Mid-Sized Cities with Declining Populations Face Water Infrastructure Dilemma

October 31st, 2016

By John Collier, GOPC Research & Conference Support Intern, and Jon Honeck, GOPC Senior Policy Fellow

The United States Government Accountability Office recently released a report on the water infrastructure dilemma occurring in the United States’ mid-sized and large cities with declining population.  GAO’s analysis was requested by Congressman Paul Tonko (D-NY), to understand the unique challenges these cities face in repairing and replacing water and sewer infrastructure.   The GAO noted that U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) surveys of water utilities estimate that over 20 years, $655 billion will have to be spent to maintain, replace, or upgrade the country’s water infrastructure.

GAO interviewed water and wastewater utility officials in 10 cities in the Midwest and Northeast, including Youngstown, Ohio, that experienced large population declines between 1980 and 2010.  Youngstown lost 42% of its population over this time frame.  GAO acknowledged that mid-sized to larger cities with declining populations are generally more economically distressed, and suffer from higher unemployment, higher poverty rates, and lower median incomes. These cities, whose peak population typically was in the 1950s and 1960s, suffer from decreased revenue and increased costs. The characteristics of these legacy cities put them in a unique financial bind.

Nearly all the cities in the report expressed concerns over their ability to control combined sewer overflows. Outdated infrastructure in these legacy cities needs updated, but their financial situation makes this difficult.  All the selected cities in the report have raised utility rates in an effort to raise more revenue, but this results in affordability problems for low-income households.  Low-income households in Youngstown now pay over 8% of their median income for their water and sewer bills on a combined basis, well above EPA guidelines for affordability of 3%.  Although Youngstown and other cities have established payment plans to make utility access affordable for lower-income households, it does not discount bills for low-income households, and the prospect of future rate increases will continue to make affordability difficult. 

One of the interesting findings from the report was that the utilities in the study are adopting asset management plans, but it is very difficult to downsize or “rightsize” their infrastructure despite large areas of vacant housing or vacant land.  Asset management refers to creating a comprehensive inventory of the utility assets and their condition, and integrating this data with maintenance and capital planning.  The utilities noted that downsizing was difficult because they still had to service a few houses in each block, or maintain lines through vacant areas in order to reach neighborhoods farther away.  This response illustrates how difficult it is to separate infrastructure planning from overall land use planning. 

Greater Ohio Policy Center considers the modernization of Ohio’s water infrastructure a critical issue. GOPC has conducted an assessment of the issues Ohio’s legacy cities face, and the need for additional mechanisms, such as green infrastructure as an alternative stormwater management tool.  We believe that asset management and regional consolidation are key outcomes that could be accelerated with additional state incentives.     

More information about water infrastructure and links to GOPC’s reports can be found Here.

 

GOPC Staff Speaks at MORPC Summit on Sustainability and the Environment

October 25th, 2016

By Jon Honeck, Ph.D., GOPC Senior Policy Fellow

Overview

On Friday, October 21, I had the privilege of being a panelist at the MORPC Summit on Sustainability and the Environment, held at the Columbus Hilton Downtown.  The panel’s title was “Looking Ahead, What Are the Important Sustainability Policy Issues?”  The other panelists included Kent Scarrett of the Ohio Municipal League, Jack Shaner of the Ohio Environmental Council, and Holly Nagle of the Columbus Chamber.  Panelists were asked to speak about upcoming issues in the lame duck state legislative session and the 2017 state budget process.  In the short run, panelists agreed that Ohio’s renewable portfolio energy standards are likely to be a top priority of the General Assembly when it returns after the 2016 election.  For the 2017 budget process, I focused my presentation on transportation, water and sewer infrastructure, brownfield remediation, and application of public nuisance statutes to commercial and industrial property. 

Transportation

GOPC is trying to improve state funding for public transit and advocate that the state make progress in an “active transportation” strategy that makes roadways safe for all users, including bicyclists and pedestrians.   The Ohio Department of Transportation budget is considered separately from the state main operating budget bill.  The budget scenario for public transit funding is difficult.   Currently the state only provides about 3 percent of overall public transit funding, with local and federal funds providing the largest shares.  On a per capita basis, Ohio ranks 38th highest in the nation in its support for public transit.  GOPC has proposed some ways to provide dedicated funding from the state, but progress is complicated by the need to replace Ohio’s Medicaid managed care sales tax.  Seven local transit authorities rely on a local sales tax and collectively they received $33.6 million from the sales tax on Medicaid premiums. If this funding goes away without a replacement, significant service cuts will result.

Water and Sewer

Many cities across the state are facing a dual challenge of upgrading aging infrastructure and complying with EPA regulations to fix combined sewer overflows that lead to raw sewage being discharged into waterways during major storms.   Over the next 20 years, the EPA estimates that Ohio utilities will need $14.1 billion for wastewater treatment upgrades and $12.1 billion for drinking water infrastructure.  GOPC’s analysis of the problems facing Ohio legacy cities and the need for additional funding can be found here.  These estimates do not include any potential costs of lead service line replacement that may be needed in the wake of public reaction to the situation in Flint, MI.  Under Ohio House Bill 512, Ohio utilities must complete a map of all lead service water supply lines by March, 2017, a date that is in the midst of the state budget process.  The availability of this information may influence public opinion.   

With the Kasich Administration proposing its final budget, sustainability issues will have to hold their own against education, taxation, criminal justice, and other high profile issues.  GOPC will ensure that advocates are informed and can make the case for sustainability during the budget process.  For more information, please sign up for our email updates. 

 

Developing Safe and Effective Urban Transportation through Alternative Planning Strategies

October 21st, 2016

By Alex Highley, GOPC Project Associate

Implementing creative road planning standards can help Ohio’s local leaders who seek to build neighborhoods where travel by car, bus, bicycle, or foot is safe for everyone. In order to maximize the public’s benefit in using streets and sidewalks, cities around Ohio, the country, and the world have begun to reduce the width of street lanes and lower speed limits to improve safety for all roadway users.

Adjusting the width of street lanes creates room to introduce various modes of transportation or other amenities in that particular space.  For instance,  reducing each lane of a 4-lane road from 12 feet to 10 feet creates an extra 8 feet in width, which cities have converted into a dedicated bike lane or sidewalk protected by a buffer zone. Some cities have chosen to cut down lane space in order to create a row for parked cars, especially in retail and entertainment districts.

Research shows that narrower lanes are no more dangerous than wide roads, and in many cases are actually safer for drivers, bikers and walkers. With narrower roads, drivers are forced to be more mindful of the relative position of their car on the road and potential obstacles and are therefore more cautious while driving. Moreover, by reducing road lane width, cities are able lessen the distance pedestrians and bikers must travel to cross the street, which shrinks their risk of being struck by a vehicle. Such a change in traffic design and the added safety features are likely to encourage more people to choose to walk or bike as a result of feeling more secure when travelling on or near the road.

It is important to note that traffic engineers widely recognize the safe usage of 10-foot wide roads in areas where the speed limit does not exceed 35 miles per hour. In Ohio’s urban areas, most city roads operate with 35 miles per hour limits or less and could accommodate this change. Because not all drivers travel at the posted speed limit, traffic engineers design roads so that they still accommodate motorists travelling a few miles an hour over the speed limit.

In situations where road lane size cannot be reduced (due to other infrastructure considerations, financial constraints or political will), lowering speed limits can reduce the risk of injury or death for all users of the road; a 10 mph reduction in travelling speed is shown to have a significant effect on reducing the seriousness of a pedestrian’s sustained injury after having been hit by a vehicle. In Ohio, the Revised Code dictates the speed limit for a number of road types, including those that run through municipalities.  Many of main “in-town” arteries that connect a community have posted speed limits of 35 mph, even as these arteries become used by more and more bicyclists, transit users, and pedestrians. 

GOPC supports policies that enable communities to make their roadways safer for all users.  Giving communities more local control over posted speed limits and instituting Active Transportation policies that support and promote multimodal usage, results in safer streets, has minimal impact on the flow of cars, and often increases economic activity along the modified route. Learn more here about GOPC’s research and advocacy on this important issue!

 

Positive Trends for Ohio’s Communities, but Recovery Remains Fragile

October 13th, 2016

GOPC Opinion Piece
October 12, 2016

The U.S. Census Bureau recently announced that household income increased and poverty decreased for most Americans in 2015. Census estimates show that these trends held true in most of Ohio as well. This is great news. Without a doubt, gains for Ohioans will help strengthen the economy in our state and local communities.

Yet these encouraging findings must not distract us from the continuing challenges facing Ohio, especially its small and mid-sized cities. Challenges like the shift away from manufacturing, population decline, and concentrated poverty existed long before the Recession but became even more difficult because of it. Creativity and strategic risk-taking by local leaders has resulted in rebounding downtowns, safer neighborhoods, and other reasons for optimism, but past and present Census data strongly suggest that recovery has been fragile and that another downturn could easily undo recent progress.

State and federal lawmakers should support policy solutions that are sensitive to the particular needs of small and mid-sized cities and their regions, which are still transitioning to a new post-industrial economy. Ohio’s long-term prosperity depends on making sure that all of its communities are able to thrive. While the news from the Census Bureau should be celebrated, there is more to be done to guarantee that these positive trends hold steady in the face of future economic dips.

Don’t Miss GOPC’s Upcoming Webinar on Ohio’s Small and Mid-Sized Legacy Cities

October 12th, 2016

In conjunction with the Ohio CDC Association, GOPC will co-host a Webinar on October 27th, 2016 from 10:00-11:30am that will examine how smaller legacy cities, from Akron to Zanesville, have fared over the last 15 years. GOPC will share best practices that smaller legacy cities throughout the Midwest and Northeast used to jumpstart revitalization and that community development practitioners can catalyze and implement.

GOPC recently presented on its latest work on small and mid-sized legacy cities at the Reclaiming Vacant Properties Conference in Baltimore. To learn more about this, please check out our October 2016 Newsletter.

 

We hope you join us for the Webinar on October 27th – click here to sign up!

 

Ohio CDC

 

 

GOPC Joins 1,000 Change Makers from Across the Country at the Reclaiming Vacant Properties Conference in Baltimore

October 10th, 2016

By Sheldon K. Johnson, GOPC Project Manager

Last week, Greater Ohio Policy Center staff and Board of Trustee members attended the Reclaiming Vacant Properties (RVP) Conference hosted by the Center for Community Progress. The theme of the conference was “In Service of People and Place” and aimed to take a deep look at how innovative reuse of vacant properties can improve the well-being of residents and the communities where they live.

GOPC had the opportunity to learn from local case studies and best practices from around the country that will inform our work of championing revitalization and sustainable growth in Ohio. We also were able to share our expertise with conference attendees. Board of Trustee member Ian Beniston, Executive Director of Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation (YNDC), sat on a panel about Community-Based Stabilization Efforts. He shared details about how YNDC organizes Neighborhood Action Teams to engage volunteers for vacant property clean ups.

GOPC’s former Executive Director, Lavea Brachman, spoke on a panel focused on creating state policy change to support innovative solutions to fighting blight. Brachman also joined current GOPC staff member Torey Hollingsworth to host a presentation and discussion on the report they co-authored about revitalizing small and mid-sized legacy cities. Representatives from several cities included in the study attended the presentation. Check out GOPC’s upcoming October newsletter for a more detailed summary of Hollingsworth and Brachman’s presentation. You can find the newsletter here.

In addition to a variety of informative panel sessions the Reclaiming Vacant Properties Conference also included several engaging plenary sessions. The second day of the conference opened with a breakfast keynote address by Representative Dan Kildee (D-MI). Rep. Kildee addressed the conference the day after Congress voted to provide $170 million in aid to address the Flint water crisis. Kildee, a Flint native, used his remarks to highlight the importance of water and sewer system upgrades (a key issue that GOPC focuses on in Ohio). He also discussed how landbanking and infrastructure investments are key to community revitalization.

dan kildee - ccp

Dan Kildee - Photo Credit: Center for Community Progress

The RVP conference closed with a keynote address from Dr. Matthew Desmond, John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University and author of the bestselling book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Desmond summarized the ethnographic study of low income renters and landlords in Milwaukee, WI that he wrote about in Evicted. He focused largely on the story of Arleen Beale and her two sons as they struggled to stay in safe and affordable housing. Desmond argued that Arleen’s story is representative of many people’s, and that concrete solutions for increasing affordable housing are needed.

matthew desmond - ccp

Matthew Desmond - Photo Credit: Center for Community Progress

The Reclaiming Vacant Properties Conference was a great opportunity for GOPC to connect with partners doing similar work across the country and to reinforce the importance of our work. Attending conferences like these empowers our staff to be better prepared to continue advocating for and building a Greater Ohio!