been able to stay pretty much on schedule.”

Prather says that the city leadership understands the realities facing both their state and federal partners, but that without the private and local support the project would most likely be behind schedule.

He is, however, optimistic that things will turn around and says that the park board is working on other ways to get state and federal dollars. One such element that could be the beneficiary of such efforts is the planned 1,000-foot transient boat dock which may be eligible for up to $3 million in grants from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) Division of Watercraft.

Should such funding fall into place, Prather says that the boat dock could be operational as early as May or July 2015.

“We received $3 million in the State capital fund three years ago, and that’s what we thought we would get as we worked through the phasing plan,” Prather explained. “Hopefully the state will get back in the business of being able to help with significant capital projects.”

Not all of the funding news has been grim, as Prather noted strong support from Hamilton County, private sources, and the City of Cincinnati which includes a recent $4 million allocation from the proceeds of its recently approved Parking Modernization & Lease agreement.

That $4 million will go towards accelerating the construction timeline of phase four of construction work which will now include the PNC Grow Up Great Adventure Playground and carousel. According to Prather, both of these projects will now be completed by May 2015 – in time for the 2015 Major League Baseball All-Star Game.

One of the features that will be open in two months is the new riverwalk, of sorts, that will run from the Walnut Street Overlook approximately to Sycamore Street immediately south of Great American Ball Park. One of the key features of this riverwalk, Prather notes, is that the guardrails will be 48 inches in height instead of 42 inches so that both pedestrians and bicyclists can enjoy the pathway.

“Our observation has been that you can’t tell cyclists where to go,” said Prather who noted that he is an avid cyclist himself. “So we’re going to construct the closest to the river pathway to accommodate both pedestrians and cyclists – right where they both want to be.”

While much work is left to do, both in terms of construction and securing funds to continue construction, the project team maintains excitement for the transformation they are overseeing.

“I’ve been an architect and a planner for the city for years, and a lot of the time you spend a lot of time and energy on plans that don’t get built,” Prather concluded. “This one [project] is different…we’re just on a roll and it’s awesome to have ideas that everyone embraces, you feel right about what you’re building, and you get the resources to actually build it. We’ve gotten a lot of cooperation from the city and county, and I feel like we’re all rowing in the same direction.”

Officials hope to complete the 45-acre park in its entirety by July 2017, excluding improvements to the river’s edge that will need to be coordinated with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.