Despite Progress, Cincinnati Not Viewed for Policy Leadership Across America

After surveying 89 mayors from around the United States, Boston University’s Initiative on Cities found that the chief concern amongst those surveyed was an increasing worry about maintaining and funding new infrastructure.

The analysis surveyed mayors from cities of varying sizes, including Cincinnati, and attempted to find the most pressing issues facing American cities.

With roads, mass transportation, and stormwater and wastewater management were the biggest concerns, the mayors specifically alluded to their historic reliance on the federal government as a partner in tackling these big-ticket issues. But more and more mayors around America have lost faith in both federal and state leaders in being reliable partners on large infrastructure projects.

In fact, a recent report authored by Aaron Renn at the Manhattan Institute looks at the issue many cities are facing when it comes to fixing combined sewer overflow problems. In the past, these infrastructure fixes were largely funded by the federal government, but have since become unfunded federal mandates that have led to enormous rate increases across the country, particularly in older cities.

Not all of the infrastructure issues were big ticket items. One such example was the support for bicycle infrastructure. Increasingly popular among America’s mayors, some 70% of those surveyed expressed their support for bike-friendly initiatives.

“Everyone understands that if you want to attract Millennials, you have to have biking infrastructure,” noted one of the surveyed mayors, who are allowed to remain anonymous, in the report. “And if you have bike infrastructure, you are going to upset people.”

Aside from infrastructure, major national news stories from 2015 seemed to factor into other concerns expressed throughout the country.

Those surveyed shared overwhelming support for reforms in policing, regardless of political party. Workforce development programs, initiatives to control rising housing costs, and policies focused on addressing poverty and inequality were all major issues of concern.

While housing prices were an area of major concern for those surveyed, there are large differences in opinion on how to tackle the issue. Some mayors expressed a willingness to emphasize affordable housing mandates even if it stymies development, while mayors of less prosperous cities were less likely to focus on affordable housing.

An area of potential concern for Cincinnati is that while it has gained national attention in recent years for its positive gains, many other mayors from around the country are not looking to the Queen City for policy guidance. Of those surveyed, Cincinnati was mentioned by less than 5% of them as a place they have looked at for inspiration.

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.

Here’s How Cincinnati Stacks Up When It Comes to Household Incomes

Recent data released by the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program shows that Cincinnati’s middle class slightly worse off than its Midwestern peers, but is about on pace with the national average.

The study, which categorized individual metropolitan areas and gave regional averages, ranked each city’s population based on six household income categories: Bottom 20% ($21,433 and below); Second 20% ($21,433-$41,109); Middle 20% ($41,110-$65,952); Fourth 20% ($65,952-$106,100); Next 15% ($106,100-$200,000); and Top 5% (Above $200,000).

Cincinnati’s percentage of households making less than $21,433, 34.9% of the city’s population, is significantly higher than the Midwestern and national average 25.1% and 20%, respectively. It is also significantly higher than Pittsburgh (27.9%), but lower than Cleveland (43.2%).

The percentage of households in the middle class (I defined this as the Second 20% and Middle 20%), however, is mostly even. Pittsburgh’s middle class population stands at 41.1%, with Cincinnati at 40% and Cleveland at 39.2%. Cincinnati also stands in the middle when it comes to the upper class, with Pittsburgh again leading and Cleveland trailing.

When compared with the rest of Ohio’s cities with more than 100,000 people, Cincinnati is found to have the highest percentage of Top 5% households, while also having the third highest percentage of Bottom 20% households. This, researchers say, follows a national trend where large cities are over-represented in both categories.

A perhaps startling trend is just how poor so many people are across the Midwest and Ohio.

Of Ohio’s four cities with more than 100,000 people, three of them – Cleveland (#2), Toledo (#4) and Cincinnati (#5) – all rank near the top in terms of the highest percentage of their residents falling within the Bottom 20%. While Columbus comes in at #29, this may be due to the city’s large municipal boundaries that account for areas that would in no way be considered part of any of the other three cities.

While, on average, the study found that Midwestern cities tend to have more low income households, and significantly fewer upper class households than the rest of the nation, it also found that Western and Northeastern cities each have high populations of those making over $200,000, although the Northeast has the highest percentage of households making under $21,433.

Researchers did note, however, that these numbers change somewhat when adjusting for cost of housing across metro areas.

Alan Berube, author of the study and a senior fellow and deputy director at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, also noted that despite media portrayals of some cities being entirely poor, and others being entirely wealthy, virtually all American cities still boast a large middle class.