A new report issued today by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (US PRIG) includes Cleveland’s own Opportunity Corridor as one of the most questionable road projects in the nation. Some of these projects are worse than Opportunity Corridor, like a $2.7 billion expansion of a highway though Detroit, a double-decker highway expansion in Milwaukee, or a $1.5 billion dollar construction of a highway through downtown Dallas, all of which would cut off rebounding neighborhoods and do little to relieve traffic. The report reviews eleven proposed highway projects across the country, slated to cost at least $13 billion!
How did we get to this point? Well, since the 1940s, the US has experienced a seemingly endless cycle of new highways which sparked new, automobile-oriented development that led Americans to drive more miles in their cars. As Americans drove more, they paid more in gasoline taxes, which was spent building more and bigger highways to alleviate the congestion that inevitably arose on the initial batch of highways. The newly uncongested highways sparked more sprawl, which led to more driving, which further increased gas tax revenues and paid for more lane-miles to address the new congestion problems. I call this the highway-industrial complex. This insanity continued until recently, when growth in vehicle travel slowed, then stopped, then finally reversed.
What stopped the endless growth? Workplace decline due to boomers working longer, high gas prices, urban resurgence, increase use of transit, and millennials who are driving less. Those damn millennials are the largest generation in the country and drove 23 percent fewer miles in 2009 than in 2001. Also important to note that millennials will be the primary users of transportation infrastructure that we build today, begging the question why spend billions building this shit if the future generation isn’t even going to use it?
In fact, we don’t even need to wait to see that we are driving less. Today Americans drive three hundred billion fewer miles per year than if the “Driving Boon” had continued. Aware of this, the question is if people are driving less, is the $331 million, 35 MPH extension of I-490, formally known as “University Circle Access Boulevard,” really a good investment for our fair city?
Scene has discussed the Opportunity Corridor at length
in the past, but just to rehash it for you, Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) is promoting the “Opportunity Corridor” as a $331 million, three-mile, five-lane road construction project starting at the end of I-490 at E 55th Street and running northeast to University Circle. The name Opportunity Corridor was given to sell the idea that somehow building a road will bring “Opportunity” to the neighborhoods which have experienced blight in large part due to redlining (though ODOT believes the blight is not due to redlining but lack of “highway access”). I’m not sure what lack of access ODOT is referring to since I have done this drive from the westside daily and it takes about 10 minutes to get to the highway. It would be too simple an idea for ODOT to complete a time study to demonstrate how much time is saved by this expensive boondoggle, but they have no plans to do this.
Setting all that aside, it’s ridiculous that the project being sold as an opportunity for neighborhoods though the St. Hyacinth neighborhood, near the E. 55th St rapid station, would be destroyed to create a highway ramp, just so commuters can save a minute by making a right turn instead of a left. So to be clear, this is definitely not an opportunity for neighborhoods but for commuters. Even ODOT states “in early 2001, east-side workers who lived west and south of downtown told the Innerbelt study team that they wanted a connection from I-490 to their workplaces without having to travel the indirect route.”
But do commuters really need this road in 2014? The report doesn’t think so, stating that expanding road capacity is a questionable investment given recent travel trends in the Cleveland area. Specifically, vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) in Cuyahoga County rose an anemic 0.3 percent from 2000 to 2013, an annual average of 0.02 percent. Furthermore, 30-40% of households do not own a car, and ridership on the regional transit authority has been increasing. If this project was truly about the neighborhoods, wouldn’t ODOT reach out and use more of the money towards developing communities where people don’t have to drive as much since so many people don’t have cars?
That is not the case, as the $331 million price tag is larger than the annual budget of the RTA. To be fair, ODOT has stepped up for some small improvements to mitigate impacts of the road, but it’s not enough. ODOT has offered to build two pedestrian/bicycle bridges over the new road, improve bus shelters and access to the E 105th Street rapid station. Community residents, however, say most of that work wouldn’t be needed if not for the new road itself, and in any case it’s not enough to boost local economic development. Furthermore, the improvements are wholly inadequate, the fact being that RTA is studying the possible closure of the E 79th street rapid station nearby because they do not have the funds to make it handicap accessible.
If this Opportunity Corridor was truly about the neighborhoods, ODOT could at least throw RTA a bone to keep the station open. Instead ODOT has been hostile towards public transportation, cutting funding by 83% since 2000, leaving Ohio as 47th overall in the nation in public transit funding. ODOT and transportation agencies around the country need to reevaluate how they spend our money. After all, nationally the federal government has been hurtling toward a “transportation fiscal cliff” with the potential insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund. Locally we are choosing to take on more another new and expensive road instead of maintaining our crumbling roads. Overall, it’s too bad the highway-industrial complex won’t just die before we go bankrupt, and I think that’s what the US PRIG is trying to tell us if we’ll stop and think for a minute.
“Americans have been driving less, but state and federal governments are still spending billions of dollars on highway expansion projects based on outdated and obsolete assumptions,” said Phineas Baxandall, Senior Analyst at U.S. PIRG and a co-author of the report. “The time has come to shift our resources to invest in 21st century priorities, like fixing our roads and bridges and providing more Americans with a wider range of transportation choices.”
The full report can be found here.