Climate change will lead to more deadly traffic accidents

A rendering of the proposed Cleveland Midway, a network of protected cycle tracks that would run across the city (courtesy of Bike Cleveland).

A rendering of the proposed Cleveland Midway, a network of protected cycle tracks that would run across the city (courtesy of Bike Cleveland).

In recent years, there has been a considerable amount of attention paid to transportation issues in climate change circles. This makes sense, given that the transportation sector is the second largest source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the United States. Mobile sources produced 1,806 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent (MMtCO2e) in 2013 (27%), trailing just electricity generation, which accounted for 21% of total emissions (2,077 MMtCO2e). Emissions from the transportation sector have also grown by 16.4% since 1990, making it the second fastest growing emissions source behind agriculture.

Accordingly, the Obama administration has taken a number of steps to address the issue. These include corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards for passenger vehicles, new investments in electric vehicles (EVs), proposed stricter rules for emissions from heavy-duty trucks, and the recent endangerment finding for GHGs from air travel. Each of these steps will be important if the US is to meet its goal to cut overall GHGs by 26-28% by 2025, as outlined in the administration’s pledge for the upcoming Paris Conference.

How climate change affects transportation

But the other side of this equation – how climate change will affect the US transportation sector – has garnered far less focus. The 2014 National Climate Assessment included a detailed chapter on the transportation sector, and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) manages a pilot program to help transportation agencies assess their systems’ vulnerability to a changing climate. We know, for instance, that more extreme rainfall could wash out roads, that sea level rise endangers coastal transportation infrastructure, and that accelerated freeze-thaw cycles may increase the costs of road maintenance. But much research in this area remains to be done.

A few weeks ago, Resources for the Future, a leading environmental economics think tank, released a report that examines one as yet unexplored issue – how climate change may influence traffic accident rates. I’ll admit that the idea that climate change could affect the number of car accidents in the US seemed a bit far fetched to me a first. People tend to jump through all sorts of hoops in order to connect everything to climate change these days. But this report provides a convincing case that, barring aggressive action both to cut carbon pollution and become more resilient, climate change could make our roads even more dangerous.

The connection between weather and traffic accidents

In order to explore the relationship between climate and traffic accidents, economists Benjamin Leard and Kevin Roth first examined existing evidence on how changes in weather patters affect accident rates. Using data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on the number of traffic accidents that result in property damage, injuries, and fatalities for 20 states, the authors identified the existing relationships between temperature and precipitation fluctuations and traffic accidents. When temperatures fall below 20ºF, accidents that result in property damage increase by 9.3%. The relationship between temperature and accidents that lead to injuries is weak, but it appears highly significant for fatal traffic accidents. In contrast to property damage accidents, fatal accidents are 9.5% more likely on days when temperatures climb above 80ºF.

The relationship between precipitation and traffic accidents is more complex. Both rainfall and snowfall increase the incidence of property damage accidents; when rain and snow totals exceed 3 centimeters, accidents increase by 18.8% and 43.3%, respectively. This effect changes when we consider accidents leading to injuries and fatalities. In the former category, rain and snow totals over 3 centimeters lead to 14.4% and 25.9% increases in accidents, a relative reduction of 23.4% and 40.2%, respectively, compared to property damage accidents. But Leard and Roth found that fatal traffic accidents are actually less common on days with rainfall. On days with 1.5-3 centimeters of rain, fatal accident rates fall by 8.6%; this result is highly statistically significant. In contrast, this same amount of snowfall leads to 15.5% more fatalities. According to the authors, these results indicate “that drivers behaviorally compensate for these conditions,” but these adjustments are not enough to reduce the elevated accident risk presented by snowfall.

Importantly, the study also finds a strong correlation between weather conditions and the number of trips people make by foot, bike, or motorcycle (the authors term these “ultralight duty vehicles,” or ULDs). Unsurprisingly, these ULD trips decrease significantly as temperatures dip below 40ºF and as the precipitation begins to fall. Put a different way, as the weather improves, an increasing number of people choose to walk, bike, or motorcycle. This increases their exposure to automobiles, elevating the risk that they may be the victim of an accident. Accordingly, when the authors removed pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists from their models, fatality rates fell by roughly half.

Climate change will cause more traffic fatalities

The authors then used these observed relationships to project how climate change could affect traffic accident rates in the future. They utilize the IPCC’s A1B scenario – a middle of the road scenario that assumes global temperatures will rise by around 4ºC – to project changes in weather and traffic accidents through the end of the century. According to the Climate Action Tracker, we are currently on pace for 3.6-4.2ºC of warming in the absence of further action, making A1B a good model for this study.

As global temperatures increase, precipitation will gradually shift from snowfall to rain. The authors find that this change will decrease the number of annual traffic fatalities by roughly 253. However, the changing climate will also induce an increase in the number of trips people take by foot, bike, and motorcycle – leading to an additional 849 traffic fatalities per year – which brings the net change to 603 additional deaths per annum. This spike in traffic fatalities will carry an annual cost of $515.7 million. All told, by 2090 climate change will lead to an additional 27,388 traffic-related fatalities in the US, carrying total costs of approximately $61.7 billion.

Now, I should note that this study does not explicitly address a few issues.

Research shows that as the number of pedestrians and cyclists increases, the chance that they will be struck by a car declines. Each time that the number of pedestrians and cyclists doubles, the risk that they will be injured in an accident falls by a third. But this decline in the relative risk of injury does not overcome the increase in the absolute number of injuries, which actually rises by a similar percentage. Leard and Roth’s study finds similar results. Furthermore, their use of fixed effects should account for this safety-in-numbers effect.

Moreover, the study does not directly account for the fact that expanding bike and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure tends to make roads safer and reduce the number of accidents. Protected bike lanes, for instance, can cut the risk of injury by up to 90%. To be fair, Leard and Roth admit that this is a potential shortcoming of their study, noting that failing to control for this effect “overstates the long-run impacts of climate change.” They also explicitly point out the important role that these types of interventions can play in climate adaptation planning,

Our results do not indicate that reliance on walking, biking, and motorcycling imply large fatality rates, as other developed English speaking and western European nations have per-capita fatality rates that are often less than half that of United States. Some countries like Sweden with extraordinarily low fatality rates have pursued a variety of urban design and legislative changes to reduce fatalities with policies such as replacing intersections with roundabouts to slow vehicles where they are likely to encounter pedestrians. Relatively simple changes like these may prove to be effective, although unglamorous, adaptation strategies to climate change.

How can this study inform climate policy?

I have two main takeaways from this study.

1. Climate change will affect nearly every aspect of our lives, and we will never be able to fully anticipate and prepare for it. That’s what happens when humanity performs a global science experiment on the planetary systems that facilitated the development of human civilization.

2. It provides even more evidence of the benefits of investing in better infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians, particularly when accounting for climate change. It emerges as a win-win-win.

Promoting active transportation is a vital component of any mitigation strategy, as every mile we don’t drive keeps roughly one pound of CO2 out of the atmosphere.

This type of people-centric infrastructure  also represents an important step that local governments can take to enhance their resilience to the impacts of climate change. We know that it may help to offset potential increases in fatal accidents due to climate change. But, more than that, it can also serve as a key lifeline to supplement existing road networks, which may be endangered by a changing climate. When roads are washed away and subway tunnels flooded, being able to ride your bike or walk to access resources and social services becomes that much more important.

Lastly, these types of investments would be valuable even in the absence of climate change, as they improve quality of life. Active transportation benefits air quality and public health, which reduces premature mortality and health care costs. Complete streets can also raise property values, increase business activity, create jobs, and make neighborhoods safer. All of these things make communities more vibrant and better able to withstand external shocks, whether from economic or climatic forces. In this way, pedestrian and cyclist-friendly infrastructure is exactly the type of no-regrets investment that climate resilience experts say we should be making now, regardless of the inherent uncertainties.

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.

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.

Why transit makes headlines in DC but not Northeast Ohio

joe biden rta
joe biden rta

Vice President Joe Biden speaks in front of a GCRTA rapid car during his speech in Cleveland last week (source WCPN).

I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about Northeast Ohio’s transportation issues lately (there’s more where that came from), in part because it seems to be a key entry point into discussions about environmental and social issues in the region.

In the past, when I’ve tried to just engage with like-individuals over environmental issues, it has been a bit more difficult to break through. I’m beginning to think that this may be due to the fact that a lot of the traditional environmentalists in this region are older and less likely to engage through new media. The younger, more social media-savvy activists seem to have found transportation as their cause célèbre, given its salience to the region.

The politics of transportation in Northeast Ohio

Clearly, most of the horrors that have befallen this region – out-migration, urban decay, poverty, racial segregation, declining social capital, loss of status – can all find their roots, at least in part, in the sprawl-based development model that has predominated for the last 60-plus years. Transportation and the political economy around it has emerged as a microcosm of everything that is wrong with the power politics of the region. In my post on the sin tax, I quoted Erick Trickey’s description of how the issue reflected Northeast Ohio’s political fault lines:

The best way to understand most Cleveland political debates isn’t party politics. It’s, do you believe in spending tax money on “public-private partnerships” that draw people and business downtown? Or do you thinks that’s corporate welfare, giveaway of money better spent on other needs? That debate has run through our politics for decades, from tax abatement in the ’80s through Gateway in 1990 through the convention center debate in 2007, to the sin tax rematch yesterday.

Transportation battles in this region, particularly the Opportunity Corridor, shake out along these same lines. The powerful, moneyed interests like the Greater Cleveland Partnership come out in support of major highway projects, and dutiful politicians eventually fall in line. The interests of people living within the City of Cleveland (or Akron or Youngstown or Toledo or Canton…) and the surrounding inner-ring suburbs tend to be drowned out by those of people living in the outer-ring suburbs.

These latter individuals frequently seem to believe (and I apologize for being reductionist here) that they have a God-given right to speed through urban centers as quickly as possible. Despite the fact that the Cleveland-Akron metro area has more freeway miles per capita than all but three other metros and that congestion here is almost nonexistent, the answer always seems to be MOAR HIGHWAYS.

freeway miles per capita

Freeway miles per capita for the top 11 metro areas, as of 2007 (courtesy of next STL).

This rift seems to play out most clearly and acutely in the gulf between how we fund highways and how we fund transit. I’ve already discussed Ohio’s utter lack of interest and seeming repulsion towards funding public transportation in this state. But while I can understand (though not accept) the political and economic realities that produce that imbalance, I cannot understand the sheer indifference that seems to exist within the region towards it. How often does The Plain Dealer or the Columbus Dispatch report on this issue? To quote my classmate John Noel, “Where is the outrage?!”

Cleveland vs. Washington, DC

Compare the way that public transportation is covered here to DC. Not to pick on Adam Serwer here, but if you follow a DC-based journalist like him on Twitter, you’ve no doubt seen that person complain on multiple occasions about issues with the DC Metro (particularly the Red Line). There are multiple blogs and sites dedicated to complaining about WMATA with names that range from Unsuck DC Metro to the NSFW “How Fucked is Metro?” In DC, every delay or malfunctioning escalator (and there’s a lot) is potential fodder for the 6:00 p.m. news.

In Cleveland, you’ll hear a couple of groups and read a handful of blogs discussing the issue. And this is not intended to take away from the important work that groups like Ohioans for Transportation Choice are doing or the solid coverage from sites like Rust Wire and GreenCityBlueLake. But can you imagine people in Cleveland unleashing anything like the cluster bomb of outrage that detonated over road closures during the filming of Captain America about problems with the Rapid or HealthLine? I sure as hell can’t.

The devil is in the demographics

gcrta ridership by year

GCRTA ridership numbers from 1978-2010 (courtesy of Cleveland.com).

So what’s the difference? Well, not surprisingly, I would argue that it largely boils down to the demographics of transit riders in the respective regions. WMATA is a major, viable, primary source of transportation for many people in the DC metro area. WMATA riders compiled nearly 344 million trips in 2012 (PDF), roughly 942,383 per day. Greater Cleveland RTA, the largest transit agency in Ohio, had just 49.2 million total rides last year. At its peak in 1980, that number was 129,691,743. Thanks to the great exodus from our cities, transit ridership fell by two-thirds in just 30 years.

According to a 2010 report (PDF), the median income for Metrobus and Metrorail riders swas $68,110 and $103,800, respectively. Compare that to GCRTA and METRO Akron. In Akron 90% of METRO riders reported making less than $20,000*, while roughly half of GCRTA’s riders have incomes below $25,000.

Obviously this gap reflects the broader income disparity between Northeast Ohio and the DC metro area, but it is still striking. Everyone rides the Metro in DC, from homeless individuals up to and including US Senators. While it’s true that a large number of professionals commute to work on transit in Northeast Ohio, the demographics are clearly skewed.

metro akron household income

Source: METRO Akron (via Jason Segedy)

Moreover, transit riders in Northeast Ohio often have few alternatives. Roughly 90% of METRO riders do not have regular access to a vehicle, while 38% of GCRTA riders say they lack both a driver’s license and a car. Just 19% of Metrobus and an astonishing 2% of Metrorail riders reported living car-free. Lastly, transit users in Northeast Ohio are also far more likely to come from communities of color. Seventy-two percent of GCRTA riders are African-American; compare that to Metrorail, where 76% of riders were White.

This is why transit makes the headlines in DC and remains a peripheral issue, at best, in Northeast Ohio. It’s a lot easier to raise an issue when it directly affects people with agency, power, and a voice. That’s not the case here. People continue to turn a blind eye to the appalling lack of safety and amenities for transit here, because they can just drive past it. We obsess over whether or not turning the West Shoreway into a boulevard will add 60-90 seconds to our commutes, and our representatives locally and in Columbus parrot that view.

Until people here are exposed to transit, it will remain the Other. And no one is going to raise hell to get funding for that.

Jason Segedy provided me with a copy of the METRO RTA On-Board Survey from Fall 2013. All Akron data are from this survey.

When your state doesn’t fund public transportation, you end up with this

bus stop at route 237 & Eastland Road
rta healthline buses

RTA HealthLine buses in downtown Cleveland (courtesy of Cleveland.com).

Jason Segedy, the remarkably progressive Director of the Akron Metropolitan Area Transportation Study (AMATS), the metropolitan planning organization (MPO) for the Akron area, has the full text of an interview he did with Mark Lefkowitz of GreenCityBlueLake up at his blog. In the interview, he discussed the changes that we need to make in Northeast Ohio in order to enhance public transportation and make it a viable alternative for residents. It’s well worth reading.

In the interview, Jason discusses what we need do in order to develop a big picture for public transit at both the metro and regional level going forward. But he also gets down into the minutiae that really affects the daily experiences of public transit users, including

things like improving rider safety (mostly perception of safety); ease-of-use (using smart phone technology to give real-time travel information and for electronic fare payment); improving transit waiting environments; improving walkability and bikability to transit stops; and working more closely with local governments and private developers to improve signage, wayfinding, and to institute transit-friendly urban design.

I have used public transportation extensively both in Cleveland and Washington, DC, where (despite all of WMATA’s many, many problems), living car free is actually a viable option. Unlike in DC, in Cleveland I cannot use a smart phone app to check when the next bus or train arrives, I cannot reload my fare card online, and I am often unable to escape the elements when riding the bus or rapid.

In many ways, as Jason pointed out yesterday, these types of quotidian issues are what really controls whether or not people will utilize transit. And one of the most crucial issues is that of rider comfort and safety. If people don’t feel safe from harm at bus stops and rapid stations, they won’t come back the next time. It’s no wonder that the Greater Cleveland RTA has to spend thousands of dollars on commercials assuring Clevelanders that taking the bus isn’t as bad as getting a root canal.

But, given the state of Ohio’s absolute refusal to invest in public transportation, riding the bus or rapid in this region can often feel like a chore. As a state, Ohio spends less public transportation than all but 3 others.

Funding for transit in Ohio has fallen by three-quarters (PDF), from $44.22 million in 2000 to just $10.87 million by 2010. And whereas other states provide, on average, 23% of total operating funds for transit agencies, Ohio contributes a whopping 3%. When you break it down on a per capita basis, the state spent just $0.94 per Ohioan in FY 2010, less than every other state in the Great Lakes region. Even that car-dependent state up North spends $19.98 per capita, over 21 times more than the Buckeye state.

Much of this stems from the fact that the Ohio constitution bars the use of gas tax revenues for anything but highway construction and maintenance, meaning that all transit funding must come from the state’s general fund. And of the minuscule amount of funding the state does provide, just 3% of it goes towards capital expenditures. As a result, without federal grants like the TIGER program, few, if any, new public transportation projects would go forward.

That virtual absence of funding for transit and ODOT’s infatuation with sprawl leads to situations like what you see below. This is an actual bus stop in Northeast Ohio. While I obviously haven’t seen every possible bus stop in the 7-county area, this is easily the most dangerous and least rider-friendly stop I have ever come across.

bus stop at route 237 & Eastland Road

An actual stop for the #86 bus alongside Route 237 in Cleveland (courtesy of Google Maps).

This bus stop is located where Eastland Road meets Route 237, just across from Hopkins Airport and the I-X Center. If you look closely enough, you can just make out the small, blue RTA bus stop sign.

Route 237 is a restricted-access highway with a 50mph speed limit. In other words, you aren’t even allowed to walk or bike on the road due to the dangerous speed at which traffic moves, but you can wait for a bus 3 feet away from passing cars. And if you need to cross to the other side of 237 for any reason, keep dreaming. There’s no intersection anywhere near it. I don’t know if anyone has been killed or injured waiting for a bus here, but if not, it’s just a matter of time. Ohio has completely abrogated its responsibility to fund alternate transportation, and the end result is this kind of nightmare for public safety.

So what are the worst/most dangerous bus stops you’ve come across in Northeast Ohio? Share you pictures in the comments or send them to me directly. Maybe we can shame ODOT into changing it’s reckless ways. Probably not.

The Opportunity Corridor is an environmental justice disaster

opportunity corridor map

Map of the proposed Opportunity Corridor path (courtesy of the Ohio Department of Transportation).

There is no question that environmental justice (EJ) is and has long been one of the key civil rights issues facing this country. While we may not think about the issue, perhaps because the environment is seen as some amorphous, natural entity, environmental quality varies significantly based on location and socioeconomic status.

Decades of research shows that poor communities of color are far more susceptible to the deleterious effects of air, water, and soil pollution (PDF) than other groups. Though the issue continues to loom large, the country has made progress over the last two decades.The EPA has an Environmental Justice division, an offshoot of Executive Order 12898, which President Clinton signed 20 years ago this February. All 50 states and the District of Columbia now have some sort of EJ legislation or policy on the books.

But despite these successes, much remains to be done. A new study from researchers at the University of Minnesota in PLOS One shows clearly that racial disparities in air quality remain a serious issue (PDF) for public and environmental health in the US.

The authors compared Census data to national information on exposure to nitrogen dioxide, NO2, one of six criteria air pollutants as set by the EPA. Based on the analysis, average NO2 concentrations were 14.5 parts per billion (ppb) for nonwhites, compared to just 9.9ppb for whites. Accordingly, nonwhites were exposed to 38% higher levels of NO2. Exposure also broke down along income levels.

no2 disparities by county

County level differences in population-weighted mean NO2 concentrations between low-income nonwhites and high-income whites (courtesy of PLOS One).

The authors note that these disparities, particularly the major gap along racial lines, likely leads to major public health impacts. They estimate that, if nonwhites had the same rate of NO2 exposure as whites, it would lead an annual decrease of roughly 7,000 ischemic heart disease deaths. To put that in perspective, 3.2 million adults would have to give up smoking to get this same outcome.

Air pollution and race in Northeast Ohio

As you might expect, there is a significant racial disparity in NO2 exposure within the Cleveland metro area. Based on the authors’ data, nonwhites in Cleveland are exposed to 2.3ppb more NO2 than whites on an annual basis. This constitutes the 17th largest gross disparity in the country. Much of the work on urban air pollution focuses on pollutants from stationary sources, particularly coal-fired power plants. But, if you actually break down the data in low-income, minority communities, pollution from transportation emerges as a major issue. In a 2009 report from the Pacific Institute (PDF), residents of Richmond, a low-income community in Northern California, identified freight transport as one of the leading environmental threats to their well-being.

Unlike other pollutants like CO2, SO2, or mercury, the EPA says that 57% of NO2 pollution derives from mobile sources (i.e. automobiles). That number is even higher for Ohio (65%) and Cuyahoga County (77%). NO2 has been linked to asthma, decreased lung function, low birth weight, and elevated risks of both cardiovascular and respiratory mortality.

Unfortunately, NO2 pollution represents a legacy of our country’s highly flawed history of transportation policy, which cut low-income and minority neighborhoods in half and facilitated White flight into the outlying suburbs. Due to such misguided investments, the CDC estimates that 11.3 million Americans live within 150 meters of a major freeway; 47% of these individuals are persons of color.

aerial photo of innerbelt bridge construction cleveland

Construction of the Innerbelt Bridge in Cleveland sliced right through existing residential neighborhoods, as shown in this picture from 1961 (courtesy of  the Cleveland State University archives).

How does the Opportunity Corridor fit into this?

It is in this toxic environment that ODOT and its allies are planning to drop the Opportunity Corridor, a 3-mile, $330 million highway in the middle of overwhelmingly low-income communities of color. I’ve already discussed some of the social and environmental challenges facing the neighborhoods in the path of the project. These neighborhoods have asthma rates nearly double the national average (PDF), and infant mortality rates have been as high as 69 deaths per 1,000 live births. That number is above the rates for Bangladesh, Burma, Haiti, Pakistan, and Rwanda. Many of these critical health issues are closely linked to transportation.

Air quality in Northeast Ohio

While air pollution data are not available below the county level, examining Cuyahoga County’s numbers paints a clear picture. Cuyahoga County ranks among the dirtiest 10% of counties in the entire country for cancer and non-cancer health risks stemming from hazardous air pollutants (HAPs). It also ranks in the worst 10% of all counties in Ohio, a state where people of color are 1.5 times more likely to contract cancer from HAPs and 3.3 times more likely to live near facilities that emit criteria air pollutants.

As the maps below demonstrate, the neighborhoods where the Opportunity Corridor would run bear an immense share of this burden. Children living in these areas have face dangerously high levels of blood lead contamination; this is a toxic legacy of decrepit housing, for sure, but also of a decades-long campaign to keep tetraethyllead in gasoline, despite ample evidence of its harm. (Neil deGrasse Tyson discussed this issue in great detail on Cosmos last week.) Lead is known to reduce cognitive function and cause behavioral issues in children, including aggression and hyperactivity.

 

cuyahoga county blood lead levels

Source: Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium

Transportation also represents an important source of fine particulate matter, particularly from heavy trucks/freight, which rely on diesel fuel. While mobile sources only account for 5.2% of PM 2.5 nationally, that portion increases to 12.3% in Ohio and 27.5% in Cuyahoga County; one can only assume it is even higher than this total within these neighborhoods.

We know that PM 2.5 is a leading cause of respiratory and cardiovascular mortality; it is also a dangerous carcinogen. A 2012 study found that reducing levels of particulate pollution in the US by 1 µg/m3 would prevent 34,000 premature deaths annually. In Cuyahoga County, which saw 12,809 deaths from PM 2.5 in 2009, such reductions would prevent 91 premature deaths, more than anywhere else in the state.

pm 2.5 mortality improvements

Source: CDC Environmental Public Health Tracking

Lastly, we know that NO2 is essential for the development of ground level ozone, another dangerous urban air pollutant. Cuyahoga County has consistently remained in nonattainment of EPA ozone standards; from 2006-2008, the County averaged 0.081ppm of ozone, one of the highest marks in the country. The American Lung Association gives the county and the city of Cleveland a solid F for ozone pollution.

All told, the burden of disease in these areas is substantial. Some areas along the proposed highway lose more than 500 years of potential life per 1,000 residents, easily the highest toll in the region. Given the potential of the Opportunity Corridor to exacerbate air pollution in the area, it’s hard to see how the project could avoid being a serious environmental justice issue that calls for appropriate planning and mitigation. Surely, ODOT is on top of this issue?

years of potential life lost northeast ohio

Source: Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium

Environmental justice in ODOT’s planning

Not quite. Inexplicably (though not really, when you think about it), ODOT’s draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) gave short shrift to air pollution (PDF). In the DEIS, ODOT states that the project “does not present concern for air quality,” as it is unlikely to significantly increase carbon monoxide or PM 2.5 emissions. The agency does note that mobile source air toxins (MSATs) will likely increase in certain parts of the project area, but it then dismisses this concern within the same breath. And ODOT completely punts on ozone, stating that the issue is NOACA’s responsibility.

The report’s environmental justice is similarly insufficient. While it does acknowledge that “the project was found to have a disproportionately high and adverse effect to low-income and minority populations,” it claims to address the issue by implementing a “voluntary residential relocation program” (read: forcibly relocating 74 families and 44 businesses for a pittance), throwing some money at a rec center, and building a few noise walls.

But again, in typical ODOT Orwellian fashion, it also states that the project will simultaneously benefit these low-income communities of color by, among other things, improving “access to the Interstate system” and increasing “pedestrian and bicycle access, connectivity and safety.” Apparently enhancing freeway access in an area where most households don’t own automobiles is essential for local non-drivers and great for pedestrians.

EPA criticisms of the Opportunity Corridor

The report includes little, if anything, in the way of plans to mitigate potential increases in air pollution due to additional vehicular traffic or to tackle the severe underlying health issues residents face. Unsurprisingly, EPA Region 5 has criticized the DEIS, saying it contains insufficient information on environmental concerns. The letter pointedly reminds ODOT that the Opportunity Corridor runs through areas that are in nonattainment for ozone and PM 2.5, barely meet four other air pollution standards, and have a series of major environmental justice issues. Simply mentioning these issues in passing so the department can check off another box isn’t going to fly with a project of this import.

I know I’ve said before that Northeast Ohio’s transportation policies are stuck in the 1960s. The Opportunity Corridor is an unfortunate reminder of this fact and of that terrible era of “urban renewal.” Residents of the so-called “Forgotten Triangle” – God I hate that moniker – have a fractious history with the state government, one that has, understandably, left them suspicious of ODOT’s motives.

Public meetings about the project have become contentious, and locals have raised a number of valid criticisms of the project. Yet, the wheel of “progress” inevitably rolls forward once again.

If ODOT ever hopes to garner public buy-in for the Opportunity Corridor, it needs to do more than meet the minimum possible standards. Failing to even mention criteria air pollutants like NO2 and SO2 and claiming that a massive highway project will enhance pedestrian safety isn’t good enough any more. The agency and the project’s supporters can and must do more than the bare minimum. Otherwise, the Opportunity Corridor risks becoming yet another one of Northeast Ohio’s environmental justice disasters.

 

Maintaining road quality is good for the climate & the budget

cleveland potholes
cleveland potholes

Driving down West 117th has been a real adventure this winter (courtesy of Cleveland.com).

It’s not exactly a secret that Cleveland’s roads are in rough shape right now. The city’s streets are pockmarked with potholes of all shapes and sizes, most of them enormous. The Scene recently parodied the issue, writing

After driving into a massive pothole at Clifton Boulevard and West 117th Street last week, Lakewood resident Harold Dreifer has now begun to live there. He tells Scene, “There was just nowhere else to go. It was a long fall down here; I decided that I may as well set up shop.”

While the City claims that this year has been relatively average, it does seem to be admitting it has been overwhelmed by the problem, as evinced by the fact that it is paying a private “pothole killer” $225 per hour to patch city streets. I have no doubt that I had to repair two flat tires last week in large part because of the fact that driving down my street is like driving down a Connect Four board lain on its side.

connect four

Connect Four: great for leisure, not so much for road surfaces (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Obviously much of this road quality issue stems from this year’s relatively brutal winter. January’s polar vortexes gave way to Cleveland’s 5th coldest February since 1964. This winter has produced 10 days with temperatures below 0°F, the most in three decades, and 66 days with at least a trace of snow (through February 28). The persistent cold and snow, followed by continual freeze-thaw cycles, provides prime conditions for potholes. It weakens the pavement, leads to continued plowing, and prevents road crews from repairing potholes in timely manner.

But other factors beyond the weather have conspired to create this problem. Since taking office in 2011, Governor Kasich has balanced the state budget on the backs of local governments. Over the past four years (two biennial budget cycles), the State of Ohio has pilfered roughly $1 billion from the Local Government Fund, the primary pool of state tax revenues available to municipalities. The 2012-2013 state budget alone cost the city of Cleveland $45 million in foregone tax revenues that could fund vital city services.

In this era of slashing government revenue to provide tax breaks for the wealthiest Ohioans, it’t not surprising that road maintenance has gotten short shrift. While investing in public infrastructure construction and maintenance can create jobs and generate a wide array of other benefits, it’s also extremely expensive. According to data from a 2008 report by Nicholas Lutsey, maintaining road surface quality, or “strategic management of pavement roughness” in academ-ese, is much less cost effective than other transportation sector options, as shown in the table below.

transportation sector cost effectiveness

Cost-effectiveness of various transportation sector policies. Note that lower numbers – particularly negative values – indicate more cost-effective options (courtesy of Wang, Harvey & Kendall).

But incorporating the value from reducing greenhouse gas emissions can change these ratios. According to Ting Wang, John Harvey, and Alissa Kendall, authors of a recent article with the incredibly captivating title “Reducing greenhouse gas emissions through strategic management of highway pavement roughness,” maintaining road quality is an excellent strategy for tackling climate change.

Road maintenance can reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the transportation sector because pavement roughness causes vehicles to lose energy as waste heat. As the authors note,

Because an improvement in smoothness immediately affects every vehicle traveling over the pavement, the cumulative effects on GHGs can be substantial in the near term.

According to their research, implementing optimal road maintenance strategies in California could reduce GHG emissions by 0.57-1.38 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent (MMTCO2e) per year in the state. The maximum value is similar to the annual GHG emissions of 300,000 passenger vehicles or, using the State Department’s extremely flawed analysis, the Keystone XL pipeline. Accounting for GHG reductions and total user costs, the cost effectiveness of maintaining pavement quality goes from $416 per ton of CO2 equivalent (tCO2e), a net loss, to -$710 to -$1,610/tCO2e, a major net benefit. Accordingly, incorporating the climate benefits of proper road maintenance can make the practice 2.75-4.9 times more cost effective for governments.

President Obama ordered federal agencies to incorporate climate change into their planning and policy making activities last fall. As this research demonstrates, this approach is a sound one, and municipal governments should follow suit.