The Cleveland region has been struggling with sprawl for a long time.
Since the 1970s, the regional population has shrunk while housing and jobs have spread outward — a combination that has devastated urban areas in particular.
Transportation policy is a big part of the problem. Northeast Ohio keeps widening highways, facilitating quick suburban commutes and fueling sprawl. This weakens the places that are already the most vulnerable. Cleveland recently topped a national list of “most distressed cities,” and its neighbor East Cleveland is on the verge of bankruptcy.
Most Ohio governors and state transportation chiefs are oblivious or worse, pursuing policies that promote job sprawl, undermine transit, and lavish resources on highways.
One agency that could change this dynamic is the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA), the regional planning agency charged with dispensing federal transportation funds. Until very recently, however, NOACA was not up to the task.
Sparsely populated rural counties have disproportionate influence at NOACA compared to dense urban areas, and rivalries within the agency often pitted low-income urban communities against newer, wealthy suburbs. In lieu of actual economic growth, many of the outlying suburbs were happy to simply siphon off businesses and houses from close-in communities.
Rather than confront this dysfunction, for years NOACA’s leadership mostly shied away from it. Funding was awarded project-by-project to satisfy political demands, rather than to achieve specific policy goals like broad-based economic growth, better access to jobs, or environmental sustainability. In essence, the regional planning agency didn’t do any planning, local environmental leader David Beach has said.
But now NOACA is trying to correct that, says the agency’s new director, Grace Gallucci, who took the job in 2012 after working at Chicago’s Regional Transportation Authority.