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.

Ohio Maintains Position As Nation’s 16th Best State for Bicyclists

Bicycle Friendly State Ranking 2015Ohio has maintained its ranking as the 16th best state for bicycling in 2015, according to the League of American Bicyclists. The Buckeye state was previously ranked 16th in 2014, after a big jump from 32nd the previous year. This position places the state as the fourth best in the Midwest, behind just Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois.

The ranking is issued after compiling the results of a Bicycle Friendly State questionnaire that is answered by a coordinator in each state, and is based on five criteria: Legislation and Enforcement, Policies and Programs, Infrastructure and Funding, Education and Encouragement, and Evaluation and Planning.

The state scored a total of 45.3 points out of a possible 100, and fared best in terms of its Education and Outreach, but scored lowest in its Evaluation and Planning.

“I’m excited about where Ohio is,” Frank Henson, President of Queen City Bike, told UrbanCincy. He said that he felt that even though Ohio gained in its scoring of points, the reason it did not move higher in the ranking is due to the investments being made elsewhere around the country.

“While Ohio continued to do a lot of great things, especially here in Cincinnati and neighboring communities, other states were ramping up,” Henson said.

Leadership at Queen City Bike believes that Ohio has the potential to move up in next year’s ranking with the possible passage of House Bill 154.

Chuck Smith, Chairman of the Ohio Bicycle Federation, agreed and said that the top two suggestions from the League of American Bicyclists to improve the state’s ranking are both addressed in the bill. The first is a statewide requirement for vehicles to provide three feet of clearance when passing bikes, which is already an ordinance in Cincinnati. The second is a “dead red” law, which would allow all vehicles, including bicycles, to proceed through an intersection if they are not detected by traffic control devices.

“It’s important for cyclists to be legal, but bikes are sometimes outside of the system” Smith said in reference to many traffic control devices that are unable to detect the presence of people riding bikes.

One of the other major items recommended by the League of American Bicyclists is the adoption of a statewide Complete Streets policy – something both state and local officials continue to struggle with all over Ohio.

Julie Walcoff, Bicycle and Pedestrian Program Manager of the Ohio Department of Transportation, said there are several other actions being taken at the state level that could further bolster the state’s national ranking.

“We’re putting together a safety coalition that will encompass advocates, communities around the state, and other organizations that are interested in bicycle and pedestrian safety,” Walcoff told UrbanCincy. “We’ll be using that group to help develop a statewide educational campaign that focuses on road users of all types and on law enforcement.”

In addition, ODOT recently kicked off an initiative to designate proposed US and state bike routes throughout the Ohio, connecting the 17 largest cities in the state. ODOT officials say that these routes will use roads that already have an acceptable level of safety, along with existing paths.

While many have described ODOT as an agency almost entirely focused on highway building, Walcoff says they pride themselves on their working relationships with bicycle advocacy organizations throughout the state. This, she says, can help not only maintain Ohio’s current ranking but help it get even better in the future.

In Columbus, advocacy group Yay Bikes! is working with the city to increase the focus on design and engineering of the street infrastructure. Executive Director Catherine Girves says that to help improve the current situation, they are having engineers budget time each week to ride the streets with their group in order to better understand the needs of those people riding bikes.

Back in Cincinnati, Henson noted the addition of Cincy Red Bike and the Central Parkway protected bike lane – the first of its kind in Ohio – as two key developments over the past year that have helped state’s ranking. Following the Cincinnati’s lead, both Cleveland and Columbus are now planning protected bike lanes of their own.

While much of the focus has been on core cities, Queen City Bike is also working with the Connecting Active Communities Coalition, which is comprised of representatives from nine communities in Cincinnati’s northern suburbs: Blue Ash, Evendale, Glendale, Lockland, Montgomery, Reading, Sharonville, Woodlawn and Wyoming. As of now, this group is working to develop a coordinated network for bicycling and other non-motorized modes of transportation on a multi-jurisdictional level.

Kentucky, meanwhile, ranked as the second worst state in the nation with just 18.3 points. This represented a 0.8 point drop from the previous year.

Episode #49: Ideas to Copy

Cincy Bus Transit MapOn the 49th episode of The UrbanCincy Podcast, Travis, Jocelyn, Jake, and Randy take a listener suggestion and come up with a list of ideas that Cincinnati should copy from other cities. We touch on the ideas like introducing ultra-high speed internet access, completely re-drawing the city’s bus route map, merging smaller municipalities together to gain efficiency, introducing an urban service boundary, and finding innovative ways to generate electricity. In a future episode, we’ll follow up with even more ideas that Cincinnati should consider copying.

All Aboard Ohio Meeting to Provide Update on Cincinnati to Chicago Train Service

Amtrak TrainAll Aboard Ohio will be holding their quarterly Southwest Ohio meeting in Over-the-Rhine next week at the Moerlein Tap Room.

Organizers say that they will be updating members, and all in attendance, on the progress of recent activities to develop daily train service from Cincinnati to Chicago, by the way of Indianapolis. The effort is perhaps one of the nonprofit organization’s biggest efforts since the 3C Corridor was notoriously cancelled by Ohio Governor John Kasich (R).

What seems to be different about this effort, however, is the fact that there is bipartisan support from the onset, including a rare unanimous vote from Hamilton County Commissioners supporting the study of such daily service.

Another early advocate has been Cincinnati City Council Transportation Committee Chairwoman Amy Murray (R), who will also be the special guest at All Aboard Ohio’s meeting on Tuesday.

Derek Bauman, SW Ohio Director for All Aboard Ohio, also says that they will update everyone on the construction progress for the Cincinnati Streetcar.

It is all part of an effort, Bauman says, to get more people involved in the process, and engaged on these important issues.

“Since being elected to the board back in May, I’ve spent the summer and fall building advocacy for daily service from Cincinnati to Indianapolis and Chicago,” Bauman explained. “We have made some great progress, yet have a long way to go.”

Some of the other success, he says, can be seen in the 60 new All Aboard Ohio members from the Cincinnati area that have joined in recent months. It is a number he is pleased with, but hopes will grow even more. As a result, the meeting at Moerlein Tap Room will be open to anyone who wants to attend.

All Aboard Ohio’s SW Ohio quarterly meeting is free and open to the public, and will take place at 6pm on Tuesday, November 18 at the Moerlein Tap Room in Over-the-Rhine’s Northern Liberties district. The location is well-served by Metro bus service and has free bike parking readily available. There are also two Cincy Red Bike stations located within two blocks of the venue.

Why did so few people vote in Tuesday’s election?

Election day was a great day for Republicans. It was was not, however, a good day for our democracy. President Obama notably commented on the fact that two-thirds of the nation chose not to participate in the election in his remarks the day after results came in. But perhaps most depressing is that Ohio set a record for the lowest turnout in history for a gubernatorial election. More from the Columbus Dispatch:

Ohio just set a modern record low for turnout in a gubernatorial election. And it wasn’t even close. Although provisional ballots and some absentees remain to be counted, the rate with all precincts reporting election-night totals to the secretary of state’s office is 39.99 percent.

The previous low since statewide voter registration data have been kept (1978) was 47.18 percent, when Republican Gov. Bob Taft won an easy re-election victory in 2002.