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.

Grandin Properties To Celebrate Ribbon Cutting For $2M Hogan Building Restoration

Roughly two years ago UrbanCincy reported that Grandin Properties had been awarded nearly $400,000 in historic tax credits from the Ohio Development Services Agency. The past 24 months have proved fruitful, and neighborhood leaders now intend to celebrate a ribbon cutting for the $2 million project on Tuesday.

The developers say that the Hogan Building is already 50% leased, and that the 12 residences range from $995 per month for one-bedroom units, up to $2,395 per month for two-story, two-bedroom units with decks.

The restoration work brings two historic structures back to life that are now 138-years-old.

The project is named after Ohio Attorney General Timothy Hogan for his courageous role in defending German immigrants during the anti-German hysteria during World War I. Interestingly enough, Hogan is also the grandfather of Peg Wyant – the Founder and CEO of Grandin Properties.

“Few in any age have the courage to stand up to such hysteria,” Wyant said. “On behalf of two high school teachers of German, he filed suit against Ohio demanding preservation of the right to speak and use and teach the language of ones choosing.”

Wyant went on to say that Hogan won that case, which has since become known as the German School case in the Supreme Court of the United States.

The Hogan Building, of course, also represents a win for the State of Ohio’s bold historic tax credit program which is seen as saving hundreds of buildings and spurring millions of private investment throughout the state.

“This is public-private money coming together,” explained David Goodman, Director of the Ohio Development Services Agency. “Saving historic buildings strengthens Ohio’s communities which attracts businesses and visitors to the state.”

The conclusion of work at the Hogan Building also comes just after Grandin Properties announced an intention to raise $5 million to $10 million in private equity to spur even more redevelopment work in Over-the-Rhine. To date, Grandin Properties has completed seven projects tallying nearly $10 million in private investments.

Denis Back served as the project architect, while Hudepohl Construction worked as the general contractor. The property was sold to Grandin Properties by 3CDC. It was financed through PNC, with financial support from the City of Cincinnati and Ohio Development Services Agency.

Those interested in touring the remaining available units can do so by contacting leasing@grandinproperties.com or (513) 871-7110. Those looking to participate in the ribbon cutting festivities are encouraged to arrive at the project site, located at 1317 and 1319 Republic Street, by 10:30am on Tuesday, January 12.

How Do You Want OKI To Shape Future of Region’s Transport Network?

The OKI Regional Council of Governments is in the midst of updating its 2040 Regional Transportation Plan. In the early stages of developing this plan, they region’s designated metropolitan planning organization is looking for feedback regarding the types of transportation and land use policies it pursues over that time.

As of now, agency officials are looking for public feedback in the form of an online survey that takes less than five minutes to complete. It asks the public what kinds of transportation modes should be prioritized, where the region’s transportation network is lacking, whether maintenance or expansion should be prioritized, and how you currently and would like to get around for your daily needs.

Planners at OKI say that the results of this public input will help define what types of transportation improvement recommendations are made in June 2016. This is critically important since OKI serves as the regional authority in charge of administering federal transportation dollars.

Over the past four years this has included $86.3 million for 77 roadway projects, $22.9 million for 12 transit capital improvements, and $6.6 million for 15 bicycle and pedestrian projects.

As with any planning exercise, the OKI 2040 Regional Transportation Plan (2016 Update) is based on a number of factors to help guide decision-making.

One of the most important baseline factors is population growth and the distribution thereof. For this, OKI is using 2010 Census data, and its preceding decades, as the baseline for future forecasting.

As a result, OKI is projecting that Hamilton County will lose 2% of its population between now and 2040, thus resulting in a loss of regional population share from its 40.1% today, to 35.4% in the future. In fact, based on those prior trends, OKI believes that Hamilton County’s population will stand at approximately 790,000 in 2020 – down from the 802,374 baseline in 2010.

The problem with using these historical trends is that Cincinnati has seen a dramatic turnaround over the past decade – one that has reversed Cincinnati and Hamilton County’s long population loss trend. This has been reflected in the latest population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, which say that Hamilton County has actually gained population since 2010, and now has approximately 806,000 residents. Meanwhile, growth in the region’s outlying counties has slowed down considerably based on historical trends.

This is important because leadership at OKI has consistently said that it needs to continue to accommodate growth in the region’s outlying counties, which means funds that could otherwise be directed toward mobility, safety and maintenance improvements are instead spent on capacity expansion.

While there may be an overstated importance placed on the need for capacity expansion, OKI planners do acknowledge the need to improve the mobility, safety and maintenance of the regional network. Of the plan’s eight stated goals, none of them include, with perhaps the partial exception of Economic Vitality, the need to add capacity.

“In addition to its economic impacts, transportation also plays an important role in the region’s quality of life,” the report states.

“Transportation improvements have an effect on development, travel patterns and opportunities for all the region’s citizens. The transportation system should be balanced so that no group or groups of people assume a disproportionate share of positive or negative impacts.

The survey will remain open until Friday, January 8. After that time OKI officials say that their staff will begin formulating a draft project list to recommend for funding. Once that list is completed, OKI will host five public involvement events in the spring to gather feedback on the recommended projects.

Now’s the time to speak up.

Building Code Changes May Allow Higher-Density Midrise Construction

Changes adopted in the 2015 International Building Code (IBC), combined with advances in wood technology, may soon allow for taller midrise buildings at lower costs than what has previously been possible.

The importance of the changes to the IBC should not be overlooked, since it serves as a model building code throughout most of the United States. This means that states and local jurisdictions who lack the expertise to develop their own building code typically adopt a code written by an independent standards organization such as the International Code Council.

In fact, all 50 states and the federal government now use variations of the IBC, with the exception of Chicago which remains as the only major city in the United States with its own proprietary building code.

Under current codes, and with typical construction technology, the upper limit for a wood-frame building is five stories atop a one-story steel or concrete “podium” base that may include retail spaces, parking and/or other functions – essentially treating the two components of the building as two independent structures. What the revised IBC does is allow for the height of this podium base to be increased to more than one story, and recognizes the use of newer technologies such as cross-laminated timber in building construction.

This update does not yet apply to projects in Ohio, as the state has not yet adopted the 2015 version of the IBC. Also, height limits set by the IBC are distinct from those set by local zoning codes. In the case of a conflict between the provisions of two or more applicable codes, the more stringent provisions typically apply.

Such “One-Plus-Five” buildings are becoming increasingly common in American cities as neighborhoods within urban cores once again become desirable places to live. Local examples include U-Square at The Loop in Clifton Heights and the Gantry Apartments in Northside, both designed by Cincinnati-based CR Architecture + Design.

This building type and the forthcoming code changes offer a number of opportunities and challenges for urban neighborhoods.

The code changes are potentially good news for both the environment and affordable housing advocates. Wood construction, when it utilizes sustainable sources, is far less damaging to the environment than steel or concrete construction. It is also far less expensive, allowing new housing to be built and sold at a lower price point than would otherwise be possible.

The biggest concerns with multifamily wood-frame construction typically involve fire safety and noise transmission. Fire sprinkler systems are required throughout such projects; and while no fire protection system will ever be completely fail-safe, sprinklers prevent small fires from becoming large fires. In addition to the sprinklers, fire-rated assemblies prevent a fire from spreading from one portion of the structure to another. For example, the two-hour rated wall typically required between apartments usually consists of two layers of 5/8″ drywall on each side of 2×4 studs.

These and other measures also help prevent sound transmission between apartments.

As anybody who has lived in a large apartment building can attest, noisy neighbors can be a constant source of frustration and often form the bulk of complaints to the landlord. With wood-frame construction, the addition of resilient channels between the finish ceiling and the joists above, as well as a thin layer of concrete between the sub-floor and finish floor, can drastically reduce sound transmission.

None of this is intended as a commentary on the architectural merit of such projects, nor their appropriateness in particular neighborhoods. Building codes such as the IBC are almost solely concerned with matters of life safety and accessibility, while matters regarding density and appropriateness for a particular neighborhood would fall under the purview of local zoning codes.

As for architectural merit, such matters are up to the developer, the architect, and the community. Good taste isn’t something that can be dictated by statute.