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.

OKI Survey Results Show Preference for Compact, Walkable Communities

The OKI Regional Council of Governments has released the findings from its 2012 How Do We Grow From Here survey, and is reporting a record response.

According to OKI officials, the survey received 2,474 responses and more than 1,200 comments. In the past, the organization had received around 100 responses for similar surveys, but was hoping for higher numbers this time around due to a larger outreach effort.

The survey is intended to take the pulse of the Cincinnati region with regards to regional vitality, sustainability, and competitiveness with a special focus on land use and transportation policy. The results of the survey are then intended to be used when updating the metropolitan planning organization’s Strategic Regional Policy Plan (SRPP), which was last updated in 2005.

OKI 2012 Survey Results

“While much has been accomplished since the plan’s adoption in 2005, much remains to be done to reach its goals,” state OKI officials. “The SRPP needs to be updated to reflect the impacts of subsequent events such as the Great Recession and significant changes in our demographics, particularly as the baby-boom generation ages.”

Of the survey’s 21 total questions, seven offered particularly revealing insights into the psyche of those from around the region concerning transportation options, economic development strategies, and land use policy.

The survey results indicate a clear preference for sustainable and urban communities. Approximately 60% of respondents said that they felt urban revitalization and neighborhood redevelopment efforts are paying off, and a whopping 88.5% said that it is important to have safe pedestrian and bicycling options in their community.

While the 2,474 respondents stated that they wanted to see existing infrastructure maintained and their communities built in a way to support walking and bicycling, it does not appear that they feel the region is heading in that direction.

“Bicycle infrastructure can play a big role in enhancing public health, providing additional options for transportation, and reducing pollution,” commented one responder. “I also would support a comprehensive transportation plan that includes the extended streetcar line and light rail. This could reduce traffic congestion and pollution and enhance economic growth for our neighborhoods.”

More than a third of those responding said that they feel the region is growing in an unsustainable manner, and more than two-thirds expressed concern about how the region’s housing, transportation, healthcare, and recreation options will support aging individuals and younger generations that desire walkable urban communities.

A 2011 report from Transportation For America found that more than 64% of Cincinnati’s population between the ages of 65 and 79 will have poor transit access by 2015 – ranking the region as the 17th worst out of 48 regions with 1-3 million people.

When asked about energy and the climate, approximately 74% said that rising energy costs have impacted their lifestyle choices surrounding transportation and utilities. With nearly 85% of those same respondents feeling confident about knowing where to go to get more information or help to achieve greater energy efficiency, it appears that organizations like the Greater Cincinnati Energy Alliance are making a positive impact.

“OKI needs to develop renewable energy sources for our area and eliminate all fossil fuel usage in the next 10 years,” responded one individual on the survey. “OKI needs to actively promote the Greater Cincinnati Energy Alliance that has enough funding to upgrade close to 70,000 homes and business in the Hamilton County and northern Kentucky.”

OKI officials state that while they currently have no authority, and seek no authority, over local land use decisions, they hope that the results of their updated SRPP will bring about more consistency between local land use planning and regional transportation planning.

On episode two of The UrbanCincy Podcast we discussed the issue of transportation poverty facing Cincinnati’s aging population, and how unsustainable development patterns are hurting the region’s environment and economy. You can stream our bi-weekly podcasts online for free, or download the podcasts on iTunes.