Building Opportunity and Economic Vitality in a "Forgotten Triangle"

In Cleveland, an ambitious multimodal and new roadway connector project is advancing rapidly, with a mission of improving transportation linkage with neighborhoods and businesses, improving mobility between the Interstate Highway system and a major health, cultural and educational district and supporting economic development in the adjacent neighborhoods.

By Matt Wahl, PE, Senior Project Manager | HNTB

In 2000, the Ohio Department of Transportation began studying the possibility of creating an “Opportunity Corridor” in Cleveland, in response to comments the public shared during the city’s earlier I-90 Innerbelt Modernization study. As the Opportunity Corridor concept took shape, it became more than a project to improve a roadway system and mobility – it accepted the challenge of sparking planned economic development within a historically underserved, economically depressed area in Cleveland.

Here are a few highlights about ODOT’s approach to planning and building this innovative corridor.

1.Engaging a wide range of stakeholders and earning the community’s trust

As with many projects, success is dependent upon the community’s support and involvement. At one time,  a new interstate highway was planned through this area. So the community initially saw the new Opportunity Corridor roadway cutting through and dividing their community rather than supporting its revitalization. Thus, it was a challenge to gain public trust regarding the new urban boulevard and how it would improve access for cars, bicycles and pedestrians between the neighborhoods, as well as support economic development.

From the start, ODOT engaged local stakeholders through a steering committee made up of federal, state, regional, county, city and neighborhood representatives. There were numerous individual and group meetings with residents and businesses to better understand each neighborhood’s strengths, challenges and opportunities. The project team drew on this early input to further develop the project’s alternative routes before presenting the information to the broader community. Public meetings were held subsequently at critical decision points to seek the community’s comments and questions. This kind of engagement continued throughout construction, with quarterly project newsletters being distributed, dedicated public involvement staff attending community events to share project information, and contractors becoming involved in the community, developing partnerships and working to improve the neighborhoods.

2. Creating partnerships and programs to generate new job and career opportunities

In discussions with residents of the area, many expressed the need for jobs and job training so that those living in the community could get the qualifications necessary to obtain work. In response to this feedback and as an environmental mitigation measure, the project committed $500,000 to Ohio Means Jobs, a collaborative workforce system that helps local employers meet their talent needs while also helping job seekers find success. The funding is making on-the-job training opportunities available to residents within the impacted neighborhoods. Two community ambassadors were also brought in to identify and assist those interested in job training. Importantly, this training has not been restricted just to construction trades – and it has resulted in hundreds of job placements for area residents in fields such as health care and social services, manufacturing, administrative, sales, customer service, general labor and more.

Additional project specific on-the-job training hours were set aside for the design and construction for all three sections of the Opportunity Corridor project which totaled approximately 40,000 hours. These on-the-job training goals have been exceeded for Sections 1 and 2 of the project, and have already exceeded Section 3 goals with several more months of construction work remaining.

3. Collaborating with private-sector partners to spark sustainable economic development

The steering committee mentioned above included leaders from the Greater Cleveland Partnership (GCP), the local chamber of commerce, which funded a project representative position to participate in numerous aspects of the project. This person provided coordination activities that included transportation, outreach, land assembly, workforce development and diversity and inclusion sub-committees. GCP worked with philanthropic organizations that funded both an economic development analysis and a greenway study. The GCP also worked with the city to support land acquisition strategies and to market parcels for redevelopment.

4. Turbocharging diversity and inclusion through an innovative funding strategy

The Cleveland Opportunity Corridor project is uniquely funded with proceeds generated from Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Commission revenue bonds as well as funding from county and city sources. Because the project is using no federal dollars for construction, ODOT was able to establish unique contractor participation diversity and inclusion requirements. These requirements established four specific subcontractor participation categories working on the project: new contractor, small contractor, local contractor and designated state EDGE (Encouraging Diversity, Growth & Equity) program contractor. ODOT is proud of the success they have seen in subcontractors’ participation as each section of the project has progressed. It is an impressive trajectory: Section 1 Prime Contractor utilized 10 different subcontractors; Section 2 Prime Contractor utilized 36 subcontractors; and Section 3 Prime Contractor so far has utilized 86 subcontractors.

5. Transforming the Environmental Impact Statement into a powerful communication platform

In support of the community engagement efforts, the Opportunity Corridor Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was developed in a way to better communicate project details and the decision-making process to all stakeholders. Due to the project’s urban setting and the fact that its primary impact would be to Environmental Justice populations, ODOT realized that the EIS had to be readily understandable to the general public. Therefore both the Draft EIS and Final EIS were developed in a reader-friendly format that provided technical information in clear, visually appealing ways that could be easily read. The EIS was shared online as well as in public places such as local community development corporations, public library branches, recreation centers and other locations. Based on the nature of comments residents shared about the Draft EIS, it was clear that they understood the information presented in the document.

ODOT and its partners envision that this project will not only improve the transportation system, but support planned economic development in the area. As new businesses come into the Opportunity Corridor area, and existing ones expand, it is anticipated that the residents will begin to see this economically depressed area transition to a new chapter in its history – one with shops, restaurants and many other necessities – in particular, good jobs – only a short walk, bike or drive away.

Matt Wahl, PE, currently serves as HNTB's section manager for Ohio’s Roadway Design Department. He brings 29 years of experience with a diverse background working on roadway, drainage, pavement, traffic control, maintenance of traffic, right-of-way and utility relocation projects. He has designed and managed projects from preliminary engineering through final design, including complex reconstruction projects along heavily developed urban corridors, where the facilities have ranged from local roadways to interstates. Matt has also successfully managed numerous general engineering services (GES) contracts, including eight GES contracts for Cuyahoga County, Ohio and three for ODOT District 12. In addition, Matt has served as project manager for Opportunity Corridor — a three-mile boulevard designed to improve access to jobs, education and culture in University Circle and revitalize Cleveland neighborhoods — since its conception in 2004.

Source: Amanda McFarland, Northeast Ohio Public Information Officer