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Highways turned Northeast Ohio communities into winners and losers. Can rules of the game change?

The Plain Dealer  Cleveland logo The Plain Dealer Cleveland 10/18/2020 By Steven Litt,
a man standing in front of a building: Annette Blackwell, mayor of the Cleveland suburb of Maple Heights, is playing a leading role in developing a new policy on highway interchanges in Northeast Ohio. © Steven Litt, Litt, Annette Blackwell, mayor of the Cleveland suburb of Maple Heights, is playing a leading role in developing a new policy on highway interchanges in Northeast Ohio.

MAPLE HEIGHTS, Ohio — Annette Blackwell, the mayor of this small, struggling, majority Black suburb southeast of Cleveland, might seem an unlikely person to rewrite the rules on how new interchanges can be added to interstate highways in Northeast Ohio.

Then again, she says, her life experience and her current office have shown her exactly how the highway system has helped to divide the region into winners and losers by siphoning people, jobs and investment away from communities like hers.

She feels privileged to push for change in her role as chair of the policy committee at the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA), which oversees federal and state spending on transportation in Cuyahoga, Geauga, Lake, Lorain and Medina counties.

"We don’t get there without people like me sitting on these boards,'' she said. "I feel empowered. I feel emboldened. I feel called.''

Today, and The Plain Dealer take an in-depth look at the troubling impact of interstate highways in our region and an effort by NOACA to plan a smarter, more equitable future.

Making equity matter

Just over a week ago, the 24-member committee Blackwell heads voted to recommend approval of a draft policy that would for the first time make cost-benefit analysis of racial and economic equity part of how it determines whether to approve new highway interchanges, in addition to traditional factors such as traffic flow and safety.

That’s important because by providing high-speed access to developable land, highway interchanges have often served as massive drivers of development. That development, in turn, has often transferred land value and wealth to newer communities from older ones, making it harder for the latter to balance budgets and provide vital services, including education. The shift has deepened poverty in urban areas including Cleveland, ranked the poorest big city in the nation by the U.S. Census Bureau in September.

The question is whether NOACA should enable outward expansion to continue at a time when the overall population of Cuyahoga County and the surrounding six counties is flat — a climate in which some communities benefit at the expense of others. Under the new policy, the agency would look at how a new interchange could affect the region as a whole, not just the locality seeking one.

"The more we can look at things comprehensively and provide better quantitative analysis to make decisions, absolutely it’s a big deal,'' said Grace Gallucci, NOACA’s executive director.

The new policy could be approved in December by NOACA’s 46-member board of directors, which includes Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish, and county commissioners from the commissioner-led counties, plus a proportional representation of officials from the counties and the City of Cleveland. Several state agencies are also represented.

Gallucci said she’s confident the interchange policy will be approved because it was initiated by NOACA’s executive committee, which includes the top leaders from each of the five counties represented on the board, and Valarie McCall, the City of Cleveland’s chief of government and international affairs.

Affected proposals

If approved, the policy could determine the fate of requests for as many as eight new interchanges across the five-county region.

The proposals include:

- New full interchanges at I-71 and Ohio 57 in southern Medina County, and at I-271 and White Road at the edge of Lake and Cuyahoga counties in Willoughby Hills and Mayfield, respectively.

- A new, partial interchange at I-71 and Boston Road at the edge of Cuyahoga and Medina counties in Strongsville and Brunswick, respectively.

- Modification of the U.S. 422 interchange at Harper Road in Solon in Cuyahoga County.

- Expansion of partial interchanges to full ones at I-480 and Granger Road in Garfield Heights, and at I-77 and Miller Road in Brecksville, both in Cuyahoga County; and at Ohio 44 and Jackson Road in Painesville in Lake County.

- A new ramp at the intersection of Ohio 57 and Ohio 10, south of Elyria, in Lorain County.

Gallucci cautions against thinking that highways are responsible for all of the region’s problems, or that adjusting the system could fix them.

But in many ways, the new interchange policy is an attempt to address historical injustices.

Benefits and costs

Launched by the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, the interstate system is considered by some historians the biggest public works project in history.

The federal government provided states with 90 percent of the funding to build a network that has reached nearly 47,000 miles coast to coast, enabling unprecedented mobility.

But during the early decades of construction, engineers slammed highways through cities, destroying neighborhoods and displacing more than a million people, many of them low-income minorities.

Then, by creating high-speed access to previously undeveloped rural land, highways pulled people, jobs, money and development away from cities such as Cleveland and inner-ring suburbs such as Maple Heights to outlying majority-white counties and communities.

The pattern has been evident for decades, but new data on property tax values provided to The Plain Dealer and by researchers at Cleveland State University underscores the importance of reckoning with the impact of highways on the region.

The research, which occurred independently of NOACA’s development of its new policy, was conducted at The Plain Dealer’s request by the Northern Ohio Data & Information Service (NODIS) at Cleveland State University.

Charting winners and losers

Researchers Charles Post and Mark Salling, and Tom Bier, a senior fellow at CSU’s Levin College of Urban Affairs, compiled inflation-adjusted, decade-by-decade assessed values from the Ohio Department of Taxation for residential, commercial and industrial property in 226 communities in Cuyahoga, Geauga, Lake, Lorain, Medina, Portage and Summit counties during the highway era.

Analysis of the data by The Plain Dealer shows that from 1960 to 2018:

- Cleveland was the biggest loser, with a tax base that fell 66 percent from $14.1 billion to $4.8 billion.

- Akron was the second biggest loser, falling $4.3 billion to $2.5 billion, a 42% decline.

- The other top 10 tax-base losers included Cleveland’s East-Side Inner-Ring suburbs, such as Euclid, East Cleveland, Cleveland Heights, Shaker Heights, Garfield Heights, and Maple Heights. All have had to raise residential property tax rates to between $3,000 and $4,035 per $100,000 of home value to keep up with expenses, the highest level in the seven-county region, reported in January.

The biggest tax-base winner was Strongsville at the southwest corner of Cuyahoga County, which straddles I-71, built during the 1960s. The community saw an 896 percent increase in its property tax base between 1960 and 2018.

Other top 10 communities in tax-base growth include Westlake, North Royalton and Solon in Cuyahoga County, Mentor in Lake County, Avon, Avon Lake and North Ridgeville in Lorain County, and Hudson and Stow in Summit County.

Meanwhile, over the six-decade period, Cuyahoga County’s total property tax base fell from $30.2 billion to $29.3 billion.

It was the only one of the region’s seven counties to see a decline. And its share of the region’s total property tax base shrank from 69 percent in 1960 to 45 percent in 2018.

Overall, the seven-county tax base grew from $44 billion to $65 billion over 60 years, with most of the change occurring in residential property values. This "growth'' occurred while the area’s overall population remained flat during the same period at roughly 2.7 million.

Tomorrow’s losers

The lack of population growth means the same number of residents are paying for larger and larger amounts of infrastructure needed to serve low-density development, creating a recipe for raising taxes everywhere.

Data on the NOACA website predicts an average 33.7 percent gap between revenue and spending in the five counties it oversees by 2040, unless, of course, taxes are raised.

The forecasts come from the Vibrant NEO 2040 project, completed in 2014 by the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium, the biggest regional planning effort in 50 years.

The 12-county vision called for redeveloping aging urban centers and putting the brakes on outward growth.

NOACA’s proposed new interchange policy embodies the fiscal prudence advocated by Vibrant NEO project, but is also rooted in the NOACA board’s new commitment to racial equity in planning, featured prominently on its website since July.

The commitment was an outgrowth of the board’s focus on equity since Gallucci’s arrival as director in 2012. But it also coincided with the rising national awareness of racial inequality and the Black Lives Matter protests spurred by the police killing in May of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, in Minneapolis.

Winning praise

Awareness of NOACA’s emerging policy on interchanges is growing, and it’s winning praise.

"It’s long overdue,'' said Edward Kraus, mayor of Solon, a city that has benefited enormously from proximity to the highway system. “In light of everything that’s happened this year, but also the inequities that have occurred for many, many years, I think what they’re doing is very forward thinking, very progressive, and I think it bodes well for how we maybe stabilize the region.”

Jack Marchbanks, director of the Oho Department of Transportation, said he applauds NOACA for developing its new policy, particularly with a focus on racial equity.

"To my mind this is the first time it’s been called out in an MPO’s policy,'' he said. (An MPO is a Metropolitan Planning Organization, a layer of government created by the federal government in 1962 to coordinate regional transportation planning and spending).

NOACA’s approach to highway interchanges, however, contrasts with ODOT’s $125 million proposal to widen 9.2 miles of I-77 in Summit County between Cleveland and Akron from two to three lanes in each direction.

The feasibility analysis for the project, which could be built in two phases by 2028, doesn’t take into account how the expansion will affect Akron or Northeast Ohio as a region.

Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan has stated a goal of increasing his city’s population from 198,000 to 250,000 by 2050. But the city’s director of planning and urban development, Jason Segedy, said: “I don’t think there’s a world in which adding the lanes helps our goal.”

Some conservatives denounce efforts to boost funding for transit and transportation policies that help cities as “social engineering,” he said, but added: “You could make a good case it’s social engineering to be constantly adding highway capacity in a shrinking region and contributing to sprawl.”

Case study

After nearly 20 years of experience as a property tax analyst at Deloitte, Thomson Reuters and Ryan LLC, Blackwell was elected as the first Black mayor and first female mayor of Maple Heights in 2016.

Today, she sees her city as a case study in what happens to an older suburb when highways add development value to more distant communities.

Nearly half of the modest bungalows in the five square miles of Maple Heights were built in the 1950s when it was a majority white suburb connected by the street grid to Cleveland’s southeast side.

The suburb’s population peaked in 1970 at 34,100, before I-480 sliced along its northern edge, shortening the commute time to outlying job hubs and suburbs including Solon and Twinsburg.

As whites left, Maple Heights turned majority Black over the last 20 years, and its population has fallen to 22,300. Blackwell watches now as Maple Heights residents who can’t afford to own a car struggle to reach jobs in Solon, where 900 businesses including Swagelok and Nestle employ more than 28,000 people.

The CSU data show that between 1960 and 2018, the tax base of Maple Heights shrank 52 percent, from $521.2 million to $249.2 million.

It was among the top 10 tax-base losers.

Blackwell said she didn’t think the highway system was designed in Northeast Ohio with racist intent, nor does she blame residents in outlying majority white suburbs for seeking better schools and bigger houses.

But she said that if the highway system continues to spur outward growth that creates disadvantages for low-income minority communities like hers, such actions could be considered racist.

"If I am making a conscious choice not to fix something that is wrong, that hurts you and diminishes you in some way, that’s wrong,'' she said.


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