Situational Assessment of a Proposed Regional Transportation Network in Ohio

CBI and Partners Assess The Potential for Establishing a Collaborative Process to Explore Ohio’s Transportation Future

Background and Challenges

To some, Greater Cincinnati is in the midst of a traffic crisis, with outdated transportation networks limiting the connectivity between the city’s center and its eastern communities. In an attempt to enact a regional solution to improve travel and access in the area, transportation planners and others interested in economic development created the Eastern Corridor Program, covering approximately 165 square miles east from downtown Cincinnati through Hamilton County. The Ohio State Route 32 (SR-32) Relocation Project, a component of the Eastern Corridor Program raises particularly important and at times conflicting interests from transportation, environmental, historical, and community standpoints. In 2006, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) issued a Record of Decision authorizing more intensive evaluation and design of the Program, including the relocation of SR-32. This decision intensified concerns of both supporters and opponents of a SR-32.

Given the growing focus on the project, the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) and FHWA sought assistance from the U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution (the Institute) to ameliorate the conflict. The Institute selected CBI in 2013 to prepare a situation assessment and examine whether a collaborative process might effectively inform future decisions about the project.

The situation assessment aimed to: articulate key themes that emerged from discussions with a representative range of interested parties; evaluate where stakeholder interests are shared, complementary, or opposing; identify any issues that might be negotiable and potentially tractable through consensus building as well as any matters that appear irreconcilable; and assess the feasibility of designing a collaborative process that could be helpful to the key stakeholders.

The CBI Approach

CBI Interviewed Regional Stakeholders to Identify Key Interests and Analyze the Relationship Dynamics among Parties

CBI began the process by interviewing over one hundred stakeholders as the basis for preparing this document during the summer of 2014. While the primary focus of these conversations related to the proposed relocation of SR-32, interviewees also raised issues related to the proposed rail component and, to a lesser extent, other transit options such as bike paths, bus transit, and streetcars.

CBI then synthesized the interviews, identifying three key perspectives. One prevailing view was that SR-32 is an essential and well-conceived element of the Eastern Corridor Program, which could yield multiple, widespread and needed benefits related to connectivity, congestion relief, safety and economic development. A second prevailing perspective was that the relocation of SR-32 is not necessary—there is no pressing purpose or need for such a project, and it would cause unacceptable impacts to the natural environment, historic resources, community character and quality of life. The third narrative was that there are legitimate transportation and economic development needs and that a relocated SR-32 might be able to address them, but the lack of consensus on how to move forward needs to be overcome.

CBI assessed the extent to which the key interests underlying these perspectives were shared, complementary or opposing, and also highlighted the central issues requiring attention, including: improving transportation safety and efficiency; protecting the natural environment; facilitating regional economic development; protecting quality of life issues; being fiscally responsible and allocating limited dollars to the most pressing needs; safeguarding historic and archeological resources; and making decisions in a reasonable timeframe.

In addition, CBI analyzed the prevalent dynamics among the parties with an interest in the project. These include a widespread difficulty of understanding more than one perspective and reciprocal feelings of being mischaracterized. Moreover, concerns about trust have arisen among and between key players and has hampered productive dialogue. Furthermore, while some describe the SR-32 Relocation Project as a pioneering model of “bottom up” development and collaborative public engagement, others see a process that has lacked transparency, accountability, and responsiveness to concerns.

Results

CBI Identifies Options for Collaboratively and Inclusively Exploring the SR-32 Relocation

CBI compiled its analysis into the final situation assessment. The assessment identifies eight possible, non-exclusive next steps the decision makers could consider in deciding whether and how to move ahead with the SR-32 relocation component of the Eastern Corridor Program:

  • Do not proceed with the project at the present time
  • Obtain additional information related to the view of key regulatory agencies before making a decision of whether or not to proceed
  • Convene a diverse and manageably sized group of representative interests to consider one or more paths forward
  • Revisit project assumptions and fundamentally rethink the proposed plan
  • Engage in joint fact-finding around purpose and need issues
  • Develop a potential new SR-32 alignment to a greater level of detail
  • Move ahead with a phased project
  • Proceed as proposed fulfilling NEPA and its public engagement requirements

Following the release of the assessment, CBI and the Institute encouraged all interested parties to consider the information provided in thinking about the nature of the present challenge. CBI noted that, while no solution may satisfy everyone, it is possible to take a more inclusive, collaborative approach to the decision making – an effort that has potential to build trust and generate more creative and useful options that have a better chance of meeting as broad a range of interests as possible. In August, 2015, the Ohio Department of Transportation announced they would not pursue a relocation of SR-32. They are currently re-examining other ways to meet the needs in the area.

Photo Credit: Doug Kerr / Flikr