How the Lure of Spending Keeps Dumb Highway Projects Alive

Decades ago, Ohio officials drew a line on a map — the Eastern Corridor, a highway for commuters living in Cincinnati’s eastern suburbs. No matter how much time has passed and how little sense it makes to build that highway today, that line can still seem like destiny.

An image used by the village of Newton to oppose the Ohio Department of Transportation's $1.4 billion Eastern Corridor highway plan. Image: Village of Newton
This is the message from the village of Newtown about the Ohio Department of Transportation’s $1.4 billion Eastern Corridor highway plan. Image: Village of Newtown

The Eastern Corridor began as a 1960s vision for a highway connecting bedroom communities in mostly rural Clermont County to downtown Cincinnati, roughly 17 miles away. There is not much appetite for it: As soon as Ohio DOT dusted off its plans and started laying the groundwork to build this $1.4 billion project in 2011, communities along the corridor revolted.

The project lives on anyway. Last week, it seemed like state legislators were poised to reject the highway, but the thought of turning down a big construction project — no matter how wasteful and unwanted — was too much for some lawmakers to bear. The Eastern Corridor remains a looming possibility, a case study in how highway projects can develop a nearly unstoppable political momentum.

The outcry against the Easter Corridor has been growing since the moment ODOT told the public what it wanted to build. Along almost every section of the planned road, residents, neighborhoods, and whole towns tried to stop the project.

The most fiercely opposed sections involve rerouting State Route 32 through Newtown and Mariemont — two small, relatively affluent inner-ring suburbs. The road would cut through the heart of tiny Newtown, where the leadership is adamantly opposed, saying it will destroy the town’s business center. In Mariemont, it would ruin a park referred to as the South 80.

The Eastern Corridor also calls for a poorly-conceived rail line, expected to cost as much as $600 million and draw as few as 3,000 daily riders. The region’s rail advocates oppose it, calling it a waste of money.

Even farther away suburbs are not exactly thrilled about the highway. Andersen Township Trustee Russell Jackson told the Cincinnati Enquirer that “nobody in the local communities really sees this incredible benefit to building this thing.”

There are pockets of support for the project, including rural Clermont County, but overall, public opinion against the Eastern Corridor appears to be strong enough to sink it. Jason Williams at the Enquirer wondered last week if it was “on life support.”

Republican State Representative Tom Brinkman, elected by an eastern district of Cincinnati that will be affected by the road, attempted to put the whole thing to rest with legislation that would ban state money from going toward the Eastern Corridor. It was both a principled and rational political stance. After all, Brinkman prides himself on his fiscal conservatism, and the people who voted for him hate the project. “I am representing constituents who say, ‘We don’t want to tear down our communities,'” he told the Enquirer.

Traffic volumes on State Route 32, proposed for widening and relocation as part of this project have been dropping, according to the Village of Newton.
Traffic volumes on State Route 32 have been dropping, according to the Village of Newtown.

But the Eastern Corridor still has one thing going for it that all highway projects do: the promise of a lot of spending. Democratic State Representative Denise Driehaus, who represents a different part of Cincinnati, said at a finance committee meeting last week that she hated the idea of southwest Ohio “losing” money.

The fear of missing out on highway money prevailed, and the project staggers on. The southwest Ohio delegation agreed to give the state of Ohio until March 31 to decide whether to continue the project — and if ODOT decides to kill it, the money will be reserved for that part of the state.

The episode is a testament to the power wielded by ODOT: the power of the purse. Not only does ODOT have the final say over whether the highway gets built, but elected officials aren’t even willing to challenge the agency if it means “losing money” for their area.

Making matters worse is that ODOT is effectively broke. Ohio hasn’t raised its gas tax in 10 years and has no money to spare on transportation, yet state officials always manage to spend huge sums on highway projects.

In order to plug Ohio DOT’s budget gap, Governor John Kasich sold state lawmakers on bonding $1.5 billion against future turnpike revenues [PDF]. At the express demand of northern Ohio lawmakers, all of that money was reserved for their part of the state. And because ODOT still sees itself first and foremost as a highway builder, all of it will be pumped into new highway capacity, even though northern Ohio is losing population.

In the next two years, gas tax revenues are expected to come up $1 billion short against the state’s road construction plans, according to the Columbus Dispatch.

Meanwhile, Ohio continues to scandalously shortchange transit, with the state committing just $8.3 million per year, or less than a dollar per resident per year. The additional $1 million the state recently added to its transit budget amounts to 1/1,400 the cost of the Eastern Corridor.

  • Marc Dreyfuss

    Wouldn’t it be so much easier if MPOs could turn this money around and spend it on maintenance? Think about not only in Cincy but in Chicago (Illiana), Birmingham (Northern Beltway), and I’m sure almost everything other metro has a project they don’t want with money tied to it that they desperately need to maintain their roads.

    Sometimes I wonder if it would make more sense for the Feds to just block grant transportation funding proportioned by some calculation relating to population for urban areas and land area for rural areas.

  • BillCollins45227

    Angie: Thanks for posting this. The fight against the Route 32 relocation in Hamilton County and against the commuter rail boondoggle that would only handle 3,000 passengers on weekday rush hours continues. We will win.

    The irony here is that these areas of Hamilton County (not Clermont, which is a very different place) where ODOT wants to be dump all this money is one of the most prosperous areas of Ohio. Property values are healthy here, young people move in to buy houses, and businesses are growing here.

    In other words, this is one of just 4-5 small areas of Ohio where the economic and social indicators are healthy, AND the presence of the beautiful Little Miami River Valley (which ODOT wants to ram SR 32 through) is one of the assets that has created this really pleasant place in which to live.

    So, in the midst of this success — a success which more and more is moving into the City of Cincinnati and away from the suburbs — ODOT wants to ruin the Little Miami River valley and build a commuter-rail line the drain people out of the City.

    As it stands now, the Eastern Corridor plan in Hamilton County is a profoundly anti-urban plan. And, it’s happening in an area of the East Side of the City Cincinnati and in eastern Hamilton County where the “white flight” phenomenon has long since ended. [It ended here, thankfully, about 20 years ago here, according to U.S. Census data). But, the suburban real-estate interests an bankers would love to gin up some new version of this white and/or middle-class flight.

    That, in the end, is what this is about: the banker/homebuilder/sprawl lobby wanting to entice people to leave the City. This is not 1980. The racism that years ago panicked people into leaving the City is much less than it was 30-40 years go. Again, this time we will win.

  • SuperQ

    Federal funding for new roads needs to stop, maybe for 10-15 years. Just cut it off. Only repairs to existing national routes. Not even new lane miles. Let’s make local roads local. Stop funding state DoTs with Federal money.

  • Mark Christol

    These are nice communities and don’t need to go the way of Fairmount.
    I believe the road would lay waste to an indian mound as well. ODOT tried to pave Cedar Bog with RT 68. They can be stopped.

  • Marc Dreyfuss

    That’s rather extreme. There is a great deal of economic value tied to many roads – freight transportation and tourism to rural areas – but I agree with the sentiment that we need to stop spending Federal money on encouraging sprawl and instead spend more money on transit development. I strongly believe that transit will never really replace the car the combination of expensive driving, difficulty parking, and most importantly, comfortable, high-quality available transit services all exist.

    I think there’s an underlying problem, which is that as markets change, some roads have greater freight demands, and some roads that once sufficiently moved vehicles are now well overbuilt. A blanket policy won’t solve our problems so much as a strategic and equitable approach that replaces auto-centric development at a reckless level.

  • douglasawillinger

    I don’t know about the project in question, but has Streetsblog ever met a new road project that it did not oppose?

  • John Schneider

    Here’s a drawing of a section of the Eastern Corridor project where it would pass through Newtown, Ohio, east of Cincinnati. Enlarge it and look at it closely … http://www.newtownohio.gov/?latest-news=eastern-corridor-project

    … then tell me this flat,160-foot wide right-of-way is not being prepared to host an Interstate Highway someday. Forget the trains and buses shown in the section — those will never happen. You will have Interstate 74.

  • Flakker

    One actual good idea Kasich had was to eliminate the income tax, insofar as Ohio has a bizarre income tax system that is a headache to administer and there would be cost savings to eliminating it. Of course, you’ve never going to get there by spending more money on highways (and commuter rail!). Cripes.

  • J. SooHoo

    This is one more chorus in a song that is being sung all over the
    country. It is completely in tune with the Bent Flyvbjerg’s characterization
    of the culture that surrounds infrastructure megaprojects. The
    contractors want the money, the politicians want to be able to claim credit for
    projects, and the engineers want to complete every project that was ever
    represented by a dotted line on a map — no matter how long ago it was
    conceived nor how the perceived need has changed.

    Southern California, does this story sound familiar? How about the controversy over the SR-710 extension? Between Seattle’s tunnel woes, the epic failure of the 405 widening to bring relief, and multiple stories like this one from Ohio, the
    handwriting is on the wall for Caltrans and Metro. Unfortunately for us,
    they are illiterate.

  • Nathanael

    Yes, actually; quite a lot of road projects — google “Complete Streets”.

    What Streetsblog consistently opposes is *road widening*.

    Our roads are wide enough already.

    This is basically a road widening project: taking a perfectly nice street and replacing it with an oversized semi-expressway. For no good reason.

  • keenplanner

    Unfortunately, this is the rule rather than the exception. Most DOTs very existence depends on building big, usually motor vehicle, infrastructure “improvements.” If funding were more flexible, we could still have big projects, such as high-speed rail and regional transit improvements, and the DOTs could still leave the public trough sated.

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