New images show how freeways tore apart Cleveland’s neighborhoods

Carnegie-Ontario 1951

Earlier this week, Chris Olsen of ESRI uploaded some amazing aerial maps of Cleveland into ArcGIS, which document the land use changes in the region over the past 65 years. As we all know, since 1950, while Cuyahoga County’s population declined from 1950 to the present, the remaining population has spread out throughout it and neighboring counties. As a result, whereas just 26% of the county’s land was developed in 1948, this number exploded to 98% by 2002.

One of the major factors contributing to this trend was the development of the interstate highway system, which began after the passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. Accordingly, the aerial maps from 1951 provide us with a snapshot in time just after the City of Cleveland’s population reached its peak of 914,000 and just before the highway system helped usher in decades of population loss and decline.

But, beyond just aiding the movement of people out of the City of Cleveland and into the suburbs and – eventually – exurbs, these images demonstrate the extent to which the Interstate Highway System devastated wide swathes of the city. Whole neighborhoods were torn apart as homes and businesses were demolished to make way for freeways. It would take decades for many of the neighborhoods carved up by these freeways, such as Tremont, to stem the associated decline. Other neighborhoods, such as Slavic Village and Clark-Fulton, have yet to rebound. The images below display what some of these areas looked like in 1951 and how these same areas look today, six decades later.

Gateway District (Downtown)

This image displays the southern reaches of downtown Cleveland, including the eastern end of the Lorain-Carnegie (Hope Memorial) Bridge and what is now known as the Gateway District. While this portion of downtown was densely developed through 1951, the construction of the Interbelt beginning in 1954 radically altered the area. The replacement of the Interbelt Bridge, which has since become functionally obsolete, is still ongoing.

Campus District (Downtown)

These images document the changes in the Campus District around Cleveland State University. CSU, which did not exist until 1964, has taken over a significant portion of the eastern section of downtown in recent decades. But this area was also divided in two with the construction of Interstate 90.

Slavic Village/East 55th Street (Near East Side)

Further east, we find the area around Cleveland’s Industrial Flats and East 55th Street. This neighborhood has seen its fair share of ups and downs over the years. The railroad depot in the upper right-hand quadrant was formerly known as Kingsbury Run; this was the location of the infamous Cleveland Torso Murders of the 1930s that eventually ended Eliot Ness’ career in law enforcement.  This same railyard is now the primary rail hub for the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority. Ultimately, the images display the extent to which the construction of I-90 and, later, I-490, drove a massive wedge into this area. While the continuation of I-490 further east fortunately never materialized, the controversial Opportunity Corridor is essentially the reboot of this project.

Tremont/Industrial Flats (Near West Side)

Heading southwest across the Cuyahoga River, we find ourselves on the southern fringes of Tremont. Much like the areas around East 55th, Tremont has been broken into four sections by the junction of I-90/Interbelt and I-490. This newly trendy, gentrified neighborhood had historically been home to low-income, blue collar workers of various ethnic groups. When I-90 broke off the neighborhood off from Ohio City, located just to its northwest, Tremont entered into a decades-long decline.

Clark-Fulton/Stockyards (Near West Side)

Further southwest of Tremont is the Clark-Fulton neighborhood. This area, too, has historically been home to blue collar workers, hence its other moniker – the Stockyards neighborhood. The construction of I-71 and Ohio Route 176, which break apart in the upper right of the modern image (near the Alcoa plant) brought about the bulldozing of much of this neighborhood.

West Boulevard/Cudell (West Side)

Lastly, this image shows the change in area around West Boulevard/Cudell. This neighborhood has become notorious as the location where Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann killed 12-year old Tamir Rice. But if you drive down West Boulevard or West 98th Street, you can see that, decades ago, this area was home to upper middle class Clevelanders. Today, I-90 leaves a massive scar through the middle of the area, making large portions of the surrounding surface streets, like Lorain Avenue, extremely difficult and unpleasant to bike or walk across.

Ultimately, these aerial images provide a striking juxtaposition of two Clevelands: one at its economic zenith, the other struggling to emerge from its nadir. While the Interstate Highway System provided a lot of benefits to the United States that aided its post-war economic growth, these images really help us understand just how devastating that change was for cities like Cleveland.

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.

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.

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.

 

5 ways the Opportunity Corridor is like Keystone XL

keystone xl protest
keystone xl protest

12,000 people rallied around the White House against the Keystone XL pipeline in November 2011.

Angie Schmidt has a post on Rust Wire that explores how all large development projects in Cleveland, including the so-called Opportunity Corridor, are framed through a “jobs” lens. It’s a good piece that’s well worth reading, but it got me thinking about the similarities between the Opportunity Corridor and the Keystone XL pipeline.

[For those of you who are unfamiliar with road projects in the city of Cleveland, the Opportunity Corridor is a proposed three-mile boulevard that would pass through some of the poorest neighborhoods on the East Side of Cleveland. The road would more readily connect I-490, a freeway that ends abruptly at East 55th Street, to University Circle, the heart of Cleveland’s biomedical and arts industries. The Ohio Department of Transportation calculates that the project will cost $331.3 million to complete, putting the cost per mile at an astounding $110.4 million.]

In the first post I ever wrote on this site, I examined the fight over Keystone XL according to social movement theory. Many of these insights are surprisingly relevant for the Opportunity Corridor discussion as well. So let’s explore a few of these similarities.

Bipartisan support from powerful decision makers

Keystone XL has enjoyed support from both sides of the aisle. Although the pipeline has become increasingly partisan in recent months, particularly as House Republicans have made it a cause célèbre in budget and debt ceiling negotiations, it has enjoyed broad support from powerful players. TransCanada’s main US lobbyist, Paul Elliot, was the national deputy director for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, while a majority of Democrats (54%) still favored the project as of last September.

Similarly, the Opportunity Corridor has enjoyed support from a wide array of political leaders in Ohio. Republican Governor John Kasich is, unsurprisingly, firmly behind the project, using it as a way to garner additional support in heavily Democratic Northeastern Ohio. But several Democratic lawmakers, including Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and Cuyahoga County Executive (and gubernatorial candidate) Ed FitzGerald. Possibly the project’s biggest booster has been the center-left Plain Dealer, whose editor is a co-chair of the panel backing construction.

No longer a done deal

As recently as 2011, most policymakers assumed that Keystone XL was an inevitability. More than 70% of “insiders” in an October 2011 National Journal poll said the project would get final approval before the end of that year.

But the insiders underestimated the opposition to Keystone, which coalesced in the summer of 2011. Bill McKibben, the head of 350.org, worked to build a coalition of environment, labor, and social justice organizations that has effectively stalled the project for almost three years.  The fact that President Obama has publicly dismissed many arguments that Keystone proponents have made demonstrates just how effective this organized action has been.

Likewise, a movement has begun to build in opposition to the Opportunity Corridor. Angie Schmidt has been a leader in this movement, and she formed Clevelanders for Transportation Equity last year as a focal point. While the project still seems fairly likely to go forward, it has not been without backlash. The GreenCityBlueLake Institute continues to question its utility, while residents of the “Forgotten Triangle” have begun to speak out against the impact the project will have upon them.

Social and environmental costs

Thirdly, both projects would carry clear social and environmental consequences for populations that are politically, socioeconomically, and ecologically vulnerable.

Poor, marginalized communities of color live along both ends of Keystone XL. The pipeline begins in the tar sands fields of northern Alberta, where a number of First Nations tribes have lived along the Athabasca River for generations. This area has undergo dramatic changes in the past several years. Tar sands extraction has polluted the water extensively, and cancer rates in the region are 30% higher than average. At the other end of the proposed pipeline – Port Arthur, Texas – extensive pollution from oil refining creates severe health issues for residents who are overwhelmingly low-income persons of color. Children living in this area are 56% more likely to contract leukemia.

Likewise, the Opportunity Corridor is slated to run through some of the poorest neighborhoods in Cleveland. Five of the six affected neighborhoods have poverty rates higher than Cleveland’s 31.2% rate; in two of them, roughly two-thirds of residents live in poverty. The people living in these are also overwhelmingly Black or Hispanic and suffer from health outcomes more common in least developed countries than the United States.

minority populations opportunity corridor neighborhoods

The six neighborhoods affected by the proposed Opportunity Corridor are overwhelmingly home to persons of color (courtesy of ODOT’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement).

In 2008-2009, the asthma rates in this area stood at 15.6% (PDF), nearly double the national average (8%). In 2009, infant mortality rates in these neighborhoods were staggering, reaching as high as 69 deaths per 1,000 live births; that number is higher than the rates for Bangladesh, Burma, Haiti, Pakistan, and Rwanda. Many of these health disparities are due, at least in part, to extremely high rates of air pollution. Even ODOT acknowledges that truck traffic will increase in these neighborhoods and will run at much higher speeds (approximately 45 mph), which may exacerbate these issues further.

Given the severe environmental health implications of these projects, it is unsurprising that the EPA has cast shade on the environmental impact statements done for both projects.

Symbols of a larger issue

Both projects are major symbols of the paradigms they represent. Keystone is part of our fossil fuel-driven economic model that is slowly destroying our climate with every ton of greenhouse gases emitted. The Opportunity Corridor, in turn, is a microcosm of Northeast Ohio’s obsession with the sprawl-based, car-centric development model. While stymieing either project would fail to topple the superstructures that they represent, it would be a symbolic victory that allows us to say we are not going to be blindly beholden to such models any more.

It’s all about jobs

Except when it isn’t. Rather than portraying these projects for what they are – a pipeline that will benefit Canadian oil companies and a large highway project that will supposedly reduce nonexistent congestion – proponents have framed them as jobs projects. And it’s certainly hard to argue with the need to invest in our infrastructure and provide employment opportunities to the hard-hit construction industry.

Keystone XL’s supporters have used industry-driven studies to claim that it would create tens of thousands of short-term construction jobs, along with thousands of permanent jobs in related industries. Opportunity Corridor backers have also claimed that it would create jobs for construction workers and help spark a manufacturing renaissance on the city’s Southeast side.

But the evidence suggests that these claims are overblown. If you really dig into the numbers, you find out that, not only are these projects unlikely to live up the hype, but fixing our existing infrastructure would actually create more jobs.

Economics for Equity and Environment and the Labor Network for Sustainability recently released a report that considered the economic impact of repairing our existing oil/gas and water pipelines, rather than building Keystone XL. It found that investing $18 billion to repair these pipelines would create more than 300,000 jobs. This amounts to five times as many jobs and 156% as many direct jobs per unit of investment as Keystone. This endeavor would both counter the fossil fuel behemoth and pay greater economic dividends; it’s a clear win-win.

In turn, it seems likely that spending the money allocated for the Opportunity Corridor to repair Cleveland’s existing roads would be far more beneficial. While no one has directly analyzed the economic impact of such a proposal, a 2009 study from the Political Economy Research Institute found that repairing existing roads creates 16% more jobs than expanding road infrastructure (PDF). Using their numbers – 17,472 jobs per $1 billion invested – would suggest that repairing Cleveland’s roads would create 6,890 jobs, compared to the 5,940 from building the Opportunity Corridor (interestingly, even proponents estimate it would only create 5,300 jobs).

Overall, the similarities between Keystone XL and the Opportunity Corridor are striking. So it makes sense that the two movements opposed to their construction are following similar, grassroots tactics. While it’s too early to say how either fight will end up, I encourage Opportunity Corridor opponents, who seem to have a steeper hill to climb, to take heart. Even if the road is eventually built, you now have an opportunity to start building a strong coalition to fight for sustainable development and transportation equity over the long haul.