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NOACA ready to say ‘no’ to three new suburban highway interchanges based on detailed cost-benefit analysis

The Plain Dealer  Cleveland logo The Plain Dealer Cleveland 4/26/2021 Steven Litt, cleveland.com
a view of the side of a road: Medina County has sought a new interchange at Ohio 57 and I-71 on the less-developed southern side of the county. © John Pana/cleveland.com Medina County has sought a new interchange at Ohio 57 and I-71 on the less-developed southern side of the county.

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Northeast Ohio’s biggest transportation planning agency is poised to nix, for now, three of the eight current proposals across the five-county region to build new or enhanced highway interchanges, according to recommendations prepared by the agency’s staff.

Those recommendations, prepared by staff at NOACA, the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency, include turning down new full interchanges proposed at I-71 and Route 57 in Medina, I-71, and Boston Road in Strongsville, and I-271 and White Road in Northeast Cuyahoga County.

A fourth interchange isn’t yet ready for consideration because its concept hasn’t been developed enough. Four others, involving the redesign or completion of partial interchanges, might go ahead if they meet certain conditions.

The recommendations could be approved June 11 by NOACA’s 46-member board, which includes a proportional representation of officials from Cuyahoga, Geauga, Lake, Lorain, and Medina counties.

The interchange projects could help determine whether the region steers toward additional sprawl that benefits automobile-dependent, majority-white suburbs at the expense of older urban areas or development that benefits the entire region.

NOACA hasn’t formally announced the preliminary findings on the interchanges in a news release. A detailed staff presentation about the recommendations is available on the agency’s website.

New lens

The interchange recommendations are the first to be based on a detailed new method of cost-benefit analysis approved by the agency’s board in December.

The new method takes into account traditional measures such as the local cost of traffic congestion, safety, and air pollution, versus economic benefits. It also looks for the first time at issues such as racial and economic equity and environmental sustainability across the entire region.

Among other things, the agency wants to create a clearer public understanding of how new interchanges could add to a decades-old, zero-sum pattern in which new points of access to interstate highways can spur local development that moves jobs, tax base, and investment from older communities to newer ones.

The issue is acute for Northeast Ohio because the region isn’t gaining population. Instead, it has sprawl without growth.

Basis for negotiation

NOACA also wants to facilitate solutions when difficult choices over interchanges arise.

For example, the agency’s board could approve a proposal by the southern Cuyahoga County City of Brecksville to complete the partial Interstate 77 interchange at Miller Road, which is needed to serve a new research and development facility planned for Sherwin-Williams Co.

According to NOACA’s new analysis, adding two new on- and off-ramps at the exit would add daily costs in the immediate “influence area” of $6,766 a day from added congestion, emissions, safety issues, and maintenance.

Grace Gallucci, NOACA’s executive director, said in a recent interview that the cost-benefit analysis shows that the project would fall within a “break-even” calculation under criteria for turning a partial interchange into a full one.

She said her agency understands that the interchange is necessary for the Sherwin-Williams project to proceed, and to help Brecksville city redevelop the former Veterans Administration hospital site vacated when the health care facility moved to Cleveland.

At the same time, NOACA recognizes that the Sherwin-Williams facility will pull hundreds of jobs from Cleveland and Warrensville Heights.

Therefore the staff is recommending that Brecksville should discuss compensating the other two cities for the lost jobs and taxes.

“We would leave those discussions to Brecksville, Cleveland, and Warrensville Heights, and we will facilitate those discussions,’' Gallucci said.

NOACA also wants the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority to increase service to Brecksville, to enable workers in urban areas to reach the new suburban jobs.

Mayors respond

Warrensville Heights Mayor Bradley Sellers, who first learned of those proposals Thursday from cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer, said he was pleased to hear that NOACA is looking out for his city.

Gallucci said she is in the process of setting up a meeting with Brecksville Mayor Jerry Hruby and Sellers. Hruby did not respond to an email and a phone message seeking comment.

Warrensville Heights, an inner-ring Cleveland suburb, will lose more than 400 jobs and $2 million a year in payroll and other taxes when the Sherwin-Williams automotive paint division moves to Brecksville, Sellers said.

“It’s refreshing to hear that there are people in the room who are at least advocating for the people on the other side of the deal,’' he said.

The administration of Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson said that the “criteria that NOACA has instituted will help ensure that decisions are made that consider the impacts on people, places and our economy.

“For far too long, policies have favored sprawl and increased vehicle miles traveled. The legacy of past policies have had negative implications for our environment and have negatively impacted vulnerable communities.”

Jackson’s statement went on to say that “we must ensure our infrastructure investments support diversity in transportation options, [and] do not contribute to sprawl, and that we are reversing the implications of climate change.”

Proposals at a glance

In addition to the recommendation for the I-77 Miller Road interchange, NOACA’s staff looked favorably at completing partial interchanges at I-480 and Granger Road in Garfield Heights, and at Ohio 44 at Jackson Street in Painesville.

A proposal to redesign the U.S. 422 interchange at Harper Road in Solon should go ahead because it’s not a true expansion and doesn’t require a full-bore cost-benefit analysis, according to the staff recommendations.

Another proposal, to expand the interchange at state Routes 10 and 57 in Elyria, should be deferred for future analysis because its concept hasn’t been developed far enough.

Approval of the recommended projects by NOACA’s board would mean including them in the agency’s next four-year update of its Long Range Transportation Plan, eNEO 2050, thereby making them eligible for state or federal funding.

Established in 1968 by the federal government, NOACA is one of hundreds of multi-county metropolitan planning organizations, or MPOs, designated to coordinate regional spending of federal and state money on transportation.

In its early decades, NOACA oversaw the construction and expansion of the region’s interstate highways, which coincided with massive suburban development and loss of population and tax base in cities.

As the highway network expanded over the past 60 years, for example, Cleveland’s commercial, industrial and residential tax base fell 66 percent from $14.1 billion to $4.8 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars, according to data collected for cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer by researchers at Cleveland State University’s CSU’s Levin College of Urban Affairs.

Avoiding future fights

In the 2000s, the NOACA board became embroiled in a bitter argument over whether adding a new interchange at Nagel Road in Avon in Lorain County would pull jobs and development away from Cleveland and Westlake.

Under Gallucci, who became NOACA’s director in 2012, the agency has sought to avoid such conflicts. It has also developed a stronger focus on racial and economic equity, including in its analysis of proposals for new interchanges.

NOACA’s analytical techniques enable it to quantify and map how much auto or truck traffic, expressed in vehicle miles traveled, would occur within a specific geography if a new interchange was added to the interstate system.

A “heat map’' prepared by the agency depicts the traffic increases for seven of the eight proposed interchanges deemed ready for full-scale analysis as a series of multicolored, amoeba-shaped blobs spreading over the region.

Of those seven, the new full interchange proposed for I-71 at Ohio Route 57 in southern Medina County would create the most traffic over the largest area, spreading over nearly the entire southeast quadrant of the county.

NOACA’s analysis showed that within the immediate influence area, the exit would create average daily costs of $3,144 caused by traffic congestion, emissions, safety issues, and road maintenance. That figure doesn’t meet the agency’s cost-benefit threshold for adding a complete new interchange, Gallucci said.

However, she said that the Medina interchange the two others that didn’t make the cut now might be eligible for consideration in the future if underlying conditions change, such as whether the region gains population.

“We have to change things for the betterment of the region,’' she said. The interchange in Medina, for instance, could get another look if the “county gets increased population or increased jobs from outside the region that benefits the whole region,’' she said.

But she said any such growth “has to be at a certain threshold where it outweighs the cost.”

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