Wednesday, February 4, 2004 at 12:08 PM
When most people talk about urban sprawl, or the outward migration from the region's core, it usually takes on a negative flavor. However, sprawl is actually a product in part of an efficient transportation system. As part of Making Change: Reinventing Our Economy, ideastream's Shula Neuman reports on that connection and the costs associated with the region's highways and byways.
Randy and Melissa Schneider recently moved from University Heights - where Randy grew up and where his family still lives - to Solon.
The Schneiders have two children: Josh, who's four years old, and Leah, 18 months. Moving wasn't an easy decision for the family. Randy works in mid-town Cleveland and, although Melissa is mostly a stay-at-home mom these days, she's also a planner by trade and consults part time.
Melissa Schneider: A lot of time people in my profession look down at the outer lying communities and sprawl.
But it was a choice the Schneiders felt compelled to make. They wanted a community with an affordable tax structure and one that offered the option of good public schools. Solon offered both. They were able to get a 3,300-square foot house for a fraction of what they'd pay in cities like Beachwood or Shaker Heights. Contrary to the myths she's heard about far-flung suburbs, Melissa found Solon to be just as neighborly as University Heights.
Melissa Schneider: I thought I was going to lose some of that being able to walk to a friend's house and we still have that, so that makes me happy. I can't walk to Heinen's anymore, and that I'll miss, but there is a neighborhood atmosphere in the suburbs.
Solon's population has grown roughly 54% since 1980, mostly because of families like the Schneiders. Randy Schneider says if it weren't for Cleveland's transportation system, suburbs like Solon wouldn't have much appeal.
Randy Schneider: From where I live now for me to go to a meeting on the west side in the morning, I can be there in 30, 35 minutes. That's unheard of in any other major city. It takes a long time to get around in other cities because of the congestion and traffic patterns. Cleveland fortunately has built a decent system around it and it makes it accessible to live in the outlying areas.
At the same time that the region's transportation system is an asset to Northeast Ohio, the population migration that the highways facilitate can also be a detriment. David Beach, executive director of EcoCity Cleveland, says for too long the state has supported policies that encourage development where it's least needed: in places that threaten natural resources and ignore existing assets.
David Beach: The state is making investments every day in all kinds of things from highway infrastructure to helping put sewer lines in, economic development incentives. Those decisions often influence where development is most likely to occur.
Developers are drawn to highway exits and sewer lines. Beach says there are ways to encourage development that can build on existing infrastructure and that don't threaten natural resources, but it requires a change in mentality.
David Beach: So, if we can get our state to have more thoughtful planful effort on where they think development should be promoted, we could target things in more sensible and cost effective way that will save tax payers money in long run.
Better state policy would also help on a local level, where the cost of development is most frequently felt. Medina County commissioner Steve Hambley says his county has experienced a 23% growth rate over the past ten years. Such rapid growth strains the county's schools, public services and especially the roads. But state funding for road improvements to accommodate the swollen population doesn't meet the region's needs. It can't, Hambley says, not as long as the state continues to distribute revenues from gas taxes in such an inequitable fashion.
Steve Hambley: It's not on a mileage basis, it's not on a car basis, it's not on a population basis. It's just straight, "here's the amount we collect statewide and we divide by 88." So no wonder we're not meeting our transportation needs.
Larger counties like Cuyahoga are hit the hardest, Hambley says, which affects anyone in the region who uses Cuyahoga's roads. In fact, all of Ohio is at a disadvantage when it comes to federal transportation funds. Ohio is a donor state. Because of its lack of political clout in congress, it receives about 90 cents for every dollar taken in in gas taxes. Howard Maier, executive director of the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency, or NOACA, says that donor designation could change. There are three bills pending in congress that would overhaul the current federal transportation rules.
Howard Maier: One of them, well the one Congressman LaTourette is promoting, would bring a whole lot more money back to Ohio than the other two. But it also means an increase in gasoline taxes in some way.
Maier says even with new federal funds, the best use of new money may not be to build more highways. Maier says putting money in transportation design, bikeways or enhanced commercial zones, could help the quality of life for everyone in Northeast Ohio. In Cleveland, Shula Neuman, 90.3.