Too Many State DOTs Are Little More Than Highway Departments

Thanks to Ohio DOT, $100 million has been spent to gussy up Cleveland's West Shoreway, but it's still a limited access highway and a barrier to the lakefront. Image: Google Street View
Thanks to Ohio DOT, $100 million has been spent to gussy up Cleveland's West Shoreway, but it's still a limited access highway and a barrier to the lakefront. Image: Google Street View

In the last 50 years, nearly every state agency that used to call itself the “highway department” has changed its name to the “department of transportation” to reflect a purported change in mission. In theory, DOTs are not only concerned with moving cars on highways — they manage entire transportation systems, which include transit, biking, and walking. But in practice, many state DOTs still operate strictly as highway departments.

We’re going to pick on the Ohio DOT today, because I happen to live in Cleveland, but also because it’s a great example of a “transportation department” in name only, still focused solely on speeding motor vehicle traffic on big roads.

A recent article in the Plain Dealer details how ODOT squashed the city of Cleveland’s plans to tear down a lightly-traveled lakefront highway, citing concerns about congestion.

More than a decade ago, Cleveland’s mayor at the time, Jane Campbell, set out to turn the West Shoreway — a state highway that divided the city’s west side neighborhoods from a large lakefront park called Edgewater — into a surface street that people could cross on foot. The idea was to give residents better access to the lake by reconnecting the local street grid to the waterfront. In addition to the pedestrian and public space improvements, the project would have encouraged development and grown the tax base in a very poor city.

But ODOT nixed a key component of the plan — signalized intersections — saying they would “fail” or have a low “level of service,” reports the Plain Dealer’s Steven Litt. In other words, allowing Clevelanders access to the lakefront would impose a few minutes of delay on suburban car commuters. A modified version of the West Shoreway project was implemented instead, with ODOT and Cleveland spending $100 million to add landscaping and build a few tunnels underneath the roadway to improve pedestrian access to the lake.

As implemented, the project is a far cry from what Campbell envisioned, Litt writes:

A dozen years and $100 million later, it’s hard to see the Ohio Department of Transportation’s re-do of the Shoreway, scheduled for completion next year, as more than a faint echo of the project’s original concept.

Adding the intersections would have transformed the Shoreway from a regional thoroughfare into a local boulevard.

And it would have made Edgewater Park, one of the city’s greatest amenities, far more accessible.

Detroit Shoreway residents would have been able to stroll down any of the newly connected streets to the lakefront rather than use pedestrian tunnels that burrow under the rail line and the Shoreway.

With roughly two-thirds of the work on the Shoreway now done, the reality is that Detroit Shoreway still remains largely walled off from Edgewater Park by a railroad line and by what still amounts to a three-mile, limited access freeway.

District 12 Deputy Director Myron Pakush blames the whole thing on federal red tape. “You cannot expend federal dollars for something you would create traffic jams on,” he told Litt.

This is a great example of what’s called a “technical brushoff,” and it’s not even true.

Last year, Barbara McCann, a policy director at U.S. DOT, told Streetsblog that “there is no federal mandate for Level of Service.” Her comments were aimed at encouraging highway planners like Pakush not to let this clumsy measure of car congestion obstruct projects that improve street networks for walking, biking, and transit. ODOT District 12 has entirely missed the memo.

By acting as a highway department, not a transportation department, ODOT reinforced the pattern of sprawl and disinvestment that has made Cleveland one of the poorest and fastest shrinking cities in the country. That was a much more tolerable outcome for the agency than a few minutes of delay for motorists.

More recommended reading today: Bikemore reports that Baltimore DOT’s long-awaited recommendations for Boston Street, a major thoroughfare, are terrible for walking, biking, and transit. And American Dirt relays an example of an all-too-common problem: a walkable small town where highway-like road design undercuts the local tourism economy.

  • war_on_hugs

    Great post, Angie. I would add that State DOT estimates of “congestion” are almost always way off, anyway, because for some reason they mostly ignore that people change their living, working, and commuting patterns in response to the built environment.

    For example, while drivers wouldn’t be able to speed quite as quickly down a boulevard version of the West Shoreway, closer-in neighborhoods would become more attractive and thus presumably draw more businesses and residents. But the standard Level of Service/”Congestion Index” way of thinking doesn’t account for people driving shorter distances to begin with – or forgoing driving trips altogether!

  • kclo3

    A highway-centric DOT is one thing. It’s when the region’s MPO, the one that actually handles the federal funding/planning, becomes overwhelmingly highway-centric that your region is seriously in trouble. Looking at you, DVRPC.

  • TakeFive

    Dang, learn something new every day. I was familiar with a couple of MPO’s but didn’t know they were federally mandated and funded.

  • TakeFive

    The overriding issue is not (necessarily) that state DOT’s are anal; rather the bigger issue is how the state legislature mandates their responsibilities.

    In Colorado there is a modest – IIRC 10% – that is allocated to mobility and they’ve done some impressive work with even that amount. This year the state legislature attempted to raise new transpo revenue that would have upped the mobility percentage as well as distribute some funding directly to city/counties. There was a bipartisan group and resulting bill to do that. Sadly, the Republican controlled Senate left the state with a one-off ability to borrow for high priority road projects but no new revenue to pay for the projects… /sigh.

    Point being that CDOT for its part is happy to do whatever the legislature wants it to do and provides funding for, is the key.

  • Yes, MPOs are required for any city or region with 50k or more residents.

  • bettybarcode

    ‘”a “transportation department” in name only.’

    Yes! This has irritated me for a while. Stop calling yourselves “transportation agencies” if you have zero responsibility for rail, mass transit, bike lanes, and sidewalks.

  • Brian Miller

    Beyond the DOT there’s a need to elect more active and involved members to state transportation boards. However, public engagement is a necessary first step.

    Folks simply stop by board meetings, say “thank you” to the board for the money/projects, and then speed away. Informed and active public engagement with these boards may help to keep elected members on their toes (and to scare away less enlightened interests from joining the board in the first place). It may also force the boards to learn a thing or two about “transportation” and what they’re agreeing to fund.

  • Transit Only Ohio

    I wish they would make the rail line, which is the real barrier to the lake that pedestrians encouter before even reaching this so-called boulevard, a passenger rail line. Then they could build access through there. Odd that the author failed to mention the freight rail in this piece. It is the bigger problem.

  • Transit Only Ohio

    This is so true. I know dozens of friends who say they would gladly give up their suburban living and move to the city again if ODOT would just make it harder to get to work. Why won’t we tear up roads and make it damn near impossible for drivers to access the urban core? Then people would be forced to be closer to work.

  • war_on_hugs

    Hey, thanks for willfully misreading my post. I’m talking about making urban living more attractive, which will attract some people. Not all, and probably not even most. I actually do have friends that would love to live closer to downtown, but all of the government incentives favor the suburbs.

    ODOT doesn’t have to tear up anything – just stop prioritizing high-speed, long-distance trips above all else. As the OP says, they’re supposed to be a department of transportation, not a department of “make my suburban commute slightly faster even if it’s more dangerous and worse for the environment.”

  • PD

    The recent bicyclist death where the Shoreway intersects with Clifton/Lake, could lay some degree of blame at the shoreway being this poor manifestation of a highway. Drunk drivers are still assholes, but maybe the death would have been less likely if you didn’t have such a large intersection. If you converted the shoreway to a neighborhood with mixed-use buildings along the street, sidewalks, bike lanes, crosswalks, then you’d have smaller safer intersections. Its too late for the project to go back to the original Campbell vision this decade, but maybe someone can redesign Shoreway/Clifton/Lake to become a roundabout, where fatal head-on or t-bone collisions are banished, and replaced with slow and steady flowing traffic.

    This also raises a point as to why is the city poor, but ODOT is rich? Why does ODOT have tens of millions of dollars to throw at these projects, and keep the shoreway highway-esque, as opposed to the city being able to redevelop the area into mixed use. ODOT-itself has money from tolls to fund the turnpike and turnpike-nexus projects (i.e. opportunity corridor), and then the gas tax revenues go to the state and federal levels. I would say that ODOT might have the money (which is also partially state general revenue fund), but the projects would be better if you gave the money to the MPO, when your in an area with an MPO, who could design the better regional solution. NOACA would maybe consider using that rail line for an RTA rapid extension to the west shore suburbs, which could get some mode shift, and then convert the shoreway to a mixed-use Clifton Ave between Edgewater and Gordon Square. It sort of solves the same problem, but in a different way. But, as long as the DOT’s have all this money, from magical sources, then they’ll continue spending it as they please. I would say you could look at a gas-tax-revenue-generation density map of the state, and see that a big chunk of the gas tax revenue is generated within the metro areas, and then spent outside of the metro areas. (lots of expensive low density state routes). And then the balance of funds happens from the mega-projects, overly expensive but misses the mark Shoreway, insanely expensive innerbelt, very expensive 480 temporary bridge. Where as regionally-designed solutions could solve the moving-people problem, and not just the moving-cars problem.

  • JimthePE

    Conversely, a highway-centric DOT can thwart a multimodal-friendly, forward-looking MPO.

  • 100%

  • neroden

    When you get a chance, I’d love to hear you rip into NYSDOT the same way. Many people believe that the NYSDOT headquarters, which are completely unreachable on foot, are a large reason they have such a bad attitude.

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