Sunday, June 13, 2004

Does planning at OKI place region at risk?

By Haynes Goddard
Guest columnist

Now that the relatively high price of gasoline is attracting attention and some experts think that this is the beginning of a permanently higher level of gas prices, the lack of viable mass transit alternatives to highways and cars in our region is becoming painfully obvious to many. It is a good time to ask why it is that transport infrastructure planning in our region is still focused solely on roads.

Our news media regularly report that complaints are increasing over dramatically growing highway congestion and clogged roads in suburban communities, and that there is rising and vocal resistance to the sprawled development that creates these problems. For those of us who use the region's interstates regularly, it is clear that the peak congestion periods are starting earlier and lasting longer everywhere on the system. It should be clear that we have all our eggs in one transportation basket - highways.

Should gasoline prices continue at an elevated level, the fact that our travel options are limited to just highways will raise our cost of living and reduce our competitiveness relative to other regions that have diversified or are diversifying their transport infrastructure.

The Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI) is our federally mandated regional planning organization that is required to conduct transportation planning for this region. As a first in our region, OKI has conducted with outside guidance and assistance two sophisticated benefit-cost analyses of transportation alternatives to meet projected growth in demand for mobility in this region. These studies indicate that our transport system is unbalanced and that the largest payoff is for investment in integrated bus and light rail systems, and not additional highways. Additional major highway investments are shown to perform poorly, even generating negative benefits on balance.

As has been recently reported, the OKI Board of Trustees is discussing the 30-year long-range transportation plan for this region. Unfortunately for the region's economic health, the process by which this plan is being formulated totally ignores the "best practice" transportation appraisal techniques utilized in the earlier benefit-cost studies, using instead an ad hoc and unjustifiable method of ranking and choosing proposed transport projects.

The new Executive Director of OKI, Mark Policinski, has inherited a "business as usual" approach to planning our transportation future, and the resulting plan is completely highway focused. This, in spite of the fact that this region has been classified by the US Environmental Protection Agency as violating health based air quality standards for fine particulate matter and for ozone, both of which are considered by medical researchers to be important factors in the incidence of asthma in the children. Data from Hamilton County indicate that vehicular emissions contribute nearly 50 percent of one of the major air pollutants implicated in this problem, and of that amount, nearly 70 percent is from private autos.

Certainly this is an issue that the newly formed Clean Air Consortium (OKI, the Chamber of Commerce and major local business) should take up soon. The OKI Web site states "The Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI) regional transportation plan defines local commitments to promote alternatives to automobile travel and to enhance mobility while minimizing highway construction." An examination of the projects in the long-range transportation plan being considered at OKI clearly indicates that OKI in fact pays no attention that statement.

Further, the turmoil in the Middle East makes it clear that the security of our energy supplies is subject to more risk than has been true for some time. Nonetheless, transport planning at OKI continues to ignore this risk by failing to analyze alternative future scenarios for energy availability and cost and how those scenarios should guide us in making prudent choices for our transportation infrastructure.

This region's leaders need to undertake a thorough examination of the problems at OKI and ensure better planning there. This process should start with an independent commission of regional leaders and experts that would conduct a thorough review of OKI's operations and its decision-making processes. It is time for community leaders to step up to confront the challenges the region faces, as our economic well being depends upon it.

Haynes Goddard is professor of economics at the University of Cincinnati and led the panel of experts that oversaw the economic analyses for the I-71 and I-75 Corridor Committees at OKI.

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