When the American economy dove headfirst into the rocky shoals of the 2008 financial collapse, local governments across the country watched as their reserves hemorrhaged to fund basic daily operations. Things like regular road maintenance and retaining full staffing levels in vital departments became an almost impossible task for many.
While the destructive economic tide has all but receded, it left its watermark on cities like Cincinnati, Ohio, in the form of ailing roads and infrastructure. Anyone in transportation will likely tell you that adequately funding projects in the best of times is difficult; but it’s nearly impossible in the worst of times.
Leaders in the Blue Chip City, however, are taking a new and innovative approach to assessing and addressing their infrastructure needs — and the future looks promising.
When it came to how to tackle critical infrastructure needs, City Manager Harry Black said relying on federal or state funding sources was not a viable option for Cincinnati.
“As you know, federal and state funding to municipalities as it relates to transportation has significantly declined post-2008, obviously exacerbated by the recession. We’re talking federal and state funding since ’08 decreasing between 60 and 70 percent across the board, which is significant,” he said. “So municipalities are really, for the most part, on their own to solve their own problems. There is some help, I don’t want to say that there isn’t, but it’s not help that’s going to move the needle.”
After being tapped by the mayor to meet the infrastructure deficit challenge during a State of the City address, Black said his team started to look toward other funding options that wouldn’t break the bank and would add value to the city’s existing capital improvement plan. Their solution? The Capital Acceleration Plan (CAP).
“It’s designed to be a flexible, just-in-time funding approach that maximizes funding for the identified priority areas over the next six years," he said. "The CAP strategy responsibly leverages existing revenue streams to accelerate funding without diminishing the ability of the city to continue funding its capital needs into the future."
Under the plan, an additional $109 million is provided for fleet and transportation maintenance on an as-needed basis.
“For example, we have a six-year capital improvement plan (CIP). The CAP strategy would be supplemental to that," Black said. "So, we’re not going to impact our existing capital plan, we’re not going to rely on any new revenues and we’re just going to layer this additional supplemental program, the CAP plan, over the top of our existing CIP."
But perhaps more intriguing than the funding model is the technology being used to prioritize roadwork throughout the city. A literal van-full of technology is helping with that.
Similar to a giant mobile document scanner, a van equipped with lasers and video cameras will drive the streets to rate and map the nearly 1,000-center-lane miles.
Michael Moore, director of Transportation and Engineering Department for the city of Cincinnati, said the automated process delivers more comprehensive data than the random boots-on-the-ground sampling methods used in the past.
Road crews used to be responsible for assessing the condition of roads, a process that lacked exactness and the scale needed for an accurate account of the roadway status.
“What’s really interesting about this is that there is a GPS component to it. So every bit of data they collect is coded and we can code this back to our local [geographic information system]," he said. "We then know, pretty much on a granular level, where every pothole is, where we have rutting, where we have a roughness index — all of those things get captured and layered into the GIS system in a way that we don’t do today. It not only takes the subjectivity out, but it makes your sample size infinitely larger. Whereas before we were doing maybe two or three samples per street segment, this basically makes the entire street segment your sample size.”
Moore said the result of the faster, more accurate street survey will be what he calls an interactive “900-mile-long photograph.”
From a maintenance perspective, more accurate assessments and the ability to prioritize projects will mean cost savings for the city. Black and Moore said that when compared to replacement, repair work is far less costly and extends the life of the roads substantially.
“This gives us the baseline data to develop very comprehensive pavement management plan that will detail this preventative maintenance component,” Moore said.
As it stands, city officials say Cincinnati averages at around 52 points on the nationally recognized Pavement Condition Index (PCI), which puts the city in overall “fair” condition. Black said if all goes well under the plan, the number will climb to 73 points by 2024.
“What that means is, currently, on average, we’re repaving 110 lane miles a year and we’re really doing zero preventative maintenance," Black said. "[Using] the CAP strategy, we will continue to repave 110 lane miles — but we’re going to increase it by another 50 to 55 lane miles a year."
Black added that city leadership has been extremely supportive of the efforts to better manage the city’s infrastructure.