Street calming, bike lane investment at risk in mayor's budget proposal

CINCINNATI -- Among Mayor John Cranley's proposed budget cuts for the next fiscal year, some improvements to the city's streets could be on the chopping block.

Out of $3.75 million in proposed cuts in capital spending for fiscal year 2019, Cranley's budget recommendation calls for $2.4 million in reductions in street improvements, sidewalk repairs, traffic signal upgrades, bike infrastructure, street calming projects, replacement of the city's aging fleet of service vehicles and other programs that maintain and upgrade the city's streetscapes.

All but the service vehicle fleet reductions -- which amount to a little less than $1 million -- are direct hits to the Department of Transportation and Engineering.

The city's Budget and Finance Committee heard from department heads about the proposed budget during a marathon special meeting Monday afternoon.

Street calming, protected bike lane on the line

Efforts to calm traffic -- that is, measures to reduce speeding -- on some city streets will take a fatal hit for the next year under the mayor's recommendations. The mayor's proposal would see a 100 percent reduction to the Street Calming Program's 2019 budget. 

"DOTE would not be able to address any new requests for street calming in FY 2019," acting City Manager Patrick Duhaney explained.

Street calming measures include things such as speed studies, speed enforcement, speed humps, on-street parking lanes, traffic circles -- also known as roundabouts -- and curb extensions, among other efforts.

The reduction in street calming projects also would affect the Department of Public Services, which DOTE contracted to perform roughly $50,000 worth of the work involved, said Duhaney in a June 12 memo -- including roughly $18,000 in salaries and benefits for DPS employees.

On-street bike infrastructure faces cuts in the mayor's budget recommendations, too. The city's Bicycle Transportation Program is facing a $153,000 reduction -- a little more than 40 percent of the program's initial budget for 2019. 

The remaining $200,000 would go toward matching one of two Transportation Alternative grants the DOTE applied for to fund bike projects: construction of the Wasson Way trail and the continuation of the Central Parkway Protected Bike Lane.

If these cuts are approved, only one of those projects will be eligible for the grant money.

"DOTE will have to withdraw one of the applications," Duhaney said.

The required match for the Central Parkway Protected Bike Lane is $150,000 to qualify for a TA grant. The $750,000 match for the Wasson Way trail project is already guaranteed in another DOTE budget line item, specifically listing the Wasson Way. Neither grant would require the matching funds to become available until the year of funds disbursement -- 2021 -- but the city committed to securing the matching funds by the end of this budget cycle. Otherwise, the department will pull the application from consideration.

The Street Improvement Program would take the biggest hit as far as dollars toward upgrading the city's streets. Cranley's recommendation is to cut that program by $396,500. It's a relatively small hit -- only a 4 percent reduction -- but the majority of the program's remaining money will go toward ensuring the DOTE does not face layoffs.

About $300,000 of the program's remaining $8.5 million would go toward improvements on Auburn Avenue, and the rest would go toward maintaining the department's current staffing levels, Duhaney said.

It also would mean other smaller, "miscellaneous" projects would go unfinished. Duhaney named rehabilitation projects on Homestead Place, Wooster Road and Millsdale Street as improvements that would have to wait.

"Going forward, especially when we get to '20-21 ... our capital budget is pretty small," said interim DOTE Director Don Gindling during a budget hearing Monday afternoon.

During that hearing -- when each department head presented to the Budget and Finance Committee their biggest budgetary headaches -- Gindling did not mention the cuts to street improvements or other DOTE projects.

Instead, he mentioned staff retention and difficulties keeping up with yearly operating costs.

Winding down the CAP?

Reducing spending on street improvements might seem surprising to some given the mayor's championing of the city's Capital Acceleration Plan program, launched in 2016. The CAP program was created as a six-year plan to rehabilitate the city's aging streets and replace its aging fleet of service and administrative vehicles.

"Our city's infrastructure and roads have been neglected for far too long. This dramatic investment in road paving is the first step toward improving neighborhood quality of life and building a city that works for all," Cranley said when the program launched.

Roughly 40 percent of the proposed cuts to these programs -- $985,000 -- is fleet replacement. This is a nearly 25 percent reduction of the fleet replacement program's $4.5 million budget. Also in his June 12 memo, Duhaney said this reduction would not affect public safety vehicles -- think police cruisers, fire vehicles, ambulances, snow plows and the like -- but would mean the city could not purchase 27 new administrative vehicles, five new vans and other larger specialized vehicles.

"Public safety vehicles will be given priority and would not be affected by the fleet replacement reduction," Duhaney wrote.

In a statement to WCPO Tuesday afternoon, Cranley's spokesperson, Holly Stutz Smith pointed to the mayor's previous work to boost road rehabilitation projects since taking office, nearly doubling spending on paving, rehabilitation and preventative maintenance.

"Over the last three years, we have been doing this CAP program to increase road paving and fleet replacement," he told WCPO in December 2017, during a press conference announcing city funding for the aging Western Hills Viaduct. "We sort of surged capital spending to fix our roads. By 2020 we will have caught up on our roads."

The mayor would argue speed humps and other street calming measures should be paid for by a special assessment of the residents benefiting from them, Stutz Smith said. He also is supportive of the $500,000 budgeted for the Pedestrian Safety program.

As for the protected bike lane, the mayor has never been discrete about his disapproval of the project.

"The mayor opposes the Central Parkway bike lane as configured because nobody rides it, and it's not safe," Stutz Smith said.

Other cuts to the DOTE's budget under the mayor's recommendations include $44,000 in Downtown infrastructure, neighborhood gateway improvements and traffic signal upgrades and maintenance. Many of these cuts would result in pausing capital projects, as the remaining funds would go toward maintaining current staff levels.

The City Council has until June 30 to approve a budget for fiscal year 2019.

Pat LaFleur reports on transportation and mobility for WCPO. Connect with him on Twitter (@pat_laFleur) and on Facebook.

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