Not too long ago, Howard Maier picked up a copy of the World Almanac and discovered something curious: Under the narrow definition of Cuyahoga, Geauga, Lake, Lorain, Medina, Portage and Summit counties, there are more independent territories in this part of the state (225) than countries in the rest of the world (202).
This realization put Maier's job as the executive director of the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA) into a new perspective. Since 1968, NOACA has been one of the few organizations focused on regional planning, predominately transportation. And over those 40 years, the federally funded Metropolitan Planning Organization quietly went about its business of helping cities, villages and townships in its member counties — Cuyahoga, Geauga, Lake, Lorain, Medina — build and improve roads, bridges, streetscapes, traffic signals and public transportation.
Without much notice, NOACA has helped these large and small governments reach across city and, in some cases, county borders to collaborate, sharing multiple communities' funds on multimillion-dollar projects.
But it wasn't until this summer when a controversial agreement was reached on the construction of an interchange off Interstate 90 in Avon in Lorain County that some started to question the purpose of NOACA and if it is working in the best interests of the region. Some insiders say it's a crucial organization for economic development and planning, while others, especially those involved in the interchange agreement, say the organization's 38-member governing board stands in the way of regionalism.
"[The agreement] weakened NOACA, the way it was done," charges Avon Mayor Jim Smith. "The thing that took over the interchange is the distrust. I think it pushed regionalism farther apart."
According to Avon officials, the NOACA board is less interested in regional development than maintaining a status quo of mediocrity. "The very first meeting we had [with NOACA] we were told that this was going to be a very contentious project," says Jim Piazza, Avon's planning commissioner. "That it was going to be difficult because it's outside of the core."
Wielding a weighted vote on the governing board, Cuyahoga County and the city of Cleveland will oppose any project that could potentially strengthen outlying suburbs, Smith says. "They don't want to have to compete. If you want park benches and flower baskets, NOACA will give it to you. If you want improvements to make you competitive, you won't get it or you will have to jump through every hoop known to man."
The Avon project faced hurtles at every step, from long-term paperwork delays to the final controversial revenue-sharing agreement, which Smith likens to a ransom. "The gun was at our heads," he says.
The fallout from the interchange has been significant. Many involved in the matter say the project was a necessary step toward regionalism. But with Lorain and Medina counties vocal over their disappointment at how the NOACA board proceeded, the issue may have fractured the spirit of regional collaboration.
"The only thing this has done is make a lot of people skeptical," Smith says. "I don't know if there were enough positives to come out of this that would justify the negative."
Maier tries to stay out of controversy. He doesn't vote on any of the issues before NOACA, although Maier, who joined the organization in 1988, has to see the projects through to fruition, which usually take years to complete.
For example, NOACA has been involved with the Euclid Corridor project since it was first discussed in the 1970s and also has been involved in the construction plans for a new inner belt in downtown Cleveland, major portions of which won't begin until at least 2010.
"It's curious to me why this project had such a high profile compared to some of the other ones," Maier says of the agreement to create an on-and-off ramp to I-90 at Nagel Road in Avon — one of the fastest-growing cities in Northeast Ohio — but is by no means one of the largest projects for NOACA. "I think you could say there is a certain symbolism attached to a project like this that goes way beyond what we've typically dealt with."
The Avon project was just one of the dozen or more projects that NOACA touches throughout a typical year. Although its annual budget is only approximately $6.2 million, NOACA invests $30 million to $40 million a year of state and federal money on projects, mostly focused on transportation and land use. On NOACA's 20-year transportation plan, which is updated every four years, there are hundreds of proposed projects.
"We provide assistance to the board and our technical committees so they're able to do their work," says Maier, who manages 40 full- and part-time staff members. "The board is the ultimate decision maker. The board sets the policy, and our job is to be supportive and helpful."
NOACA's governing board is made up of county and city officials from its five member counties. Due to Cuyahoga County's population, its governing board members' votes are weighted if there is a tie or stalemate, but the board usually reaches a consensus, Maier says.
NOACA is a Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), of which there are more than 390 across the country and 16 in Ohio. The creation of MPOs dates back to the passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1962, which funded highway construction that allowed Americans to depart the central cities for the suburbs. During this mass exodus, the federal government ruled that urbanized areas with a population of 50,000 or more should have a "continuing, comprehensive and cooperative" transportation planning process. Across the country, there are MPOs for multicounty areas or just within cities.
By the Numbers
5 Counties: Cuyahoga, Geauga, Lake, Lorain and Medina
2,005 square miles
2,890 miles of federal roadway
23rd largest metro area in United States
2.1 million population
19% of Ohio’s population
1968 year founded
$6.2 million budget (FY 2007)
38 board members
40 full- and part-time staff
NOACA is not involved in every transportation project in the region, but chances are if you see an orange barrel on the road, NOACA has helped fund, plan or coordinate that project. And if a county, city or township needed federal funds for a new bridge, road or ramp, NOACA helped access those dollars.
NOACA's investment capital comes from the Highway Trust Fund, which is derived mostly through a tax on gasoline. However, there is discussion on the federal level that those dollars might be diverted toward other programs and the funding for organizations like NOACA might drop by as much as 40 percent by 2010, which understandably has people in Maier's position worried.
"The reality is without that trust fund being solvent, all these discussions I wouldn't say are meaningless, but are quite secondary," Maier says. "The funding sources are problematic."
And not just a problem for NOACA, either.
"We think it's serious for businesses," says Ronald Eckner, NOACA's director of transportation planning. "If you want safe roads and you want smooth roads; if you want mobility; if you want signals; if you want transit to take your people to work, we need to have the federal funds."
In October 2007, the NOACA governing board reached an agreement on a new interchange at I-90 and Nagel Road, but with numerous conditions.
The project requires the establishment of a Joint Economic Development Zone in Avon, where if a business with a $750,000 or more payroll relocates from one of 15 neighboring communities, including Cleveland, Lakewood, Westlake, Avon Lake, Lorain and Elyria, to the 791-acre area surrounding the interchange, Avon will share half the income taxes with the business' former town for five years.
Avon officials blasted the agreement and accused NOACA of letting the Cuyahoga County officials strong-arm the negotiations.
"It was either we did [the revenue sharing] or we did not get the interchange. Period. It was made very clear, " Smith says. "They said, ‘If you do not give us some type of revenue sharing we will vote against the interchange with the weighted vote.'"
As Smith sees it, the agreement is simply unfair. "I've watched mayors who want money from us, who don't want industry and don't want business in their communities, but they want us to contribute money off of our interchange," he says.
Former NOACA board President Robert Brown, who is also Cleveland's planning director, agreed that the talks were heated, but stands by the compromise.
"From our perspective in the city of Cleveland, we feel it's important that there's an understanding that a region rises and falls largely on the health of its central city," Brown says. "So even if you have a wonderful interchange in Avon, if you have a central city of Cleveland that's seen as noncompetitive compared to other regions, you're not going to have a successful, economically healthy region regardless of what happens in Avon."
Brown feels the compromise reached on the interchange may not have been what all the parties wanted, but the positive impact outweighed the negative.
"If NOACA did not exist, someone would be calling for its creation right now," Brown says. "It is a very important way for communities to interact with each other, to cooperate, to express viewpoints — either common viewpoints or conflicting viewpoints. Without regional government, it is agencies like NOACA that provide that regional forum."
But its unequal footing gives only Cuyahoga County the opportunity to dominate and drive regional decisions, Avon officials stress. And instead of bolstering the central city, the county is focused on limiting regional competition. "[The cities in the region] are not trying to do better." We're just trying to make everybody else around not do very good so that we can be competitive within our five counties," Smith says. "But then we're not competitive within the United States."
The Avon officials are open to regionalism, but are adamant that the revenue-sharing agreement should not be taken as the model for future collaboration. "We're sharing with 15 other cities and it's not a reciprocal agreement," Avon's Piazza says. "That's not regionalism. How much are we going to get from the Medical Mart if it comes up? Is Cleveland going to share that with the city of Avon and Elyria and Lorain?"
Despite the controversy, Brown believes the interchange agreement should serve as an example of how transportation improvement proposed in one community could be viewed in terms of its impact on the entire region.
"It was a fairly rare occurrence that in this Cleveland region we approved a transportation project with some conditions that relate to making sure all portions of the region benefit and none are harmed," he says. "At least that was the goal."
Tax-sharing issues are just one of many sticking points Northeast Ohio communities will have to solve if there is any hope for regional cooperation. Since the art of politics is the art of compromise, perhaps it's a good sign that not all the parties were completely satisfied with the solution for the I-90 interchange.
If nothing else, Northeast Ohio is learning that a regional organization like NOACA can work if communities are willing to put competition aside for the good of the region. It's finding how to balance the benefit across borders that will be the challenge.
"We've had success," says Maier of the 40 years NOACA has existed. "This is the system that has evolved. This is what we work with. I don't know how that is going to be changing over time, but the transportation needs have changed over these 40 years, and they'll change again in the next 40 years."