Thursday, February 13, 2014

Why we should build the Opportunity Corridor, and why its critics are wrong

The boulevard to University Circle would begin here, where I-490 abruptly ends at East 55th Street and a junkyard.

When I wrote my commentary about the Opportunity Corridor in the magazine's current issue, I resisted the urge to spend the entire piece arguing against the activists who want to stop the road.

The $331 million boulevard from I-490 to University Circle has funding and preliminary approval. It’s going to be built. I think it’s time to ask a new question. How can Cleveland make sure this project benefits the neighborhoods it’ll go through as well as the neighborhood it’ll go to?

But naturally, when my piece went online, the boulevard’s opponents challenged my arguments for building the road in tweets and comments. Here are some of their responses and what I think.

The Opportunity Corridor’s opponents have dominated the conversation about the boulevard for the last six months. You can read their arguments in The Plain Dealer, Scene, Freshwater Cleveland, on their own website, and on anti-Opportunity Corridor outlets such as RustWire, GreenCityBlueLake and Streetsblog.

I’ve read nearly everything written about the project since summer and listened to leaders of the opposition speak at two forums. I disagree with them.

So I wrote a commentary to ask new questions, advance the conversation, and quote people who haven’t been heard from much – leaders in the neighborhoods along the road’s path who support the project and think it could help encourage prosperity there.

Shouldn’t a shrinking city just fix the roads it has? It’s a wise and sensible argument most of the time. But it’s simplistic and unwise when the existing road network is inefficient, irrational, has an obvious missing link, isolates some neighborhoods, was built for another economic era, and doesn’t fit where jobs and workers are today. A road network should adapt, not freeze in place.

The issue isn't whether the road might do some good, it is whether it does enough good to spend $350 million on - public money that could be spent elsewhere, or not at all. (Anonymous commenter on story)
Tough question for a frugal guy, but I’ll bite.

Cleveland’s road network has major flaws. It isn’t built to get people across town. It inefficiently funnels traffic bound for University Circle, the region’s second-largest employment center, through downtown, our largest employment center. It breaks up around one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, leaving the area geographically isolated.

Those are problems that a five-lane boulevard, similar to
Chester Avenue, can address. A couple of traffic circles won’t.

The Opportunity Corridor debate reminds me of the argument 10 years ago about the HealthLine, the electric bus line on Euclid Avenue. Critics called it, too, redundant and too expensive at $196 million. They also claimed it would hurt, not help, the corridor it went through.

Now the HealthLine is celebrated as a national model for bus rapid transit. Though much of the billions of dollars in new development along Euclid Avenue would’ve happened anyway, various developers in Midtown and University Circle have cited the HealthLine as one reason they committed to their projects. The Opportunity Corridor could do what the HealthLine did – encourage prosperity to spread to a mostly abandoned neighborhood.

The boulevard’s opponents claim we have plenty of perfectly good roads near University Circle, and for some reason, drivers just aren’t using them. But then they claim a new road wouldn’t solve the traffic jams between downtown and University Circle – it would just attract more traffic.

Well, first, drivers avoid east-west roads like Woodland and Quincy avenues because they aren’t direct routes to University Circle. They’re narrow streets, two lanes each way, broken up by parked cars. Patchwork ideas for using these roads don’t address the most ridiculous flaw in our road network, the fact that a major thoroughfare, I-490, ends abruptly at a junkyard.

Second, if the Opportunity Corridor brings more traffic to University Circle, great. We need more people to come to Cleveland.

Instead, some of the road’s opponents want to constrict traffic to University Circle. Maybe that works in cities more vibrant and dense than Cleveland. Here it would just hurt the central city by encouraging people to stay home.

I think if it’s easier to get to University Circle, it’ll encourage people to work there and visit the city. If it’s easier to get to the Kinsman’s neighborhood’s so-called Forgotten Triangle, it’ll be more attractive to businesses.

But I sense a cliché of political debate behind the question. If someone supports a significant project, they’re often portrayed as thinking it’s a magic bullet that’ll solve everything.

No, good transportation infrastructure doesn’t automatically attract jobs and prosperity. It’s just a prerequisite for attracting jobs and prosperity.

Of course the “Forgotten Triangle” has a lot of problems besides geographic isolation. That’s why didn’t write a simple defense of the road, but an argument about the work Cleveland still has to do for the Opportunity Corridor to live up to its name.


Anonymous said...

Mr. Trickey, your Cleveland Magazine story on the OC is so short, I thought I might have to be a subscriber to get the whole article. But, alas, that's not the case. Can you please help us understand why your publication limits your stories to such an insignificant amount?

Erick Trickey said...

Dear Anonymous,

My main story in the print edition is 1,177 words. This blog post is 773 words. I've got one more post coming on the subject.

I appreciate hearing from a reader who wants even more in-depth coverage of an important issue! But compared to most of the journalism industry in 2014, more than 1,900 words is actually a lot.