The Ohio Department of Transportation is using public engagement methods to identify ways to reduce potential impacts on low-income and minority residents from a new 3.5-mile urban boulevard project in Cleveland.
The environmental justice efforts related to the “Cleveland Opportunity Corridor” project have been well received by residents and have resulted in several strategies approved by the impacted neighborhoods.
The project, which is expected to support the revival and redevelopment of an underserved area of Cleveland, required mitigation to address potential adverse impacts on the high percentage of low income and minority populations living and working within the project area. The project is jointly managed by the Ohio Department of Transportation, the City of Cleveland, Greater Cleveland Partnership, and the Opportunity Corridor Partnership Office.
ODOT begin public engagement in 2009 to obtain input from the affected neighborhoods. ODOT and the city provided information and solicited feedback using fliers posted at churches, community centers, and recreational facilities; verbal and written surveys and questionnaires; map and design exercises; one-on-one meetings; announcements through email, media advisories, direct mail, newspaper advertisements, and press releases; and interviews with residents and local businesses.
Over time, the project team adapted to the needs of the community. For example, reader-friendly newsletters and large-size font size on printed material were created, U.S. Postal Service data were used to reach more people including both property owners and tenants, and postage stamps were made available at meetings to facilitate the mailing of comments.
In-person meetings were designed to encourage participation. Meetings were held both in the evening and during the day to address concerns about safety and to be available to older adults and small business owners. Meetings were held in neutral locations within each neighborhood, and meeting sites were located as close as possible to residents and businesses.
ODOT also allowed attendees to rank and indicate their level of support for various functional elements and amenities, such as wayfinding signage, ornamental lighting, and dedicated bike lanes and streetscape elements.
The flexibility and diversity of public involvement methods allowed the project team to identify what the community felt was important and what types of mitigation measures would be the most beneficial. These methods also allowed ODOT to reach more people in the communities and, therefore, more people were able to participate and provide their input.
Based on these outreach efforts and the project team’s environmental justice impact analysis, ODOT and the City of Cleveland committed to various measures to mitigate potential impacts of the highway project.
One measure is the construction of two pedestrian and bike bridges. The neighborhoods in the project area abut segments of track used by freight railroad and rail transit. As part of the project, ODOT will create a bridge near the southern end of the project near the I-490/E 55th street interchange to provide access over the new boulevard for residents in the nearby neighborhood. The bridge will grant access to the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority transit station just north of the boulevard.
A second bridge for pedestrians and cyclists will replace the existing vehicle bridge on East 89th Street that is scheduled for removal. This will maintain connection between neighborhoods north and south of the railroad tracks.
Additionally, ODOT is contributing $500,000 toward the planned expansion of the Kenneth L. Johnson Recreation Center, a city-owned park and fitness center that is an important community facility community. As another commitment, ODOT is providing at least $500,000 toward diversity hiring, using small and disadvantaged businesses as contractors, and providing job training and employment for people living in the vicinity of the project.
Other mitigation measures include relocation assistance for required and voluntary residential relocations, the installation of noise walls, and enhancements throughout the neighborhoods, such as improved streetscapes, enhanced bus shelters, and more street lighting.
Context-specific public engagement activities assisted the project team in identifying mitigation measures that would best meet the needs of the community. Some of these measures included providing job training and voluntary housing relocation, which are not common mitigation measures for ODOT. Others included improving pedestrian access and safety, which occur much more frequently. Since the public had the opportunity to provide their input and explain what was most important to them at multiple points during project development, ODOT was able to design the project to have lasting benefits.
Challenges and Lessons Learned
The project team knew early in project development that the Opportunity Corridor’s complexity and location would require special consideration. While the goal of the project was to improve quality of life by providing better links and mobility and supporting economic development, there also would be negative impacts.
Working closely with community leaders and engaging a national environmental justice expert helped ensure that ODOT was incorporating the concerns of the community into project planning. The agency learned the importance of working very closely with the communities and being flexible with plans to engage the public. It is important to have the ability to change and adapt both public involvement activities and the project itself to meet the public’s needs.
The project was scheduled to be completed in three phases. Sections one and two have been opened to traffic as of November 2018. Section three, which includes both of the new pedestrian and bicycle bridges, is scheduled for completion by the fall of 2021.
As environmental justice in infrastructure planning and construction continues to be promoted at the federal level, state transportation agencies are finding ways to make the process more defined for staff and consultants.
At the Ohio Department of Transportation, recent revisions to the agency’s environmental justice guidelines update the agency’s procedures with a focus on clarifying the extent of analysis needed for projects and environmental reviews in the state.
|Public outreach is an important aspect of environmental justice compliance. This public meeting was held during the planning phase for the Opportunity Corridor project in Cleveland. Photo: Ohio DOT|
The ODOT Environmental Justice Guidance uses a step-by-step format to explain what practitioners must do to comply with state and federal environmental justice requirements.
The steps include identifying environmental justice populations within the study area using a mapping tool, answering a series of questions to determine whether a full-scale environmental justice analysis report is required, and if required, conducting the analysis and report as outlined in the guidance.
EJ Process in Ohio
Environmental justice has been a part of the conversation with regard to transportation projects for at least two decades.
Environmental justice populations—specifically minority and low-income groups—can be disproportionately impacted by transportation projects, and these impacts can vary depending on a project’s scale, scope and location, according to Erica Schneider, Assistant Administrator with ODOT’s Office of Environmental Services.
Like all state transportation agencies, ODOT developed its environmental justice program in response to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, Presidential Executive Order 12898, Department of Transportation Order 5610.2, and FHWA Order 6640.23A.
ODOT’s environmental justice procedures resulted from many months of work with the Federal Highway Administration’s Ohio Division, Schneider said. “It was a collaborative process that took several months of discussions and a fair amount of compromise,” Schneider said. Once the division office was comfortable with it, ODOT worked with FHWA headquarters and Resource Center, she added.
Identifying EJ Populations
ODOT’s guidance uses a tiered method to evaluate environmental justice considerations. The first step relies on the Environmental Protection Agency’s EJScreen web-based tool, which places U.S. Census population data on a map at the block and block group levels. Block groups are clusters of blocks within the same census tract, generally defined to contain between 600 and 3,000 people, used to present statistical data and control block numbering.
According to the guidance, the individual performing the analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) uses EJView to locate the project or study area and, using the data filters, identifies the percent of minority or low income residents.
“Project [area] limits are identified by earlier studies (traffic, safety, etc.) that define the purpose of the project,” Schneider said. “Those limits in turn help identify the block groups that could be impacted by a project and by the activities associated with the project.”
The key threshold for environmental justice populations is 40 percent, according to the guidance. “If all of the block groups within your proposed project area indicate Environmental Justice populations below 40%, then no additional Environmental Justice analysis or coordination is required,” the guidance said.
However, if either the minority or the low-income populations are at 40 percent or above, the practitioner is required to answer a set of questions to determine potential impacts.
Determining Potential Impacts
The questions in the guidance make a decision tree that leads the practitioner to draw conclusions about whether the project will have a disproportionately high and adverse effect on the target populations.
“Our guidance is, in many ways, a screening tool to screen out projects with little to no potential to impact EJ communities,” Schneider said.
“The questions in the guidance are specifically geared toward identifying potential impacts,” Schneider said.
For example, the questions address the following issues:
- Are there any relocations?
- Will there be any changes to access?
- Were any environmental justice issues that could result in a disproportionately high and adverse effect raised during public involvement?
- Are there any other unique factors of the proposed project that could pose a disproportionately high and adverse impact on an environmental justice population?
Depending on the resulting answers, a full Environmental Justice Analysis Report may be required.
Conducting Full Analysis, Report
When a full analysis is required, a report is prepared “to determine whether or not your project will have a disproportionately high and adverse impact to an Environmental Justice population and to document any avoidance and mitigation measures,” the guidance said.
The guidance provides a general outline of what information should be included in the report. The seven basic elements include:
- Project description;
- Summary of purpose and need statement;
- Discussion of environmental justice populations;
- Discussion of impacts to environmental justice populations;
- Public involvement summary;
- Discussion of avoidance, minimization and mitigation measures; and
- A summary, including justification for the determination.
For projects that require in-depth analyses, the guidance urges users to work with ODOT’s Office of Environmental Services, Policy and Cultural Resources Section for more direction and project-specific assistance on determining how to address potential impacts.
Guidance Applies to NEPA Process
The ODOT guidance must be followed for all environmental assessments, environmental impact statements, and most categorical exclusion levels under ODOT’s 2015 Programmatic Categorical Exclusion Agreement.
Although the guidance is built into ODOT’s Online Categorical Exclusion System, the environmental justice process is essentially the same for more complex environmental documents, according to Schneider, except that “the documentation part is a little different.”
Projects requiring an environmental assessment or environmental impacts statement “often have a higher potential for impacts, but not necessarily,” Schneider added.
Schneider said that less than 1 percent of projects per year require a full Environmental Justice Analysis Report. But for those projects that may impact environmental justice populations, the guidance encourages staff to coordinate with ODOT’s Office of Environmental Services “as early as possible.”
Schneider noted several lessons learned in developing the process.
“We strongly emphasize a common sense approach to looking at projects,” Schneider said. “If it makes sense to look farther out [from the project boundaries], we would do so.” Regarding the decision to rely on the EJView tool, it was the result of a lot of work with FHWA division staff and EPA staff, according to Schneider. “We didn’t find a better tool to use,” Schneider said. She recommends use of EJView to other departments of transportation, unless and until something better is developed.
Additionally, Schneider emphasized the importance of making sure the analysis is meaningful.
“We constantly remind our staff and consultants that you can’t just go through the motions,” Schneider said. “Simply having less than 40 percent EJ populations or answering ‘no’ to all of the questions doesn’t mean consideration of EJ populations ends there. We still expect practitioners to use common sense. If there are EJ populations that may require specific public outreach efforts, then that needs to be done. If EJ issues are raised during public involvement activities or there are other project-related circumstances that could cause an impact to EJ populations, those need to be taken into account and addressed.”
Schneider said the guidance has been well received both by consultants and ODOT staff. “It has streamlined our processes by helping screen out projects that don't require further work,” and to “target what we need to focus on,” she said.