Cleveland’s Opportunity Corridor: An Opportunity to Destroy a Community

Residents of this depressed Cleveland neighborhood don't see much opportunity in the new Opportunity Corridor that's going to destroy 76 homes.  Photo: Bob Perkoski
Residents of this depressed Cleveland neighborhood don’t see much opportunity in the new Opportunity Corridor that’s going to destroy 76 homes. Photo: Bob Perkoski

A recent report by U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group, “Highway Boondoggles: Wasted Money and America’s Transportation Future,” examines 11 of the most wasteful, least justifiable road projects underway in America right now. Here’s the latest installment in our series profiling the various bad decisions that funnel so much money to infrastructure that does no good. 

The Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) is promoting a $331 million, three-mile, five-lane road construction project starting at I-490’s terminus south of the city’s downtown and running northeast to the University Circle neighborhood. But it’s hard to see what need it would be meeting.

The number of miles driven in and around Cleveland has been stagnant for more than a decade. And though project proponents have tried to package the project as an “opportunity corridor” that would help the disadvantaged neighborhoods the road would traverse, the communities that would supposedly benefit have other priorities. Part of the neighborhood would also have to be destroyed to make room for the road.

Expanding road capacity is a questionable investment given recent travel trends in the Cleveland area. While ridership on the regional transit authority has been increasing, vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) in Cuyahoga County rose an anemic 0.3 percent from 2000 to 2013, an annual average of 0.02 percent. In the five counties making up the Cleveland-Elyria Metropolitan Statistical Area, VMT climbed just 1.9 percent from 2000 to 2013, an annual average increase of 0.14 percent.

Vehicle-miles traveled is flat in the Cleveland area. So why the push to build a new $100 million-a-mile highway? Image: U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group
Vehicle-miles traveled is flat in the Cleveland area. So why the push to build a new $100 million-a-mile highway? Image: U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group

Critics of the project point out that the $100 million per mile set aside for constructing the new road could instead provide more than enough money to fix all the roads in Cleveland that need repaving and repair. (ODOT has declared a “fix-it-first” policy that is supposed to prioritize repair of existing roads over construction of new highways, but the agency lacks policies to ensure the principle is actually followed.) The $331 million price tag is also larger than the annual budget of the city’s public transit system. That system already does not adequately serve the existing neighborhoods, and in fact is slated to serve them worse with the expected closing of a key rail rapid-transit stop.

The positive economic effects that project backers claim will flow to the neighborhoods traversed by the Opportunity Corridor are vague at best. And local developers are skeptical that any benefit of the road would arrive without significant additional public investment. The project design documents acknowledge that some impacts on the local neighborhood will be “disproportionately high and adverse,” including relocating 76 households and 16 businesses, as well as a church, and turning nine roads that currently connect with other streets into dead ends.

In an effort to mitigate those impacts and provide options for local residents without cars, ODOT proposes to build two pedestrian/bicycle bridges over the new road, improve bus shelters along the new road, and “create a new entrance to the St. Hyacinth neighborhood by constructing enhancements . . . [that] will include street trees and sidewalk and pavement repairs or improvements.” Community residents, however, say most of that work wouldn’t be needed if not for the new road itself, and in any case it’s not enough to boost local economic development measurably. And those are just the community members who have gotten involved in a process that has taken significant criticism for leaving out the voices of local residents.

A highway construction project makes little sense as an economic development tool for the neighborhood, where as many as 40 percent of residents do not drive at all. It also goes against the expressed desires of residents around the region, who are calling for increased investments in public transportation and in the development of communities that are less dependent on cars.

A 2012 survey by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that “a combined 68 percent of Cuyahoga County respondents say improving public transportation (35 percent) and developing communities where people don’t have to drive as much (33 percent) are the best ‘long term solutions to reducing traffic’ in their area — rather than other options like building roads (21 percent).”

Phineas Baxandall, senior policy analyst at U.S. PIRG, and Jeff Inglis, policy analyst at the Frontier Group, are co-authors of the report, “Highway Boondoggles: Wasted Money and America’s Transportation Future.”

31 thoughts on Cleveland’s Opportunity Corridor: An Opportunity to Destroy a Community

  1. These kinds of posts are misleading and so full of tunnel-vision that the ‘Chunnel’ would be jealous.

    It’s not about overall miles being driven, but the fact that University Circle has disproportionately grown to other areas nearby and commuters simply have no way of getting there. With the incessant construction, it takes upwards of 30 minutes to simply get from Fairmount to the main hospital campuses. That’s absurd seeing as it’s a 5 mile drive (less depending where you go). Granted, Opportunity Corridor doesn’t address that particular direction, but it does help east siders get downtown, which is still an accomplishment.

    Here are the arguments people bring up against this project:

    1) too expensive
    2) money can be re-allocated
    3) doesn’t help poor neighborhoods
    4) doesn’t address ‘green’ initiatives
    5) unnecessary in general

    And here are the actual responses of a Clevelander, who likes tens of thousands of others, commutes daily.

    1) Whomever said building new roads would be cheap? It’s 3 miles connecting an unfinished interstate (490) and a dilapidated infrastructure in downtown. That stuff isn’t cheap.

    2) Reallocated to what? Repaving every road in Northeast Ohio doesn’t increase capacity. In fact, it just adds to the construction everyone complains about. If you want to reduce congestion, you add/widen roadways – period.

    3) The ‘Forgotten Triangle’ that this project traverses is already desolate and forgotten. It’s not getting unless it’s completely overhauled. There is almost nothing there from an economic standpoint. The only way to improve it is to rebuild completely – that’s the sad reality.

    4) Because building more bike paths and public transport will help commuters, right? Those comes from the South or West sides will really benefit from bike paths? If you’re traveling over 5 miles to work, green initiatives are absurd. Ever try riding a bike in a suit? Yea – I don’t think you’ll enjoy it, especially given Cleveland’s unpredictable weather. Cleveland isn’t New York or Los Angeles – we don’t need a subway – we just need a sustainable roadway infrastructure that aligns with commuter needs. And like it or not, commuters are a huge portion of traffic of all kinds in University Circle, and yes, they should also be catered to.

    5) Overall traffic in Cleveland might be stable, but University Circle traffic is constantly snarled with backups and red lights. This is the only solution I’ve come across that will address that, at least in part. Will it resolve everything? Probably not, but it’s better than complaining and doing nothing.

    Additionally, it will bring money to the area. While it may not necessarily become the new cultural center that University Circle has become the past decade, what it will become will definitely be an improvement over the current situation.

  2. Missing from the reply above is any citation for the ideas that 1) the Forgotten Triangle will be improved or invigorated by ripping through it with a new freeway or 2) the key to civic success is subsidizing the lifestyles of commuters who feel compelled to live 10, 20, or 30 miles outside town or 3) low congestion cities are more economically productive and culturally vibrant.

  3. Let’s clarify a few comments you made:

    1) It’s not a freeway in any sense of the world: “divided highway with full control of access” – that is a freeway. Which part of that applies to OC?

    2) “Ripping through” is a buzz term and nothing more. Would you rather OC encircle the Forgotten Triangle? That would only make it more ignored.

    3) Are you joking with your comment about commuters? Commuters by their very nature live further away from their place of employment. University Circle employes tens of thousands. However, there is not enough land for everyone to live nearby. Furthermore, people should be free to live where they wish and still have a convenient way to get to work. The area is crowded enough already.

    4) Are you honestly trying to say that higher congestion is beneficial to any city? There are virtually no advantages to congestion, except maybe reduced driving speeds. Regardless of a city’s financial and cultural situation, wasting time and money on gas and creating additional pollution will never help that city.

    I still have yet to read a single truly on point counterargument against this project .

  4. Yeah he is saying that higher congestion is beneficial to the city. Look at the list of least congested cities (Kansas City, St. Louis, Detroit). And then take a look at the list of most congested (New York, Washington, LA). Guess which cities are healthier economically? Guess which have been able to develop functional transit systems and healthy core cities with strong residential populations? What’s the advantage to living in an urban neighborhood if it doesn’t reduce the hassle of getting from place to place? There is none. Cleveland has for decades focused on eliminating congestion. It’s only made commutes longer, as people moved father away, but faster speed — so ultimately more dangerous and costly to the individuals, not to mention the community.

  5. That’s tantamount to putting the cart before the horse.

    Yes, Detroit doesn’t have as much congestion because it’s financially in ruins, but does that mean the congestion was what kept the city in business? Look at the roads in Detroit. They are consistently rated as some of the worst in the entire country. Perhaps that contributed to the city’s decline as well?

    Congestion is a normal part of growth, but that’s exactly why OC is so important. Without trying to tame the congestion, it’ll become worse and worse, and do we really want Cleveland to become the next NY or DC? I seriously hope not.

    The average income of residents in OC’s path is $18522, which is barely above the minimum of $16,000. That’s a whopping 40% of Cleveland’s population. Building a new road and the associated infrastructure couldn’t possible make it worse for those people, could it? if anything, it increases the odds they’ll be able to find employment.

  6. Do I really want Cleveland to become the next NYC or DC? You mean with high and growing land values, positive migration? I do think we would benefit from being more like those cities in some ways — the ability to tolerate a really by comparison laughable level of congestion one of them. It’s not that I’m not sympathetic to the people that live there. I absolutely am. I just don’t see what this does for them. The road itself is a big fat goose egg and may — as noted by the EPA — actually reduce cross corridor mobility. So this $331 million “investment” in their neighborhoods actually doesn’t provide any immediate improvement in quality of life and could actually reduce it. We can do better than that for a third of a billion dollars in public money! Aaron Renn talked about how the state of Indiana used this kind of economic development scheme in rural Indiana. The state just doesn’t have an answer for the economic problems there so it says, we’ll extend a highway — then at least they can say they did something. Ultimately, it’s snake oil. The people that live in the affected neighborhoods are already living between the region’s two largest job centers. Why isn’t that economic activity spilling over, improving their lots? I don’t think it’s because they lack a road. Although I can see how a new road and big development agenda benefits the guys at GCP who proposed this, potentially and theoretically some of the institutions in University Circle.

  7. @ Clevelander – I disagree with your statement that “Furthermore, people should be free to live where they wish and still have a convenient way to get to work.” Is that the case even if it means bull-dozing over someone’s house and neighborhood or if it results in an upward wealth distribution or results in further expansion of the infrastructure for Northeast Ohio’s shrinking population to pay for? Sure, folks should generally be free to live where they want but they shouldn’t expect that their choice of where they live might result in consequences like a longer more inconvenient commute.

  8. Let’s clear up another thing, Ohio’s population is growing over the last few years. Granted, at a slower rate than most other states, but that’s definitely not a decline.

    Riddle me this…regardless of population trends, why is the congestion getting into and out of University Circle steadily growing worse every year?

  9. Northeast Ohio’s population is shrinking. And regardless of whether it is shrinking we obviously have more infrastructure upkeep that we can afford or want to pay for.

    The solution for any congestion problem that University Circle might be experiencing is not poking it with another direct thruway, which will only increase the number of cars traveling to University Circle, worsening congestion and probably necessitating the widening of other roads in University Circle. The latter consequence will obviously diminish the character, experience and living environment of University Circle, as a “unique urban neighborhood,” to quote the historical marker located along the HealthLine.

  10. I’ve heard that the cost of repairing those seldom-used rapid stations and making them ADA-compliant is insurmountable. In any event, I believe that the money would be better spent investing in other stations along the routesthat receive more use.

  11. There’s the problem – misstating what’s happening. The problem is congestion getting into and out of University Circle. This is precisely what OC is trying to alleviate.

  12. I’ve never experienced congesting getting to University Circle, but I have experienced it in University Circle, where Euclid Avenue (the road, not me) turns into a parking lot every signal day during rush hour.

    And, BTW, I’ve never heard alleviating congestion either in or near UC as a stated reason for OC.

  13. You’ve never experienced congestion getting into UC? Does this include morning and afternoon commutes? Because I drive there almost daily, along with thousands of others, and there is a backup on Mayfield, Euclid, and Cedar. It really doesn’t matter which way you choose – you will get stuck.

    Albeit, OC doesn’t alleviate all of those bottlenecks, but it helps by making 490 actually useful for something. I-77 N is a prime way to get into UC for commuters and locals living near downtown, but getting onto 90 from 77 is also awful due to the Innerbelt Project. Using 490 to get to UC directly is an excellent alternative. Will it resolve everything? Of course not, and I’m not trying to act like OC is the end all of congestion resolution, but it’s the best idea I’m aware of.

    Good luck widening little Italy, or Cedar-Fairmount, or Euclid, which has already had tons of construction in the last decade.

    The only remaining option is to build a new road. The fact that people don’t necessarily like it for abstract conceptual reasons that don’t affect them anyways makes no sense to me.

    Yes, it’s true – about 80 homes will have to be razed, but it seems like a project benefiting thousands daily can be more impactful than several dozen homes in a downscale area. Don’t forget the owners are being compensated, and that is what eminent domain is about. Like it or not, there are always naysayers and complainers, but their solution isn’t a solution by any means – all they want is the status quo.

  14. Just because congestion exists somewhere at some time doesn’t justify unlimited expense to widen roads. Congestion is a fact of life, particularly in economically healthy cities. The entitlement car commuters feel. That “right” to zero delay on a car commute supersedes people’s property rights. It’s hard to separate it from class privilege. Certainly transit riders can expect no similar right to lack of delay.

    Regardless, this is a boneheaded way to address congestion. The absolute most costly in terms of money and social costs. We should be promoting transit, living close to work, alternatives to driving, adding a few bike lanes for pocket change. These are the kind of investments that create healthy urban environments. They can be instituted for a fraction of the price and provide actual direct benefits to the people this project is supposedly about.

  15. I just don’t understand how eliminating driving is the problem when it’s the solution.

    You want people to live in the Forgotten Triangle? Well, it has to be redeveloped first. People and businesses won’t just move there because it’s close to UC – it’s not a prosperous neighborhood in any sense.

    If people want that area to get redeveloped, something has to come first, and that is infrastructure. Forget being a shortcut to UC, OC will provide redevelopment for the Forgotten Triangle because businesses follow roads, which follows growth. It’s a linear progression.

  16. “abstract conceptual reasons that don’t affect them anyways makes no sense to me.” Does that include the current and future cost of the project?

    And so you’re delayed slightly going into UC from the Heights. Do you expect to be able to drop off a highway into a parking lot in front of your employer without any delays? And in any event, as you point out, the OC will do nothing to alleviate any perceived delays coming from the Heights.

  17. Slightly delayed is an understatement. We’re talking upwards of half an hour, and that’s not even unusual. Double that for a full day and multiply by 5 = 5 HOURS wasted weekly per person. That’s an awful lot of waste. Factor in gas and pollution, and we’re talking major dollars here.

    As for the Heights, it might help somewhat by redirecting traffic elsewhere. It won’t be salvation or anything, but it could reduce it by 10-20%, which is still better than nothing.

  18. Clevelander, you are correct – University Circle already has too much traffic.
    In a recent article from February 2014, Chris Ronayne, current
    president of University Circle Incorporated (UCI), states “One-third
    bike, one-third transit and one-third auto is the commuting goal into
    University Circle. That’s a reasonable objective.” We need less cars in University Circle and this will bring more cars and worse congestion. Just look at Cleveland Clinic, they are actually looking at changing their parking subsidies to encourage less cars!

    Also, just because you chose to live further from your employer does not give you the right to destroy neighborhoods because your commute is too long. Also, Cleveland really does not have a traffic problem compared to other cities – per a recent report completed by TomTom,
    Cleveland ranks 60th out of 61 cities for traffic congestion. In other
    words, Cleveland doesn’t have a traffic problem. If you think
    Cleveland has a serious traffic problem, I would advise you to go to
    Philadelphia or New York, where traveling a few blocks in a car can take
    10-20 minutes and there are only a couple of major freeways nearby.

    “it takes upwards of 30 minutes to simply get from Fairmount to the main hospital campuses.”

    Why do you even care about this project if you are driving from Fairmount on the east side? This project will bring additional traffic from the southwest side to University Circle. More cars = more congestion in University Circle. How does that help you with your commute?

  19. If we really wanted to eliminate delay we could do it for $0 or actually positive price with congestion pricing — that’s not the goal here. If people are truly wasting 5 hours per week in traffic in University Circle that sounds like a powerful incentive for them to move to University Circle or somewhere nearby. There is no way that is happening though. ODOT refused to even provide a time savings estimate with this project. You want to know why? Cause after 5 years construction, $331 million spent (at least) and 15 years of planning, the time savings is going to be negligible, or at minimum so small that they were embarrassed to advertise it. There is absolutely NO WAY this road is saving anyone a half hour per commute. The average commute nationally is 45 minutes, and Cleveland commutes should theoretically be shorter because we’re one of the least congested regions in the country. I’m sorry, nope.

  20. Regardless, the fact that we are closing existing transit infrastructure in this 40% transit dependent neighborhood that is seeing $331 million in highway investment speaks volumes about our priorities.

  21. Where exactly would they live in UC or nearby that is both safe and has available housing that is affordable to the average family? Why do you think there is so much housing going up now in the Cedar-Fairmount and UC region? Because there is a massive shortage now. That’ll take several years, and it’s not as if families will just pack up and go by the hundreds (if not thousands). We’re talking compensating less than 100 residents for their homes versus asking potentially thousands to relocate from across NE Ohio.

    You tell me which is more ‘nope’.

    Due to the water burst on Cedar last week (which is a frequent occurrence), it’s taking 15-30 mins to get from Fairmount to the Southside of CWRU. That is absurd. It’s a five minute walk. But that’s where the thousands of commuters have to pass through because it’s one of the only options. Sure, local residents could walk but even their options are limited in a few months when near-Arctic temperatures and snow will hit for the next 3-5 months.

    Let’s ask the locals if they want 3000 new residents to move into their neighborhood. Then we’ll talk about congestion.

    All those area, namely Cedar-Fairmount, Little Italy, and Euclid are all at near or past capacity. Where are they going to put more people?

  22. I care because Cedar-Fairmount is one of the new ways to avoid the I-90 deathtrap that occurs during rush hour commuters.

    490 to OC will be another good way for that. It’s all about alternate routes. The key to avoiding congestion is not to have one great road, but to have many good ones. That way traffic can be split up. Unless we build a 10 lane highway, we need to divvy up the traffic.

    As for bike paths…I can’t even begin to understand where this idea of coming from. Biking is not a reasonable option in Northeast Ohio as it currently stands.

    The weather is bad and flat out dangerous half the time between torrential downpours in Spring and late Summer and the awful cold in winter and early Spring. That leaves us with a part of Summer and early Fall to commute. So much for that.

    Not to mention downtown residents don’t exactly want to bike through Midtown and nearby regions because it’s not safe, especially early in the morning and late at night.

    How do you propose biking becomes feasible into UC? Sure, it’ll work in UC, but how about getting in and out?

  23. “Where exactly would they live in UC or nearby that is both safe and has
    available housing that is affordable to the average family?”

    Cleveland Heights.

    “Due to the water burst on Cedar last week (which is a frequent
    occurrence), it’s taking 15-30 mins to get from Fairmount to the
    Southside of CWRU. That is absurd.”

    Again, how will Opportunity Corridor address this delay (which was caused to a water main break)?

  24. Good point, but if that is the case, the savings should be invested in improving the transit that the neighborhood is using.

  25. I totally agree and that’s what the whole idea was about, was to build a freeway not a damn boulevard you might as well us Carnegie or chester building a freeway to that location would bring out the city business not only but would cut down on crime rate by splitting neighborhoods in Half

  26. The reason NYC and LA are so healthy is not because they are terminally congested, it is because they are two of the major ocean port cities where all the free trade cheap foreign freight that killed Cleveland’s (and Detroit’s) industries is imported into the US. The reason Washington DC is healthy is because of massive Federal government spending.

    Did you know that 9 of the top 10 cities in the US for median home price are all coastal cities with lots of ocean freight? LA’s freeways are choked to death largely by freight trucks and port trucks, and even though all the rail lines through town have been expanded leaving the city is a bottleneck in every direction, having to climb 4000 feet of vertical drop immediately leaving the urban area in every direction but straight east which is still a 2000-foot vertical climb.

    A 3% grade is pretty steep for a mainline railroad and it takes 12.6 miles of such grade just to clear the pass heading east of LA, and double that heading over any other pass, often with loaded trains running at 5 mph all the way up the hill, 8-12 big diesels straining away putting out huge clouds of smoke, often so close together that there is no more than a couple minutes to cross the railroad tracks between trains. No wonder the roads are crowded to death in LA, the urban area is 18 million people.

    I used to work just south of Garden Valley and East 79th Street in the 1980s and I feel that the Opportunity Corridor would be a darn good idea myself.

  27. Detroit used to have pretty decent roads that were always crowded too, back in the mid-late 1970s. Back in 1975 the intersection of Woodward and Eight Mile Rd used to handle 240,000 vehicles per day.

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