Ohio House budget slashes additional funding for public transit

ohio statehouse
ohio statehouse

The Ohio Statehouse (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Yesterday, the Ohio House passed its version of the state’s biennial budget, HB 64. The proposed budget, which is the largest in state history (by far), appropriates $131.6 billion in total spending for fiscal years 2016 and 2017. This includes $71.5 billion in General Revenue Fund (GRF) appropriations. The bill now goes to the Ohio Senate, which, based on reports from The Plain Dealer, will pay it no mind and develop a budget of its own. The next two-plus months should be…interesting.

HB 64 sets aside more than $700 million less than Governor John Kasich had requested in his budget proposal, which he released in February. Yet, according to Plunderbund, the GRF spending is still 43% more than the final budget passed under Governor Ted Strickland. Moreover, HB 64 far exceeds the cap on increased GRF spending set in place by the Republican-controlled stated legislature in 2006. As Plunderbund explains, while the State Appropriation Limit law dictates the state cannot increase GRF appropriations by more than 3.5% in any given year, this budget blows that (stupid) limit out of the water. Under HB 64, GRF spending would spike by 11.3% in FY 2016 and 4.7% in FY 2017.

Last month, I noted that the Governor’s budget increased GRF spending on public transit by $1 million per year, to $8.3 million annually for FY 2016-2017 from $7.3 million in FY 2014-2015. (According to Ohio Legislative Service Commission (LSC), the state actually spent $10,134,611 during FY 2014.) As I argued at the time,

This proposal represents the first year-over-year increase in state transit spending since 1998. Given that the state has reduced GRF spending on transit by an astonishing 83.5% since its peak in the year 2000, even this modest increase is kind of a big deal. While $1 million is a drop in the bucket in the big picture – it doesn’t even take the state back to 2011 funding levels – it may signal that Ohio is at least slowing the rate at which it has slashed transit spending. I mean, even a $1 increase would be notable in this environment.

Well, it looks like even this modest enthusiasm was misplaced. HB 64 does away with this additional funding, locking in GRF spending on transit at $7.3 million for the next two years. Whereas transit accounted for a pitiful 0.035% of the GRF in FY 2014, this number will decrease to just 0.02% in FY 2016 and FY 2017.

Let’s express that in per capita terms, shall we? Based on projections from state’s Development Services Agency, Ohio’s population will reach 11,549,120 this year. That should grow to roughly 11,554,270 and 11,559,420 in 2016 and 2017, respectively. Accordingly, the state will spend a whopping $0.63 per person on transit each year.

Clearly, Ohio does not prioritize public transit. To show how little our legislators care about this issue, I have collected a few other budget line items from the Ohio House’s budget, for comparison’s sake:

  • Ohio Grape Industries (spending to promote the state’s wineries): $970,000 per year for FY 2016-2017
  • Art acquisitions for public properties: $225,000 per year
  • Choose Life (state issued license plates to discourage abortions): $75,000 per year
  • Ohio State Racing Commission (“dedicated to the protection, preservation, and promotion of horse racing and its related industry components”): $31,535,000 million per year
  • Ohio State Fair Harness Racing: $235,000 per year
  • Coal Research and Development Program (a program to “development and implementation of technologies that can use Ohio’s vast reserves of coal in an economical, environmentally sound manner” LOL): $234,400 per year
  • Coal Research & Development General Obligation Bond Debt Service: $5,991,400 in FY 2016, $5,038,700 in FY 2017
  • Ohio-Israel Agricultural Initiative (a program to “improve agricultural trade and R&D ties between Ohio and Israel”): $200,000 per year
  • State printing costs: $21,568,075 in FY 2016, $21,688,106 in FY 2017

This is just a small selection of the things that Ohio lawmakers would rather fund than public transit.

We already know, for instance, that ODOT spends more money to mow the grass alongside Ohio’s highways than it does on transit. We’ll also apparently spend nearly $1.2 million to find “a less costly and easier way to cut the grass and manage the trees and shrubs along the state’s interstates and highways.” Oh, and did I mention that the state has set aside more than $200,000 for legal fees to uphold our ban on same sex marriage? But $1 million more for transit is unthinkable.

Sadly, I can’t even say that this budget passed strictly alongside party lines. That’s because, while 5 Republican representatives jumped shipped and voted against the bill, 3 Democrats actually voted in favor of it. All three of these legislators – John Barnes, Bill Patmon, and Martin Sweeney – hail from Cleveland, where nearly one-quarter of households lack access to a car.

One day, maybe we’ll break the car-centric fever raging through the Statehouse. Until then, we’ll just have to muddle through in a state that has no problem spending $429 million on a freeway bypass for a county that’s home to 25,000 people, but cannot find another dime for the nearly 250,000 people who ride transit each day (PDF) in Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Columbus.

Update: (4/24 2:20pm): To provide some additional context on just how far Ohio’s level of transit funding has fallen, I wanted to add the comparable funding data from 2000, the year in which transit funding peaked. In 2000, Ohio’s GRF reached $20.2 billion. That same year, the state spent $44.32 million from the GRF on transit. As such, transit expenditures accounted for 0.11% of total GRF spending, 10.6 and 11.12 times more than it would reach in FY 2016 and FY 2017 under the House’s budget, respectively.

I also had some questions about how I got the number of people who ride transit on a daily basis in Ohio’s three largest cities. I took the annual number of transit riders for each city in 2011 from the American Public Transit Association, summed them, and divided that number by 365. That total was 243,299.5 riders per day. Because this is averaged across the entire year, it obviously overestimates the number of riders on weekends and significantly underestimates the number of commuters on weekdays. It also fails to account for any of the other transit authorities in the state.

Cleveland is finally raising its parking rates, but they’re still way too low

cleveland parking meters

Parking meters in downtown Cleveland (courtesy of Cleveland.com).

William F. Buckley, the legendary publisher of The National Review, famously wrote that “a conservative is someone who is standing athwart history, yelling Stop.” If that’s the case, I guess that makes Councilman Zack Reed a dyed in the wool conservative – at least when it comes to parking – as he continues his crusade to keep Cleveland’s parking policies trapped in the 1960s.

If you recall, Councilman Reed is the person who pushed through legislation in 2008 to make on-street parking free on Black Friday throughout Cleveland, depriving the city of thousands in forgone revenue, year in and year out. Well, he’s at it again.

At its weekly meeting last night, Cleveland City Council approved legislation to raise parking rates in the city, as Leila Atassi explains. The legislation will increase downtown parking meter rates to $1 per hour from $0.75 per hour and raise the daily and hourly fees at city-owned parking lots by $1. Additionally, the city now has the ability to charge up to $30 per day for special event parking, up from the current $20 rate.

Every member of the City Council voted in favor of the bill, save one. Yes, Councilman Reed played the role of self-appointed champion of the people by voting no, arguing that the rate hikes are just another way to “gouge” the “hardworking, middle class folks” of Cleveland. Councilman Reed’s one-man battle to stand athwart history might be noble, if it had any basis in reality.

According to Michael Cox, the Director of Public Works, Cleveland has not raised parking fees in the city since 1989. Our parking policies are, quite literally, a relic of the Cold War era. The city’s parking rates are dramatically lower than those of comparable cities. Compare Cleveland’s rates to Pittsburgh, for instance. Effective January 1, Pittsburgh has charged $4 per hour for on-street meter parking in the downtown core; rates throughout the rest of the city vary from $1-3 per hour (with the exception of the Carrick neighborhood, where the hourly rate is $0.50).

Even with the new increase, Cleveland will only charge $0.75 per hour near hospitals and schools and $0.50 per hour in neighborhoods with meters. Pittsburgh has also had a residential permit parking system in place for 34 years, something that Cleveland has only recently even begun considering. Cincinnati, for its part, charges anywhere from $1.75-2.25 per hour in its central business district.

Cleveland’s failure to increase its rates in a quarter century has significantly decreased their real value. Due to inflation, the $0.75 a Clevelander paid to park in 1989 would be worth just $0.40 today. In fact, the new increase still fails to keep up with the rate of inflation. For the hourly rate to have the same value as $0.75 did in 1989, we would need to charge $1.42. It’s no wonder that the Division of Parking has been running in the red for years.

If Councilman Reed was really concerned about protecting the interests of working families in Cleveland, this should outrage him. The fact is that, because we have failed to raise parking rates, the City has had to prop up the Division of Parking by spending money out of its general fund. Every dollar that we spend to keep parking rates at below-market value is a dollar we cannot spend on our crumbling roads, improving our schools, or shoring up public safety services.

Moreover, approximately 75% of people attending Browns, Cavs, and Indians games hail from not just outside of Cleveland proper, but from outside of Cuyahoga County. This was a major issue in last year’s Sin Tax renewal campaign. Accordingly, by artificially suppressing parking rates, Cleveland residents are effectively being forced to subsidize the suburban sprawl that has hollowed out this region for decades. Cleveland simply cannot afford not to raise the cost of parking in our city.

This legislation is a step in the right direction, and I applaud the 16 Council members who voted in favor of it. But we still have a long, long way to go if we hope to rationalize parking policy in this city.

El Niño is here. What will it mean for Great Lakes ice cover?

lake erie ice

Over the weekend, temperatures finally climbed over 40ºF in Cleveland. Given the fact that the average temperature in February was all of 14.3ºF – by far the coldest February in our history – the mid-40s felt like a heat wave.

My fiancée and I decided to venture outside and headed down to Edgewater Park on Cleveland’s West Side. Edgewater, as the name suggests, sits along Lake Erie. We wanted to take an opportunity to see the lake before the ice really began to melt. Due to the frigid winter, the Great Lakes were once again covered in a thick layer of ice this year. Though we will likely remain just shy of last year’s mark, ice cover reached a peak of 88.8% on February 28. As set to continue running at or above normal, this number should continue dropping until the lakes are ice free sometime in late Spring. It has already fallen by more than 20% in the past 10 days.

We were far from the only people with this idea. While neither of us planned to actually head out onto the ice, we eventually decided to follow the pack. Someone had even decided to set up a tent on the ice a few hundred feet off shore to serve soup and coffee to passersby. At the time, I had no idea what the actual thickness of the ice we were walking on was. I flippantly estimated that it was several feet thick – a testament to my ignorance. I have since discovered, from the map below, that we were likely standing on a sheet of ice roughly 40 centimeters thick. Fortunately, that is thick enough to support a car.

lake erie ice thickness march 9, 2015

Courtesy of NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

El Niño arrives – finally

Just as the forecast was beginning to take a turn for the better last week, NOAA made headlines by announcing that El Niño had finally arrived. Forecasters had been warning about its impending onset for more than a year, so the announcement wasn’t exactly a surprise. As I stood on the ice last weekend, I couldn’t help but wondering how this phenomenon might affect ice cover next winter.

El Niño is the warm phase of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), during which a band of water water forms in the mid-tropic Pacific Ocean. The phenomenon is characterized by high air pressure in the western Pacific and low air pressure in the eastern reaches of the ocean. As Eric Holthaus notes at Slate,

Technically, for an official El Niño episode, NOAA requires five consecutive three-month periods of abnormal warming of the so-called Nino3.4 region of the mid-tropical Pacific, about halfway between Indonesia and Peru. It usually takes a self-reinforcing link-up between the ocean and the atmosphere to achieve this, and it finally appears the atmosphere is playing its part.

Generally speaking, El Niño brings above average temperatures to the Great Lakes region. Moreover, because the oceans have been storing vast amounts of heat over the past decade-plus, helping to limit the rate of global warming, a particularly strong El Niño could lead to a dramatic transfer of stored heat from the oceans to the surface. As a result, many observers are predicting that 2015 will be the warmest year on record.

El Niño and Great Lakes ice cover

It would be logical to assume that the onset of El Niño will limit the amount of ice that forms on the lakes. According to a 2010 NOAA study, from 1963-2008, 11 out of 16 El Niño winters saw below average ice cover. During these 16 winters, ice covered an average of 47.8% of the Great Lakes, considerably lower than the long-term annual average of 54.7%. As Raymond Assel, a scientist with NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) wrote in 1998 (emphasis from original):

On average, the average annual regional temperature is likely to be higher (approximately 1.2ºC and the annual regional maximum ice cover is likely to be less extensive (approximately 15%) during the winter following the onset year of a strong warm ENSO event.

But the connection between El Niño and ice cover is not quite so straightforward. In fact, three winters – 1970, 1977, and 1978 – saw above average ice cover, despite occurring during El Niño events. Ice cover during the latter two years exceeded 80%.

So what else is at play? Well, according to the literature, three factors must combine to produce a particularly mild winter for the Great Lakes region and, by extension, lead to extremely low ice cover like we saw in 1998, 2002, and 2012: the strength of the El Niño event and the modes of the Arctic and Pacific Decadal Oscillations. Let’s take a look at three these indicators to get a sense of what might be in store.

El Niño strength

Multiple studies have found that the relationship between these two factor is highly nonlinear. As this chart from Bai et al. (2010) shows, the scatter plot for ice cover and El Niño strength follows a parabolic curve. Accordingly, El Niño does tend to limit ice formation, but its effect is only significant during strong events.

Relationship between El Niño strength and Great Lakes ice cover (from Bai et al. 2010).

Relationship between El Niño strength and Great Lakes ice cover (from Bai et al. 2010).

But the current signs do not point to a strong event. As Brad Plumer explained for Vox,

Back in the spring of 2014, it really did look like a strong El Niño would emerge later in the year…

But then… things got messy. Atmospheric conditions over the Pacific Ocean didn’t shift as expected. Specifically, scientists weren’t seeing the change in atmospheric pressure over both the eastern and western Pacific that you’d expect during an El Niño.

As a result, NOAA appears to be tempering expectations about the strength and duration of this event. It is likely to be relatively weak and last through the summer, potentially limiting its impacts on the Great Lakes.

Arctic Oscillation

The Arctic Oscillation (AO) is among the most important factors that determines the severity of winter in the Great Lakes. The AO is “a climate pattern characterized by winds circulating counterclockwise around the Arctic at around 55°N latitude.” During its positive phase, strong winds around the North Pole effectively lock Arctic air in the polar region, helping to moderate winters. But in its negative phases, these westerly winds weaken, allowing Arctic air to travel further South; this is the phenomenon that caused the polar vortexes we have seen in the past two winters.

Accordingly, during the positive phase of the AO, less ice cover forms on the Great Lakes. From 1963-2008, positive AO winters have been 0.9-1.8ºC warmer than normal and seen a mean ice cover of 49.2%. The combination of an El Niño and a positive AO produced the five lowest ice cover totals during this period.

So where does the AO stand? Currently, it is in a positive phase. Unfortunately, it is difficult to determine whether this phase will persist, as the AO can fluctuate widely. But if this oscillation does remain in a positive phase next winter, it would amplify the effect of the weak El Niño.

Pacific Decadal Oscillation

Winter weather is also influenced by the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), “a long-lived El Niño-like pattern of Pacific climate variability” that helps determine sea surface temperatures in the North Pacific. Rodionov and Assel (2003) concluded that the PDO helps to modulate the impact of ENSO on the Great Lakes. Warm phases of the PDO tend to amplify the impact of El Niño and reduce ice cover.

Last year, the PDO emerged from its prolonged weak phase to reach record high levels. If it continues to remain strong, it will likely lead to warmer temperatures not just next winter, but potentially for the next 5-10 years. This would seem to suggest that the PDO will enhance the impact of the El Niño event next winter.

Conclusion

Overall, the picture is still a bit murky. It does not appear that the El Niño will be strong enough to produce the type of least ice cover event that we saw in 2012. Yet, at the same time, the combined effects of El Niño, a positive AO (should it remain that way), and a warm PDO (if the trend continues) will likely ensure that the Great Lakes region avoids another brutal winter, like the ones we’ve seen two years running. If this is the case, lake ice cover should regress closer to the long-term mean of approximately 50%.

But if the indicators strengthen in the next several months, the winter weather could moderate even more; this would have clear impacts for lake levels, lake-effect snow, harmful algal blooms, and local temperatures during the Spring and Summer months.

The Opportunity Corridor is just business as usual for ODOT

ohio transit funding
ohio transit funding

From ODOT’s “Ohio Statewide Transit Needs Study”

Over at Rust Wire, Angie Schmitt has a detailed assessment of the Opportunity Corridor, which, as of Monday, has been fully funded. As a result, despite some tinkering on the margins over issues such as the location and nature of bike lanes, the road’s design is pretty much set in stone. ODOT plans to put phase 2, which involves the construction of the new boulevard from Quebec Avenue to East 93rd  Street (phase 1 will widen East 105th Street), out to bid later this month; phase 3, the extension of the boulevard west to East 55th, will go out for bid sometime thereafter.

Schmitt walks through the ways that the road has been improved (or made less worse) and the issues that remain, one by one. It’s worth reading the whole post, if you’ve been following this project over the past several years. Obviously, I have my views on the road, but the project is a fait accompli at this point. One of the issues that she raises is the way that the project will affect transit riders:

We learned late in the process of this project that RTA, after months of denials, was considering closing both the East 79th Street rapid stations, in the heart of the project area. The RTA board has since decided these stations will remain open. But it is unclear where the money will come from to perform the repairs — which will cost at least $20 million. RTA has a $300 million maintenance bill coming due on its rapid system altogether and it certainly doesn’t have the money in its operating budget. RTA was able to negotiate $3 million from ODOT through this project for the East 105th street station, but how it’s going to raise the money for those other stations remains an open question. That is a less than 1 percent concession to transit from ODOT in this project, although the road bisects neighborhoods where 40 percent lack access to a car. I don’t know how anyone can consider this a fair distribution of transportation resources, but everyone just seems to be resigned to the idea that ODOT won’t give anyone money for transit.

Despite all the hype around how the Opportunity Corridor marks a shift for ODOT and would be some sort of model for future urban transportation planning in Ohio, this road is just business as usual from a state that puts cars ahead of people. ODOT has had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 1990s – forget the 21st century. The question of transit funding is emblematic of this larger trend.

Recall from last month my post on ODOT’s study on transit funding in the state. As I noted, the state of Ohio currently provides just $7.3 million per year for public transit from general revenue funds, equal to roughly 0.8% of total spending. Under Governor Kasich’s 2016-2017 budget, the state would increase that GRF contribution to $8.3 million, or a whopping 0.9% of spending. Accordingly, the Opportunity Corridor is just a variation on a theme – Ohio is apparently incapable of contributing more than 1% of funding for transit.

That ODOT study concluded that, within the next 10 years, the state of Ohio will need to increase its share of funding from 0.8% to 10%. That’s still a pittance compared to other states, which – as Greater Cleveland RTA CEO Joe Calabrese noted on WCPN – typically pitch in 20%. But it would a dramatic change of course here. If ODOT really cared about transit funding, perhaps it should have taken its own advice and increased the share of transit funding from the Opportunity Corridor to 10%. If the total project cost remained the same, that would have increased the money available to around $30 million, more than enough to offset the costs of upgrading the East 34th & 79th Street rapid stations. Of course, that didn’t happen, and it was never going to.

The more things change, the more they stay the same in this state.

At this rate, Ohio will fully fund transit sometime in the 22nd century

e 79th rapid station
e 79th rapid station

The nearly decrepit East 79th rapid station, which the Greater Cleveland RTA estimates will require $16-18 million in renovations to reach ADA compliance (courtesy of Cleveland.com).

Governor John Kasich released his biennial budget proposal for 2016-2017 last week, and there’s some good news for transit users in Ohio: the budget actually proposes increasing state transit funding! In this budget, the Governor lays out plans to increase the amount of money that the Ohio Department of Transportation allocates from the state’s General Revenue Fund to $8.3 million from $7.3.

This proposal represents the first year-over-year increase in state transit spending since 1998. Given that the state has reduced GRF spending on transit by an astonishing 83.5% since its peak in the year 2000, even this modest increase is kind of a big deal. While $1 million is a drop in the bucket in the big picture – it doesn’t even take the state back to 2011 funding levels – it may signal that Ohio is at least slowing the rate at which it has slashed transit spending. I mean, even a $1 increase would be notable in this environment.

ODOT transit funding study

But, about that bigger picture. Last December, ODOT released the preliminary results of a study it commissioned to explore unmet transit funding needs in the state. The report, from respected consulting firm Nelson Nygard, states that the state needs to double the amount of money it spends on public transit each year to meet projected demand. Moreover, just to fulfill unmet demand in 2015, ODOT would need to increase its transit spending by $289 million ($192 million in capital spending and $97 million in operating costs). As The Plain Dealer‘s Alison Grant noted at the time,

A decade from now, Ohio would have to be spending roughly double its $900 million annual outlay on public transit, or $1.8 billion, to meet expected demand. The ODOT study recommends that the state portion of the budget rise to 10 percent instead of today’s 3 percent.

In light of these realities, I decided to put the Governor’s budgetary outlay into perspective: does it really put Ohio on the right path to meeting transit demand? Does this increase in funding seem to represent an actual change in trends, or is it a minor blip for a state that will continue to lag behind its neighbors?

Placing Governor Kasich’s proposal in context

Let’s do some back of the napkin calculations, shall we? The Nelson Nygard study estimates that Ohio will need to spend $1.842 billion on transit from all revenue sources (rate payers plus municipalities, the state, and the federal government). In 2012, Ohio spent a total of $893.1 million. ODOT contributed $27.3 million, or approximately 3%, of this total, with $7.3 million from the GRF and $20 million coming from federal Flex Funds, which states can allocate to transit or highway projects. If the state increases is portion of total transit spending to 10%, as Nelson Nygard recommends, that would require a total investment of $184.2 million from ODOT, or an increase of 674%.

Accordingly, ODOT needs to come up with an additional $157 million in the next decade. Taking into account that the Governor’s current budget proposal would lock in spending levels through 2017, that reduces that time period from 10 to 8 years. So, to get to the levels suggested by ODOT’s study, Ohio would need to increase spending by $19.5 million per year, on average. That’s considerably higher than what the Governor is recommending.

Where would the Governor’s proposal leave us, then? Well, let’s consider 3 separate proposals. First, we will assume that the state increases GRF funding for transit by an average of $1 million per year (given that the state operates on a biennial budget cycle, this would likely mean that funding increased by $2 million each budget cycle). Second, let’s project that ODOT increases total transit funding by the same year-over-year rate that the Governor is proposing in his current budget. Going from $27.3 million to $28.3 million represents a 3.66% annual increase. Third, let’s be extremely optimistic and imagine that Ohio actually proposes increasing GRF funding for transit by the same rate as we find in 2016-2017 budget. Using the numbers provided, that would give us a 12.05% annual increase in GRF spending, which, of course, is little more than a pipe dream. But anyways.

Scenario 1: Increase of $1 million per year

This estimate isn’t exactly rocket science. Ohio needs to come up with another $157 million to meet projected needs for 2025. So at an annual increase of $1 million per year, the state is currently on course to meet 2025 demand in the year 2172. Now, that number is actually a bit misleading, because it doesn’t take into account inflation. As the total amount of money that ODOT contributes to transit grows, each $1 million funding increase gets proportionally smaller. Assuming a 2% annual rate of inflation (the average rate for the US economy since 2010), state funding would fail to keep pace with inflation starting in 2057. That would dramatically extend the end date for achieving full funding beyond 2172.

Perhaps even more depressingly, if we follow this same trend line, the state would not even return to year 2000 funding levels until 2052. Of course, that number once again fails to take into account inflation; the state would have to spend $60.93 million today to equal the real value of its $44.32 million investment in 2000. Another way of looking at it – the state’s current investment of $7.3 million is only worth $5.3 million in USD 2000. So, for Scenarios 2 and 3, let’s recognize that these quick calculations are nominal, not real, values. Real values would make things that much bleaker.

Scenario 2: Increase in total transit funding by 3.66% per year

If ODOT increased its annual GRF outlay for transit spending by 3.66% each year – a value which should keep pace with inflation, on average – the state would see its transportation funding reach $184.2 million in 2099, just in time to ring in the 22nd century. In nominal values, we would finally get back to year 2000 funding levels in 2063. This estimate is later than that from Scenario 1, as GRF funding grows at an annual rate greater than 3.66% through 2035 in that scenario.

Scenario 3: Increase in GRF funding by 12.05% pear year

Lastly, we get to run this wildly optimistic scenario, which has essentially no basis in reality. If the state continue to increase the amount of money it contributed from its general fund to transit spending at a rate of 12.05% per year, it would still take until 2043 to meet 2025 needs, in nominal terms. Hell, we wouldn’t even catch up to year 2000 funding levels until 2031! And just to emphasize how unlikely this scenario is, it would mean that, by 2068, the state would commit more just to public transit than ODOT will spend in total for 2015. Not happening.

Conclusion

Ultimately, as these scenarios demonstrate, Governor Kasich’s proposed increase in public transit funding hardly amounts to a drop in the proverbial bucket. And that’s only if it gets through the legislature untouched, which is highly unlikely. Keep in mind the Ohio House is more conservative than at any time in the state’s modern history, and the Tea Party generally frowns upon public transportation. Consider, for instance, the all out war on transit launched by the Koch brothers-funded Americans For Prosperity. It’s hard to see how Ohio can get itself on the right course in this current political environment.

I give the Governor credit for at least restoring a sliver of the transit funding that he has slashed since taking office in 2011, but we need to keep things in perspective. This state has consistently failed to support its citizens who rely on public transportation, and it will take a Herculean effort to fix the problem. Providing $1 million more per year is little more to putting a band-aid on a severed artery.

Minnesota’s DOT is ready for climate change. ODOT? Not so much.

duluth flood damage
duluth flood damage

Heavy damage to a road in Duluth, Minnesota following flooding from the Tischer Creek in June 2012 (courtesy of Minnesota Public Radio).

Climate change will have profound and diverse impacts upon infrastructure throughout the United States, including transportation infrastructure. Rising sea levels, stronger storm surges, more severe flooding, land subsidence, soil erosion, melting permafrost, and more frequent freeze-thaw cycles will all strain our already aging, deteriorating roads, bridges, and ports. The American Society of Civil Engineers has consistently given the country’s infrastructure a D or D+ on its annual report card since 1998, and the US slipped from fifth place in 2002 to 24th by 2011 in World Economic Forum’s transportation rankings. Throw in profound and unpredictable changes to the climate that facilitated the rise of human civilization, and you have a recipe for disaster.

It is for this reason that the President Obama’s administration has attempted to drag the federal government into the 21st century on climate change planning, despite considerable institutional inertia, not to mention stalwart opposition from Congressional Republicans and special interests. Just last week, the President issued an executive order requiring all federal agencies to include long-term sea level rise projections during the siting, design, and construction of federal projects. Planning for such changes and the threat of 100- and 500-year flood events, which will become drastically more frequent in a greenhouse world, will be of vital importance for the US Department of Transportation. Critical institutions are already at risk from near-term climate change. Parts of Oakland International Airport, for instance, could wind up under water during the daily high tide if sea levels rise just 16 inches.

But, given the complexity of our federal system of government and the aforementioned institutional inertia, the administration’s actions will take time to trickle down to the state and local level, where many of the daily decisions on transportation infrastructure construction and maintenance occur. While this fragmented structure has enabled some progressive state and municipal governments to take steps to combat climate change in the absence of meaningful legislation from Congress, it can also create a highly uneven system in which certain locales are far more inclined to incorporate climate change considerations in transportation planning. Given the fact that the roads, bridges, and ports we build today will likely still be in operation 30-50 years from now, each day that we delay increases our adaptation deficit – that is, the gap between our current level and an ideal level of adaptive capacity to a changing climate.

To demonstrate this uneven level of adaptation, consider the different approaches to climate change planning from the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) and the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT). This week, Minnesota Public Radio is featuring a series on climate change in the North Star State. An article this morning discussed how the state has adapted to more severe rainfall events in recent years.

In all three cases, whether officials say it in so many words or not, they are adapting their cities’ infrastructure to a changed climate, one that has been dumping more rain and bigger rains on Minnesota.

Warmer temperatures have an impact on infrastructure as well – more freeze-and-thaw cycles mean more potholes, for example. But because roads require relatively constant maintenance, road planners can adapt to a changing climate on the fly.

Not so with storm and wastewater systems, which are built to last as long as a century. That, say urban planners, is where the real challenge lies, and it is where some Minnesota cities have been focusing their efforts to adapt to climate change.

As the article notes, severe rain and flash floods have taken a drastic toll on infrastructure, including transportation systems, in recent years. Fortunately for Minnesotans, MnDOT has been leading the way in the effort to incorporate changing precipitation patterns and flood risks into planning. The agency recently completed an assessment of climate change risks to infrastructure in two districts, District 1 and District 6, which are located in the northeast and southeast portions of the state, respectively. In the introduction to the assessment, MnDOT writes,

Recognizing this, MnDOT planners and engineers have long considered minimizing the risk of flash flooding in the siting and design of the state’s roadway network. However, as has been the standard practice worldwide, they have traditionally assumed that future climate conditions will be similar to those recorded in the past. Climate change challenges this assumption and calls for new approaches to understanding vulnerabilities across the highway system and at specific transportation facilities so that appropriate actions, adaptations, can be taken to minimize expanding risks.

This project…represents a starting point for developing these new approaches. The focus of this pilot study is on flash flooding risks to the highway system. While flooding is not the only threat to the state’s highway system posed by climate change, it is likely to be one of the most significant and has already caused extensive disruptions to the transportation system in many areas.

If only Ohio had taken such a proactive approach to this issue. To be fair to ODOT, the agency does appear to be considering climate change in its planning process. There is a section devoted to the issue in Access Ohio 2040, the state’s long-term transportation planning vision. Perhaps strategically, the document refers to it as “climate variability” and completely bypasses the question of what is causing climate change. Now, the supplement to this section does touch on the fact that greenhouse gas emissions, including those from transportation, are driving the observed changes, though it does so somewhat halfheartedly. And then there’s the presentation on climate change infrastructure vulnerability that seems more focused on the potential benefits for the state from altering our extant climatic systems.

But, at least ODOT appears to have faced up to the issue. Access Ohio 40 calls for the state to complete a Statewide Climate Variability Study “within the next two years.” If the state meets this metric, the study should be finished by summer 2016, leaving the state roughly 18 months behind MnDOT. Now, I should note that, unlike ODOT, MnDOT’s assessment was one of 19 pilot projects funding by the Federal Highway Administration through its 2013-2014 Climate Change Resilience program. Then again, states, metropolitan planning organizations, and other entities had to actually apply to secure FHWA funding. I can find no evidence that Ohio bothered applying. Additionally, I have searched through the State of Ohio’s FY 2014-2015 transportation budget, and I find no evidence that the legislature has ponied up the $250,000-500,000 that ODOT stated it would need to complete its climate variability assessment. So I question whether Ohio is on track to finish the assessment by next summer.

And, even if ODOT has made some commitment to climate change adaptation at the strategic level – a highly dubious proposition – there is absolutely no evidence that this commitment has worked its way down to the project level. Consider the Opportunity Corridor, one of the largest projects currently being funded in the state. A handful of individuals and organizations submitted comments to ODOT’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) on the project, imploring the agency to take climate change into account. Here’s how ODOT responded in its Final EIS:

[I]t is analytically problematic to conduct a project level cumulative effects analysis of greenhouse gas emissions on a global-scale problem… Because of these concerns, CO2 emissions cannot be usefully evaluated in the same way as other vehicle emissions. The NEPA process is meant to concentrate on the analyses of issues that can be truly meaningful to the consideration of project alternatives, rather than simply “amassing” data. In the absence of a regional or national framework for considering the implications of a project-level greenhouse gas analysis, such an analysis would not inform project decision-making, while adding administrative burden.

In other words, we think your request is stupid and a waste of time, so nope.

ODOT does not operate in a vacuum. I’m sure there are a lot of good civil servants trying their best to meet the needs of Ohioans at the agency, but its direction is ultimately shaped by the elected officials in power in Columbus. Governor Kasich may at least pay lip service to climate change, but he has shown no inclination to actually act on the issue. Quite the contrary – he is responsible for signing SB 310 into law last June. Attorney General DeWine, for his part, is currently suing the EPA to stop its efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

And then there’s the GOP-dominated statehouse. The only reason Senator Bill Seitz will ever leave the legislature is through term limits, regardless of how many bombs he tosses about enviro-socialist rent seekers or the Bataan death march. And Senator Troy Balderson, the person who sponsored SB 310 and serves on the committee that regulates electric utilities, was blissfully unaware of the EPA’s plan to regulate coal-fired power plants a year after it was announced. It’s not exactly a shock that ODOT is a laggard here.

Those of us in Ohio who want an agency that is responsive to our desires to create an equitable, low-carbon, fiscally responsible transportation system need to keep pressuring ODOT, but we also need to win elections. Until then, our civil servants and public officials will keep their heads firmly lodged in the sand.

Watch: Find out why rivers change their courses in 3 minutes

cuyahoga river 1917 straighten
cuyahoga river 1917 straighten

A 1917 plan from the federal government to straighten the crooked Cuyahoga River (courtesy of Cleveland State University).

Rivers. They’re pretty amazing things. They provide humans with water for drinking, irrigation, and sanitation. They give us fish and other aquatic animals for food. They can be harnessed to power grind our grain, run our looms, and even power our cities. Their seasonal floods can bring rich silt to our fields or destruction and devastation to our lives. Sometimes, with just a little bit of help, they can even catch on fire. It’s no mistake that the first major human civilizations – Egypt, Mohenjo-Daro, Sumeria – developed along the banks of the world’s great rivers.

But rivers are much more than servants of (wo)man. They are dynamic ecosystems rich with biodiversity that shape and are shaped by the world around them. Any entity that can literally carve the Grand Canyon is pretty damn powerful.

And so rivers change. They top their banks, meander downstream, shift their paths. Sometimes, rivers even stop, turn around, and travel in the opposite direction. Rivers are not the static, shaped bodies that we encounter, but living, breathing systems.

It’s exactly this dynamism that humans don’t seem to like. We don’t like things that are beyond our control. We like to make things knowable, predictable, manageable. So we applied the logic of urban planning to one of the most complex systems in the world. We filled in urban rivers and sent them through channels and culverts. We built artificial banks out of concrete and steel to keep rivers contained. We constructed elaborate systems of dykes, dams, canals, and sluice gates so that we could regulate the seasonal pulses of the Mississippi and the Nile. We even dreamed up cockamamie schemes to make crooked rivers straight. These efforts to regulate rivers have created their own severe side effects – riverbank erosion, declining biodiversity, reduced silt delivery, sedimentation, and altered flood risks. We’re only beginning to face up to these unintended consequences.

So we know that, left to their own devices, rivers will constantly change. But have you ever wondered how and why? Well, wonder no more, thanks to this new video from Minute Earth. If you have three minutes to spare, you can learn a lot about fluid dynamics, fractals, and how muskrats decorate their dens.

(h/t Mental Floss UK)

Don’t blame it on the rain: On the root causes of Northeast Ohio’s flooding problems

Floodwaters submerged vehicles in the parking lot at Great Northern mall in North Olmsted on May 12 (courtesy of Cleveland.com).

“Après moi, le déluge” – King Louis XV (1710-1774)

Northeast Ohio has a flooding problem, as anyone affected by the severe storms last evening can attest. The region has experienced at least four major flooding events in the past few months, the most serious of which occurred five months ago on May 12, when torrential rains caused widespread flooding in several communities.

As the hydrographs below demonstrate, this severe deluge caused several rivers and streams to overflow their banks throughout the western and southern portions of Greater Cleveland. Flash floods also occurred in several areas; one raging flash flood nearly washed away a vehicle containing legendary meteorologist Dick Goddard, who apparently did not heed that famous National Weather Service saying: “turn around, don’t drown.”

This hydrograph displays the streamflow for three Northeast Ohio rivers – the Vermilion River (red), the Black Creek in Elyria (green), and the Rocky River in Berea (blue) – as measured by the US Geological Survey during May of this year. As you can clearly see, the streamflow in each of these rivers spiked drastically on May 12-13, due to the extreme precipitation during that period. Both the Vermilion and Black Rivers exceeded their respective flood stages (courtesy of USGS).

Who is to blame?

Since these floods occurred, people have been looking for answers or, in many cases, someone to blame. Those individuals whose property and piece of mind were damaged by the floodwaters have, in many cases, been understandably and justifiably upset, even angry. Many of these people have turned their anger at their municipal governments for failing, for one reason or another, to prevent the floods from occurring. This anger bubbled over in some instances, leading to highly contentious public meetings, such as the one in North Olmsted during which a resident got on stage to publicly rebuke officials and call for citizens to sue the city. Residents of other municipalities, including Olmsted Township and Strongsville, are also considering class action lawsuits, accusing their cities of negligence for not investing in adequate infrastructure upgrades.

City officials, for their part, have found a different scapegoat – the rain itself. And there can be no question that the rain in some areas in the past few months has been downright biblical. North Olmsted endured 4.44 inches of rain – more rain than it receives, on average, for the entire month of May – in a couple of hours on the 12th. Put another way, that amount of rain would be equivalent to roughly 44 inches of snow. Strongsville, in turn, saw 3.58 inches of rain that evening, just under its monthly average rainfall of 3.66 inches for May.* The following month, Cleveland suffered a similar fate. The 3.54 inches that fell on June 24 made it the fourth rainiest day for the city in the past century.

Yet, major rainfall events are not uncommon for Northeast Ohio during the summer months; in fact, they are the norm. On average, roughly 40% of the total precipitation in the Midwest each year falls during just 10 days; almost all of these days occur during the summer months, when high heat and humidity can lead to major convective storms. But, what is different is the frequency with which these types of flooding events are occurring. Residents in many of the affected communities have testified that they have experienced floods on a semi-regular basis over the past 10-15 years.

Don’t blame it on the rain…or the sewers

While it may be convenient to blame these floods on the rain, it’s not that simple. As the (handful of) people who have perused this blog in the past have no doubt grown tired of reading, there’s no such thing as a “natural” disaster. Rather, disaster risk is the combination of a natural hazard, our physical and economic exposure to the hazard, and our socioeconomic vulnerability. If 4 inches of rain falls in the middle of an uninhabited tract of some national park in Montana, it does not constitute a disaster. In a sense, for disasters, if a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to see it, it really doesn’t make a sound.

So, while it may make sense for people to blame inaction by public officials or the heavens for floods, these simply represent the proximate causes of the disaster. We cannot hope to address the real issue at hand by focusing simply on these; that is the equivalent of treating the symptoms of the illness. Rather, we need to focus on the root causes, which one can identify through this disaster risk lens.

Since I cannot readily or adequately examine the various facets of disaster vulnerability for every community affected by this summer’s floods, I want to focus instead on the other two components of the disaster risk triad – natural hazards and exposure. Increases in extreme precipitation events due to climate change and Northeast Ohio’s ongoing sprawl problem, respectively, account for much of the apparent spike in flooding events throughout the region over the past several years. I explore each of these below.

Natural hazard: Climate change and precipitation in Northeast Ohio

Logically, the more rain that falls over an area, particularly within a limited period of time, the higher the likelihood that a flood will occur. We already know that, based on simple physics, as global temperatures increase, the amount of moisture in the air should also rise. According to the Clausius-Clapeyron equation, the atmosphere’s capacity to hold water vapor increases roughly 7% for each 1ºC increase in atmospheric temperatures. This should lead to two general outcomes. First, it will take the atmosphere longer to reach its point of saturation, which may lengthen the periods between rain events for many areas, contributing to droughts. Conversely, because the amount of water vapor available for precipitation also rises, rainfall events should become more extreme in nature. As Dr. Kevin Trenberth put it in a 2007 study (PDF),

Hence, storms, whether individual thunderstorms, extratropical rain or snow storms, or tropical cyclones, supplied with increased moisture, produce more intense precipitation events. Such events are observed to be widely occurring, even where total precipitation is decreasing: ‘it never rains but it pours!’ This increases the risk of flooding.

We are already witnessing this intensification of rainfall in the US, particularly in the Midwest.  According to the latest National Climate Assessment (NCA), total precipitation has increased in the Midwest by 9% since 1991. Over the past century, certain parts of the region have seen precipitation totals climb by up to 20%. This increase is due largely to a spike in the frequency of extreme precipitation events. From 1958-2012, the amount of precipitation falling in very heavy downpour events jumped by 37% in the Midwest. This statistic helps to explain why, of the 12 instances in which Cleveland received more than 3 inches of rain in a day during the last century, 7 have occurred since 1994.

heavy downpours by region

One measure of heavy precipitation events is a two-day precipitation total that is exceeded on average only once in a 5-year period, also known as the once-in-five-year event. As this extreme precipitation index for 1901-2012 shows, the occurrence of such events has become much more common in recent decades. Changes are compared to the period 1901-1960, and do not include Alaska or Hawai‘i. (courtesy of Climate Central).

Unless we take action quickly to reduce our carbon emissions, this situation will only get worse in the coming decades. The NCA projects that, under a business as usual scenario (RCP 8.5), Ohio will see such extreme precipitation events four times more frequently by the end of the century.

extreme precipitation events projections

The increase in frequency of extreme daily precipitation events (a daily amount that now occurs once in 20 years) by the later part of this century (2081-2100) compared to the later part of last century (1981-2000) (courtesy of the National Climate Assessment).

Exposure: Sprawl and flooding in Northeast Ohio

I’ve also written extensively in the past about Northeast Ohio’s problems with sprawl-based development (see here for examples). As I wrote one year ago today,

Northeast Ohio has suffered from decades of sprawl and uncoordinated development patterns, leading to waves of suburbanization followed by exurbanization. In 1948, Cuyahoga County’s population stood at 1,389,532; just 26% of land in the county was developed at the time. Yet, by 2002, although the county’s population had grown by a mere .32% to 1,393,978, sprawl ensured that roughly 95% of the county’s land area had been developed.

cuyahoga county land use in 1948 & 2002

Changes in land use within Cuyahoga County from 1948 (left) to 2002 (right). Red shading indicates developed land, while the beige indicates land that is still undeveloped. The maps clearly demonstrate the decentralization of the county over the last six decades (courtesy of the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission).

We’ve come a long way since 2002. The heyday of sprawl appears to be on its last legs, as the combined effects of the Great Recession, the rise of the Millennial generation, and the gradual retirement of the Baby Boomers has led to a resurgence in the number of people living in walkable urban areas. Multiple sources have proclaimed the end of sprawl; this trend even appears to be taking root in Atlanta.

Cleveland has tried to position itself to follow this emerging trend. The city was recently ranked 10th most walkable among the largest 30 metro areas, enjoys a 98.3% residential occupancy rate downtown, has unveiled a plan to double the amount of bike routes in the city by the end 2017, and has seen a rise in transit-oriented development.

Given all of these positive indicators, why would I suggest that sprawl has increased the frequency and intensity of floods over the past decade-plus? Well, simply put, because it has. While it’s impossible for one to  deny all of these positive indicators, one also cannot ignore the facts.

In its Measuring Sprawl 2014 report, Smart Growth American ranked Cleveland 153 of 221 metros on its sprawl index. The median score was 100; cities with scores over 100 were more compact, while those with scores less than 100 were more sprawling. Cleveland scored an 85.62 (PDF), placing it below other regional metros, including Detroit (12th), Milwaukee (15th), Chicago (26th), Akron (111th), Dayton (116th), Toledo (117th), Pittsburgh (132nd), and Columbus (138). Cleveland does outperform some other nearby metros, including Indianapolis (158th), Cincinnati (166th), and Youngstown (175th).

Moreover, a recent study out of the University of Utah suggests that from 2000-2010, the Cleveland metro area became even more sprawling (PDF). Using Smart Growth America’s sprawl index, the authors examined the rate of change for the 162 largest metro areas (paywalled) during this period. While Akron actually became 2.7% more compact, Cleveland sprawled by another 13.3%, the 10th worst change of any metro area. Though the city’s number improved since 2010, our 85.62 in 2014 is still lower than the 86.01 that we had 14 years ago.

So why does this all matter for flooding? Well, simply put, areas that follow sprawl-based development models are more likely to suffer from flooding problems. Sprawl increases the percentage of land area that is covered with impervious surfaces, such as parking lots, roads, and driveways. As the extent of impervious surfaces rises, so too does the amount of precipitation that winds up as surface runoff during storms. Forested areas are excellent at controlling stormwater (PDF); trees enable 50% of precipitation to infiltrate the soil and allow another 40% to return to the atmosphere through evapotranspiration. Urbanized areas, in contrast, drastically reduce the amount of water that can infiltrate into the soil, guaranteeing that 35-55% of precipitation ends up as runoff.

As Hollis (1975) has shown, urbanization increases the incidence of small flooding events 10-fold (paywalled). Additionally, if 30% of the roads in an urban area are paved, major flood events with return periods of 100 years or more tend to double in magnitude. Northeast Ohio has more than 48,000 acres of impervious surfaces, equivalent to approximately one-third of the region’s land area. Accordingly, we fall directly into that danger zone for major flood events due, in large part, to our development patterns.

Secondly, because so much of the county is already developed, many new developments are being built in existing flood zones. In December 2010, FEMA released its first comprehensive flood zone maps for Northeast Ohio since the 1960s. Unsurprisingly, these maps show a dramatic increase in the number of people living in flood zone areas, due to the outward expansion of development. Thousands of people woke up one day to find out that they had been living in a flood zone, and they were none too happy to learn that they would now have to shoulder some of the cost of that decision by purchasing federal flood insurance. Interestingly, the gentleman who filed the class action lawsuit against Strongsville over the flooding lives in a housing development in one of these flood plains.

Lastly, sprawl directly contributes to climate change by leading to additional greenhouse gas emissions. Suburban areas account of 50% of the US’s total emissions, despite being home to less than half of the population. While households in downtown Cleveland produce just 26.5 tons of GHGs annually, that number skyrockets to 85.6 tons for Gates Mills residents. Because transportation accounts for such a high portion of the average family’s carbon footprint in this region, our sprawl problem has directly resulted in additional carbon pollution.

Conclusion

There is no question that flooding represents a real threat to the quality of life of people living in Northeast Ohio. Those individuals who have been directly affected by it have every right to be upset and to demand answers. Unfortunately, however, it appears that we are losing sight of the forest for the trees. Focusing exclusively on the proximate drivers of these floods may seem like a good idea, but it allows us to escape examining the real, underlying root causes. Until we step up and begin to shift our regional development patterns away from those centered on sprawl and rampant fossil fuel use, this flooding problem will only get worse.

 

*It’s worth noting that Strongsville is one of eight suburbs that have sued the Northeast Ohio Sewer District to fight the implementation of its stormwater management program. The case went before the Ohio Supreme Court on Tuesday. Obviously, this action runs directly counter to the city’s interests. While the stormwater management program will lead to an increase in rates, it is also the only chance we have to begin managing runoff as a region, which is essential not only for flood control but for improving our water quality and fighting harmful algae blooms. Additionally, a portion of the revenues from this fee would be made available for cleaning up after floods and helping to prevent future flooding. Perhaps that’s why, after the May 12 storms, North Royalton withdrew as one of the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case. This region desperately needs the investment that will come from this program, through Project Clean Lake, though I strongly encourage NEORSD to invest a greater portion of the program’s funds into green infrastructure, which is vital for controlling floods and filtering water.

Perception isn’t reality, reality is

Perhaps you have heard that a certain fellow named LeBron James has decided to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers basketballing organization. To take his talents to the North Coast, if you will.

Now, I had no plans to write about this episode, if for no other reason than I think my experience has been so very ordinary and in line with that of many Northeast Ohioans. I was ecstatic when the Cavs won the draft lottery in 2003 and kept LeBron here, and I was a huge fan throughout his seven years in the wine and gold. When he left for Miami in 2010, I was dejected and pissed. I openly cheered against him and found the Heat’s loss in the 2011 NBA Finals extremely cathartic. He had failed on the biggest stage, just like he couldn’t single handedly will a mediocre Cavs team to beat the best franchise of the last 15 years in the 2007 Finals. Suddenly all of those things that people said about him not performing in the clutch, which I vociferously denied for seven years, were instantly true. It was petty, and I reveled in it.

I thought I had moved beyond that crap after that series, but a certain level of resentment remained. I don’t know why. I started to get my hopes up last summer, when all of the local talking heads started speculating that LeBron could return this summer, though I was certain it would never happen. I mostly wanted the Heat to lose the Finals this year to see what might happen, and I was overjoyed when he announced he was coming back to Cleveland last week. I had slowly come to realize that he did what was best for him in 2010, both personally and professionally, and I couldn’t really fault him for that.

I also always knew that LeBron had a clear, intimate connection to this region, something which I’ve always respected. And he was probably the first person I’ve ever seen to bring national light to the strange, unproductive tension that simmers just below the surface between Cleveland and Akron. It’s an issue that I have become acutely aware of in my professional life over the past year. At this point, I just want to put all of this nonsense behind me and move on with my life.

So, like I said, my experience was completely unremarkable and not worth commenting upon. I also found much of the national media narrative as dull as it was predictable. LeBron acted as the bigger man to forgive and take back his jilted former lover. His return to this strange little corner of the universe that he inexplicably loves will bring a little light and validation into our otherwise dreary, unremarkable lives. Yawn.

What does irritate me are the posts from locals who attempt to present themselves as somehow above the fray, who seem to view this spectacle like an anthropologist observing some “primitive” tribe, confused as to how sports can actually matter to people. Then there are those who have tried to turn this story into a Christmas tree, hanging whatever their pet issue or cause may be on it like one more tacky ornament your mom bought at the Hallmark store in 1993.

The latest version of this came from an unexpected source, Jeopardy! champion and Cleveland-area transplant Arthur Chu, who has picked up on the argument that life in Cleveland is difficult, because we’re pessimists. As he writes at The Daily Beast,

It’s the reason well-meaning Cleveland PR reps can’t win when they try to throw up “positive messages” about the growing Cleveland tech market or the beautiful Metroparks or the local music scene against the image of Cleveland as one big decaying slum—that image is coming from Clevelanders.

Unsuprisingly, Richie Piiparinen, perhaps the most vocal advocate of this theory, praised the piece. Now, I generally have nothing against Arthur or Richie; both of them are obviously intelligent, thoughtful people (Arthur’s winning streak would suggest he’s a hell of a lot smarter than me), and I read their work with interest. But I take great umbrage with this line of reasoning. Richie had previously outlined it in a guest column for The Plain Dealer, writing

Cleveland’s negativity is a challenge to the city’s future.

…For Cleveland to change, it needs a critical mass of people who aren’t blinded by the city’s past failures. Whether they are newcomers, like our Texas friend, or folks who are pulled in by the prospects of a Rust Belt revitalization, the effects are the same: new voices and ideas that will help create a new reality.

…As a born and bred Rust Belter, you tend to get used to the narrative of decline. It’s oral tradition. The problem with that is when the social norm is to accept decline as fate, there’s less agency to help change your city’s destiny.

At best, this argument is a gross oversimplification of the real issues that we face as a region. Not to mention that it seems to suffer from some real analytical issues. If we are to assume that pessimism is the independent variable in this equation, and it leads to neglect, abandonment, and poverty, then we have to conclude that Cleveland’s pessimism is a completely exogenous variable; that is, we have to pretend it exists in a vacuum. Am I honestly supposed to believe that negative outlook is completely distinct from decades of population loss, shuttered factories, rising unemployment, a decade-long foreclosure crisis, and – yes – the added fact that our sports teams have endured 50 years of almost comical futility? It’s fallacious to argue that A lead to B, when we know that A has been inherently shaped by B.

At worst, this argument amounts to (as Arthur even admitted in his piece) victim blaming. It’s tantamount to telling a child growing up at East 79th & Grand Avenue, where the poverty rate is 79.1%, that all she needs to do is smile harder, and she can overcome her debilitating circumstances. Ignore the fact that poverty is expensive, that it lowers your IQ, that it increases your risk of suffering a chronic illness, that economic mobility has evaporated in the US and is nearly nonexistent in Cleveland. Just keep on the sunny side of life.

poverty e 79th & woodland

More than half of Cleveland’s children live in poverty. In this census block, located near East 79th & Woodland, an astonishing 87.1% of all households live below the poverty level (courtesy of The New York Times).

But it’s gauche to point out these problems in Cleveland. LeBron’s decision and the earlier selection of the city for the 2016 RNC prove that Cleveland is undergoing something of a renaissance. New businesses are opening; the city is getting positive press; certain neighborhoods are in-demand, driving up rental prices; we’re seeing an influx in younger, educated residents.

These positive developments have seemingly given rise to a new trend in Cleveland – the shameless boostering. There has been a clear shift in the past decade away from decrying the real and perceived issues in the region to relentlessly celebrating everything that is new and, therefore, good.

In a lot of ways, this trend isn’t entirely new; it’s actually an offshoot of our very real inferiority complex. The notion seems to be that we need to act as cheerleaders for every new project, idea, or business that pops up, no matter how impractical or pointless it appears. And don’t dare get caught questioning the practicality or utility of any of these projects; if you do, you’re the real problem.

Cleveland apparently exists in some strange metaphysical ecosystem where perception is reality. The inferiority complex is so deeply ingrained in our DNA that people are convinced that confronting our issues is more dangerous than ignoring them. The problem isn’t that we have actual problems, but that people always talk about them.

We’re told, time and time again, to stop bringing up our problems, because the real issue is that “the city is suffering from a marketing and recruitment strategy letdown.” I guess that this region works on the theory of quantum entanglement: if you observe a problem, it automatically becomes manifest.

But the idea that in order to truly love a city, you must never criticize it is ridiculous. That’s not love; that’s some childish infatuation. The people who espouse this argument don’t live in the real Cleveland. No, these boosters only focus on the part of Cleveland in which they reside or travel. Their infatuation with this tiny sliver of Cleveland amounts to little more than narcissism. It provides people with the ability to delude themselves into thinking they are single-handedly saving Cleveland every time they visit Market Garden or Fahrenheit.

I love microbreweries and food trucks as much as the next guy, but pretending that piling more of these into the confines of Ohio City and Detroit Shoreway will cure what ails us is preposterous. Cleveland is 77.7 square miles in area, not just the 4-5 square miles certain people frequent.

All of this is not to say that there aren’t good projects going on in Cleveland. There are. These include the Uptown development in University Circle, the Sustainable Cleveland 2019 initiative, and the new proposal to redevelop East 55th around St. Clair/Superior. And I am cautiously optimistic that these recent positive trends – yes, including LeBron’s return – may help add some additional momentum to the city’s slow rebirth. But they still represent a drop in a much larger bucket, and we have a lot of ground left to cover.

Unfortunately, too many Clevelanders seem to have convinced themselves that we can save this city by dancing around on the margins. But that’s never going to work. When you’re dealing with problems this big, you need systemic change. The first step in that process is to acknowledge that the problems exist in the first place, which is exactly what we’re not doing. The world is changing quickly; if you don’t keep moving, you’re bound to fall behind. But it’s even worse to stand still while continually reassuring yourself that you’re keeping pace.

In Cleveland, we’re told not to rock the boat, for you might get wet. Well, the boat has been sinking for more than 5 decades at this point. We can either get a little wet now, or we can all drown later.

Burn on, big river

1952 Cuyahoga River fire
1952 cuyahoga river fire

The 1952 Cuyahoga River fire, a much more serious event, has historically been confused for the 1969 fire after Time Magazine used this image to bring attention to the nation’s environmental issues. In reality, the 1969 fire was a relative nonevent, and no one even had a chance to take a picture of it (courtesy of Teaching Cleveland).

Forty five years ago today, the Cuyahoga River caught fire (for the 13th time). While this was nowhere near the largest or most substantial of those dozen fires, it did prove to be the most significant historically. The attention the fire gained combined with other significant environmental disasters – including the 1969 San Bernandino oil spill – to help catalyze action. The 1969 fire contributed directly to the passing of landmark environmental legislation, including the 1972 Clean Water Act and the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act. Today, the Cuyahoga River has largely recovered from the dark days before 1969. While it may not be pristine, it’s also not an open dump for every sort of toxic and organic effluent you can imagine. They used to say that you could tell what color paint Sherwin-Williams was producing by looking at the river. Now, the fish are back, the Scranton Flats Towpath is about to open, and members of the Cleveland Rowing Foundation can be seen passing up and down the bends of the crooked river on a daily basis. In some ways, we should all be thankful for that 1969 fire. It came at the right time to produce real, positive change. But, fortunately, these days, the Big River burns on only in our memories.