planning organization charts new path to more sustainable transportation projects

The Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA) might be the most powerful planning agency you’ve never heard of. But if Grace Gallucci has her way, that is going to change: NOACA’s Executive Director, who’s been on the job about a year, plans to raise the agency’s profile and develop a more regional approach to transportation.

“We’re shifting because the times are shifting,” says Gallucci, who finally got the agency Facebook and Twitter accounts after intense criticism from local transportation activists. “We’re about thinking about transportation holistically -- not auto, bike, pedestrian or transit, but all of them. How do you give people more choices to get from A to B?”

Gallucci’s priorities are renewing NOACA’s focus on multimodal transportation (projects that include multiple modes of travel, like bike lanes and transit); developing a regional, fix-it-first approach that prioritizes existing infrastructure ahead of new road projects; and basing funding decisions on their regional economic development impact.

In the past, NOACA has been criticized for lacking a regional approach to transportation and focusing on projects that make it easier to drive instead of a broader approach that includes transit, biking and walking. Northeast Ohio’s population has declined by 10 percent since the 1970s, yet our road capacity increased during that period. Too often, parochialism also has driven the agency’s funding decisions, critics say.

“NOACA board members would get calls from constituents facing traffic congestion, and their priority might be widening a lane or adding an interchange,” explains David Beach, Director of the GreenCityBlueLake Institute at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. “If we continue on that course, we become less sustainable and promote more driving.”

Transportation activist and writer Angie Schmitt puts it less delicately. “If you were the mayor of a suburb and you’re on the board, you’d go try to bring home the bacon for your suburb -- and you didn’t give a sh*t about how it impacts other communities.”

While Gallucci faces huge hurdles, including navigating the politics of her board and charting a new course for an agency that’s developed plenty of inertia, she’s confident that the agency can make infrastructure investments that grow our region’s economy. “We need to make decisions that provide the highest return on our investment.”

Fix it first

NOACA is the metropolitan planning organization (MPO) for the five-county region, and its mission is to determine which proposed transportation projects (highway, bikeway and transit) receive about $50 million in annual funding. Led by mayors from across the region, it is supposed to make decisions based in part on environmental impact.

The problem is that over the years our transportation decisions have contributed to urban sprawl, and now there isn’t enough money to maintain existing infrastructure.

Gallucci doesn’t mince words when she talks about what happens if NOACA continues down the path of business as usual. “Some of the roads in our region are worse than in Third World countries. With our population declining and the number of lanes having increased, it’s simple math. If that continues, we will not have the money to repair our infrastructure.”

From Gallucci’s perspective, that clearly means investing in existing road infrastructure first. “We need to ensure roads we have are in good repair and others don’t fall behind.”

To that end, NOACA is embarking on an ambitious plan to assemble information on the condition of every highway, road and street across the five-county region, allowing the agency to make more data-driven decisions about future transportation investments. Gallucci says NOACA also will take a proactive approach towards reaching out to communities, rather than simply waiting for applications to come to the agency.

“When you invest in existing infrastructure, it’s a better solution,” Gallucci says. “You spend less money to do it, plus you capitalize on infrastructure that’s already there.”

Joyce Braverman, Planning Director for the City of Shaker Heights, which is set to break ground on its ambitious Van Aken District project early next year, says that Gallucci’s approach is a breath of fresh air and a needed change from past administrations.

“In the past, the transportation money has gone first-come, first-serve to whoever was savvy enough to make the applications,” she says. “This will take at least some of NOACA’s money and fix the worst roads first. I think that’s a good approach.”

Multimodal options

Across the U.S., demand has risen for more pedestrian- and bike-friendly communities, fueled in part by Millennials who are driving less and seeking transportation alternatives. Gallucci says she wants NOACA to help create the transportation system that will serve future generations, rather than the unsustainable, car-centric system that we have now.

“The Millennial generation wants something different,” she says. “They want choices.”

She cites as one example the Euclid Corridor Project, which many viewed skeptically but has now generated upwards of $4 billion in investment and was recently named the best U.S. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. RTA recently broke ground on a similar project on Clifton Boulevard.

Mary Shaffer, a spokesperson for RTA, says that Cleveland’s Health Line is now being looked at as the standard for BRT across the country. NOACA’s collaborative approach towards multimodal projects is welcome, Shaffer says, because she believes that projects like Clifton Boulevard will spur lasting urban revitalization in the city’s neighborhoods.

“Just like Chicago and New York, when you have quick access to transit, you’re golden, right?” she says. “Cleveland hasn’t typically responded that way. But now people are saying, ‘I want to be close to transit and I’m going to use it.’ That’s how cities work.”

RTA currently is benefiting from increased ridership. That increase in demand has allowed the agency to expand transit service by five percent in the past two years.

Another example is Detroit Avenue in Lakewood, which underwent a comprehensive $12 million redevelopment that has since generated $80 million in private investment.

“We’re coming off of a 50-year run when cars ruled, and that led to urban sprawl,” says Lakewood Mayor Michael Summers. “There’s renewed emphasis [at NOACA] on the urban core, fixing it first versus abandoning cities and building out into the suburbs. That’s very exciting, especially for cities like Lakewood that are in the urban core.”

The politics of sprawl

NOACA’s planning process will compile information on road conditions throughout the region and place it into a database. Roads will be ranked from 1 to 100 in terms of their condition. Right now, the agency estimates that it would cost $574 million to bring the roads that receive federal funding to a decent standard by repairing or repaving.

The agency, which relies largely on revenue from gas taxes, will spend about $760 million on roads between 2014 and 2017. Gallucci also has designs on tapping the state’s infrastructure bank, something that MPOs in Ohio have never done before, borrowing against future predicted revenues in order to keep roads in good repair.

Gallucci must first get her diverse, 45-member board to agree on regional priorities. Yet Summers, a NOACA board member, says that the board is ready to step up to the plate and embrace a more sustainable transportation strategy for all of Northeast Ohio. “It’s incumbent for NOACA board members from Cuyahoga County to work together,” he says. “I believe that the board has the structural capacity to address urban sprawl.”

Gallucci adds it’s not so much about city vs. suburb as it is about whether or not we’re adding jobs to the region. “It’s not about preventing one county from building, it’s about whether or not the project results in regional growth,” she says. “The problem has been when there’s no regional growth -- just jobs moving from one county into another.”

Beach says that Gallucci’s goals could be hampered by the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT), which has historically favored capacity-building projects to relieve congestion over multimodal projects that help reduce car usage. Her work will also be harder if urban sprawl continues, because these communities are built for cars. A potential bright spot is the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium (NEOSCC), which is developing a roadmap to help guide sustainable development in the region.

Although it will take a long time to reverse decades of auto-based development, Beach says patient investment will yield dividends. “A sign of success will be when you see NOACA start to say ‘no’ to projects that promote more driving and that money gets shifted to projects that promote a transport system that provides more choices.”

Lee Chilcote
Lee Chilcote

About the Author: Lee Chilcote

Lee Chilcote is founder and editor of The Land. He is the author of the poetry chapbooks The Shape of Home and How to Live in Ruins. His writing has been published by Vanity Fair, Next City, Belt and many literary journals as well as in The Cleveland Neighborhood Guidebook, The Cleveland Anthology and A Race Anthology: Dispatches and Artifacts from a Segregated City. He is a founder and former executive director of Literary Cleveland. He lives in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood of Cleveland with his family.