Ohio Cities to State DOT: No More New Roads, Just Fix What We Have

A potholed street in Boardman, Ohio, a middle-class suburb of Youngstown. The Youngstown area has a Facebook group with 800 members devoted to mocking these potholes. Photo: Potholes of Youngstown and Surrounding Areas
A potholed street in Boardman, Ohio, a middle-class suburb of Youngstown. The Youngstown area has a Facebook group with almost 800 members devoted to mocking these potholes. Photo: Potholes of Youngstown and Surrounding Areas

Given that the federal Highway Trust Fund is broke and the Interstate Highway System is more or less complete, maybe — just maybe! — it doesn’t make sense to keep expanding highways. And if there’s one place in the country where it’s especially urgent to stop building more highways, it’s northeast Ohio.

The combined metro areas of Akron, Cleveland, and Youngstown are shrinking at an alarming rate. Unlike some Rust Belt regions, it’s not just their core cities hemorrhaging population: The whole region has shrunk 7 percent since the 1970s. The three cities have lost more population combined since the 1950s than they have now.

That kind of decline exerts intense fiscal pressures. Central cities and even many suburbs in these regions can’t afford to maintain their roads. Cleveland recently borrowed $100 million, with about a quarter of that for road repairs. Even though that will roughly double the annual road repair budget, it’s still just a small fraction of what’s needed to catch up on the city’s $300 million resurfacing backlog.

State transportation policy has not responded to these mounting pressures. The Ohio Department of Transportation has continued to add highways as if the region were booming. Since the 1990s alone, northeast Ohio has added more than 300 highway lane-miles. Rather than stimulate growth, it has mostly served to facilitate sprawl and hollow out city centers. Cleveland ranked dead last among 96 metro areas in a recent Brookings study on growth in job access.

Local leaders are finally speaking up, with Akron and Cleveland making it clear they want the state to start emphasizing maintenance. Grace Gallucci, head of Cleveland’s metropolitan planning organization, NOACA, appealed to ODOT in September to use part of its “major projects” funding on a package of road repairs in the Cleveland region. The state refused.

Piling on this week, Akron’s MPO, AMATS, joined NOACA in calling for the state to turn away from expansion and focus on maintenance. The AMATS board, representing political officials from the city, suburbs, and counties in the region, passed a resolution [PDF] calling for a new “statewide transportation policy framework.” The document endorses “a ‘fix it first’ program that prioritizes maintenance of existing roads and bridges over expanding highway capacity” as well as additional investments in walking, biking, and transit:

While our region could always use more federal and state funding, what we need even more is a new federal and statewide vision for transportation — one that prioritizes fixing the roads and bridges that we already have, and creating viable alternatives to driving.

Ohio is spending more than $400 million on a bypass of the city of Portsmouth, population 20,000. Photo: Wikipedia
Ohio is spending more than $400 million on a bypass around the city of Portsmouth, population 20,000. Photo: Wikipedia

AMATS Director Jason Segedy says leaders in even some of the more rural parts of his region are having trouble keeping up with maintenance. He questioned, for example, whether it was necessary for the state to devote more than $400 million to the Portsmouth Bypass. Just this week, U.S. DOT announced it was granting a $209 million TIFIA loan to the $430 million project. The 16-mile four-lane highway is supposed to save travelers 16 minutes through that part of Appalachia by detouring around the struggling city of 20,000.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx praised the project this week saying it will open “up the area for economic development.” Ohio has heard that one before, and it didn’t work out the way transportation officials promised.

  • EC

    My family is from Portsmouth, and I’ve spent a lot of time there over the past 45 years. It’s hard to imagine how making a highway bypass around the city will improve the area’s struggling economy. A few jobs for a year or so, maybe, but nothing like the old steel plants and shoe factories.

  • JayinPhiladelphia

    In this context, the phrase “opening up the area for economic development” usually tends to mean creating a few interchanges at which to plop down half a dozen Big Boxes that don’t even pay enough to support the car ownership necessary to access such jobs.

  • John Schneider

    The Portsmouth Bypass is part of a plan to bring I-74 through southern Ohio, though no one is talking about it. They’re making similar moves in Cincinnati.

  • flyingember

    There’s a town in Missouri that got a bypass a few years back. No one lives near it so even the big boxes aren’t at it. It’s just a way to bypass the city, taking commerce elsewhere.

    Luckily the town has a university. Which happens to be the reason for the traffic in town. The students won’t use the bypass of course, doesn’t get them to class.

  • JayinPhiladelphia

    These are strange times we live in when government officials can, with straight faces, seriously suggest that something called a *BYPASS* can somehow benefit the city it’s enabling people and commerce to pass by.

    I guess the hope is that people subconsciously relate it to some sort of life-saving heart procedure, rather in the very literal sense of what a bypass in the highway sense means and does.

  • Tom L. Johnson

    City of Cleveland resident here – ODOT are sh*theads. ODOT has made the clear choice to spend disproportionately on new highway expansion while completely ignoring public transit and even (yes, amazingly enough) road maintenance. Adding to their long list of malfeasance is the complete disregard for needs articulated by local planning agencies. Unfortunately, this will probably get worse before it gets better. F ODOT.

  • Samuel Stephens

    I’ve heard plenty of horror stories about ODOT, especially Districts 12 and 4, from urban blogs like Rust Wire and others. Their priorities are just ridiculous. It’s as if they deliberately choose the absolute worst projects and designs. No wonder that region is still losing its population and showing little to no job growth.

  • EDG

    Follow the money

  • anastasjoy

    How ODOT is spending our money:

    Yesterday in the mail, I got a six-page, glossy, full-color newsletter (Winter 2014/2015 Volume 3) titled “The Link: Progress Report in Cleveland’s ‘Opportunity’ Corridor” (interior single quotes added by me, because I cannot mention this project without putting ironic quotes around the world “Opportunity”). It’s just full of upbeat news about how ODOT is going to squander $330 million of our money on this unnecessary and duplicative project SOMEONE will have to maintain at some point.

    I was wondering if anyone else got this mailing from ODOT, and if they were mailing it to every household in the county.

    Meanwhile, two years ago on one of those duplicate routes I ripped off a hunk of my tailpipe in a crevice at the heavily traveled corner of E. 55th and Carnegie.

  • A highway bypass isn’t a bad thing for small towns as long as they use the opportunity it presents to make themselves more attractive in other ways. The silver lining is that they’re at least not planning to raze the town and punch the highway right through the middle? If there is a lot of heavy traffic (especially “future demand”) on a road, a bypass can certainly help keep that outside of town where it doesn’t impact the residents’ of life. A town would do really well to go ahead and make it hard to drive all the way through so that they don’t become the alternate route for the highway. Also good would be encouraging more walkable development in town, which in itself can also draw in visitors and residents.

  • JayinPhiladelphia

    I’m sure that’s the theory, but I would think that there are much more efficient and innovative ways to help revive struggling small cities than spending $430 million to build highways around them. Especially at a time when we seem to be incapable of even maintaining the roads and associated infrastructure that already exist.

  • AkronRonin

    Let’s see, $400 million to build a highway bypass of a town of 20,000 people, or $400 million to build a rail line that would connect Ohio’s three largest metros, each containing millions of people. Our dear Governor John Kasich thinks the former is a priority, yet he couldn’t fall over himself fast enough to deny the latter from happening.

    And people revere this guy as if he’s some kind of finance management godsend of a guru. Oh no, our priorities in this state aren’t f***ed up at all.

  • Right and the 3C project would have really cost us nothing up front because all the $400 million came from the feds.

  • PhilipGlassRules

    Funny, I live in Akron, and the freeways (I-76 and I-77 and SR 8) are always congested with stop and go traffic as they have never been improved since they were originally constructed in the late 50’s and early 60’s.

  • rootvg

    Hon, Kasich just won re-election by a thirty one point margin. I think he’s going to be Jeb’s running mate which means he’ll be Vice President.

    If this is your job (shilling for someone) that’s fine, we all have to make a living be at least be honest about it.

  • Laila Keirstead

    This sounds exactly like what is going on here. Yesterday it seemed like I could not shake the closed roads. There was road maintenance everywhere. It will be okay with me because the roads around town were horrible but it kind of makes it hard when you don’t know where they are doing construction on the roads. http://www.catwest.com.au/services

  • tempo150101

    Ohio is spending more than $400 million on a bypass around the city of Portsmouth, population 20,000

    That is misleading and it’s propaganda. The reason a bypass is being constructed around Portsmouth is because U.S. 23 (and U.S. 52) is a major artery into and out of Ohio and traffic through Portsmouth created a major bottleneck. It was slated to be Ohio’s portion of the proposed I-73 and is long overdue since U.S. 23, 30, 33 and 35 are major arteries into and out of the state of OHio.

    Saying there shouldn’t be a bypass around Portsmouth because it only has 20,000 people is like saying that I-71 should be running through Downtown London, Ohio because London is too small to have a bypass.

  • neroden

    ODOT is run by Governor “I hate cities” Kasich, and he’s going to ignore the pleas of the city governments and municipal planning organizations. Unfortunately. Elect someone else to replace him if you possibly can.

  • neroden

    Kasich is one of the smoothest of the lying slimeballs in the Republican Party.

    He’s not as obvious a criminal as Scott Walker (child porn rings run out of his office on his secret email system) or Rick Scott (biggest defrauding of Medicare in history) or Pete LePage (currently getting himself impeached) or Chris Christie (Bridgegate). But he’s a bad one. He manages to make himself look good enough to get reelected though, sadly for Ohio.

    And by the way, sweetcheeks, there is zero chance of Jeb “I Would Take Advice From My Deranged Idiot Brother” becoming President. Trump is more likely.

  • neroden

    Bypassing a struggling small town basically destroys its economy. I’ve watched it happen more than once. Punching an expressway through the middle is worse, but what the town *really* wants is for everyone driving through to hit stop lights, and pull off at local businesses. Horseheads, NY found this out the hard way when Route 17 was elevated through town.

  • neroden

    Well, if the goal of ODOT is to use Ohio taxpayer money to speed people from West Virginia to Michigan without stopping in Ohio, then good work, they’re well on their way to doing it. But the question is: is that really a good use of Ohio taxpayer dollars? At least the people speeding past Ohio on the Ohio Turnpike pay tolls!

  • tempo150101

    The point is not to get to West Virginia. The point is to get to wherever you need to go in the shortest amount of time and to provide convenient routes for the purpose of manufacturing and distribution, not to mention convenience for individuals.

    You do realize that U.S. 23 goes to Atlanta and Jacksonville, don’t you? Even if you wouldn’t take U.S. 23 the entire way to reach your destination, lots of people use lots of parts of it. It is a very important route.

    U.S. 23 is all freeway in Michigan and about half freeway in Ohio.

  • Or roundabouts. The trend with traffic lights is generally to widen to provide storage, so roundabouts can move the same numbers without using as much space. That in turn can give a much more pleasant street environment and help maintain the small-town feel. As long as they don’t destroy the storefronts along that main road with parking lots, it can be a great destination.

  • rootvg

    NE Ohio’s problems are cultural going all the way back to the old country. My wife’s parents grew up in the old German and Polish neighborhoods in Akron and we think a lot of this is just baked into the place. Blue collar is blue collar and doesn’t want to be anything else. That’s another reason that place looks the way it does. It’s just stubbornness. We left there and went to Dallas in the summer of ’95 and we suddenly felt as if the wind was out our backs instead of in our faces all the time. A lady we met here in Danville taught at Norton a number of years ago (the Coast Guard transferred them here before he retired) and she said “nothing comes easy there” to which I would add that most things end up not coming at all. That can change and must change and if you wanted it to would change. It would take money (serious money, BIG MONEY) and then someone or a collection of someones to back it all when when the old folks and what’s left of the unions and anyone else who feels threatened by change raised hell.

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