LIMA — While much of the rest of the country’s transportation planners look ahead to a time of congestion and population growth, Allen County planners are looking ahead at different issues.
Allen County’s population isn’t projected to grow in the next several years, something Thomas Mazur, executive director of the Lima/Allen County Regional Planning Commission, said is also happening in the region and the state.
“Society has changed,” Mazur said. “People are living longer, young ladies are waiting longer to marry and not having as many children. … Household size, in effect, is much smaller.”
Due to no projected population growth, when Mazur plans for the future of transportation in the county, he’s looking to repair aging rural roads and increase citizens’ use of “active transportation” modes such as buses, walking and biking.
“Rural roadways have to carry traffic at higher speeds,” Mazur said, as several people commute into Lima for work. “Some of the issues we’re facing is all this increased mobility.”
Though right now, “the regional roadways system is very good,” Mazur said in an email that “given the lack of future transportation funding levels from the federal or state government they will only deteriorate further.”
Many local officials, including Mazur, are calling for an increase in money generated from license plate fees and the gas tax.
“But in reality if you want to rebuild the system we need a quick infusion of funding and right now,” Mazur said in the email.
In other local counties, the problems are similar: little to no population growth, lack of funding and a need for road maintenance.
To the north, in Putnam County, there is no population growth, and, subseqently, no road congestion, said county engineer Mike Lenhart.
“All our county roads are in pretty good shape,” he said.
Any future planning mostly includes maintenance, chip and seal, and bridge or culvert replacement, Lenhart said.
“You try to keep an eye on the condition of the road,” he said, as asphalt prices have gone up. “You try to do more maintenance to keep what you have in good condition.”
To the south, in Auglaize County, there isn’t population growth either, said county engineer Douglas Reinhart.
Most of the issues the county faces with transporation planning are money-related, he said.
“Our struggle right now is to try to maintain the infrastructure we have, since we don’t have the power to raise the gas tax and license plate fees,” Reinhart said, the tax and fees are what support the roads in the county. “Maintaining what we have with declining income is a real challenge.”
The county is in “maintenance mode” now when it comes to the roads, he said.
Of the 350 miles of county-owned roads, only seven will get resurfaced this year, Reinhart said. At that rate, the next time those seven miles will get resurfaced again will be in 2065, he said.
He’s just “trying to maintain the integrity of the system until some new money can be found.”
POPULATION AND CONGESTION
Though local counties seem untouched by the growth, many of Ohio’s largest metropolitan areas are projected to become more populous by 2020, including the Akron, Canton, Cincinnati and Dayton areas, according to an article on traffic in the state by The Associated Press.
This growth is calling for an urgency to future transportation planning in those places, as congestion and traffic gridlock could get much worse if counties and cities aren’t prepared.
Transportation planners in those other, larger, Ohio cities are also considering the use of “active transportation.” Though they’re considering it to avoid traffic congestion, while Mazur is because of concerns about health and wellness.
Most people still commute using their personal vehicle, or vehicles, he said. In a few months, Mazur plans to release information about county plans for bike paths and pedestrian transportation to increase use of those modes.
Though Allen County does, admittedly, experience some traffic “congestion,” Mazur says that term means different things to different people.
“Here, locally, you will occasionally experience short periods of heavy traffic at certain locations and only at specific times of the day,” he said. It’s nothing like big-city congestion, and it happens when school or factories let out, and only in certain areas.
It doesn’t seem that local roads will see much more congestion in the future, either, as AP data show that Allen County’s population is projected to stay about the same, hovering right around 106,000 through 2020.
The county population is projected to decline, however, according to Mazur’s statistics.
In 2010, it was 106,331, this year it was expected to be at 104,800 and in 2040, his data shows 100,650 people in the county.
Some of the county’s population numbers may be due to a large volume of commuters.
Allen County has many employers, with national and international reaches, who offer generous wages, allowing employees to commute, Mazur said.
“We have over 1.1 billion miles of travel in Allen County every year,” Mazur said.
The average commute in the county is 17 minutes, compared to about 25 minutes in Ohio’s eight largest metropolitan regions, according to an Associated Press analysis of U.S. Census data from 2013.
“Many of [local company’s] employees commute to Allen County for these job opportunities in part because of the great transportation system that serves Allen County,” Mazur said in an email.
These companies may have the opposite affect on population growth, compared to what they might have on other cities.
“We continue to grow the jobs base but because of the relatively short commutes and the good wages these employees often live elsewhere and commute to Allen County,” Mazur said in the email.
“Allen County has historically been the urban hub in west central Ohio; it served as the regional center for industry, banking, commerce, healthcare, music and health care,” he said. “While some of the local communities are growing Lima remains the only urbanized area and has a much larger GDP.”
THE HIGHWAY SYSTEM
The highway system is often used to commute in local counties as well, though not enough to warrant expanding the amount of lanes on Allen County’s stretch of Interstate 75
Though Kirk Slusher, Ohio Department of Transportation District 1 deputy director, knows people assume another lane will be added with the construction the department is doing in Allen County on Interstate 75, the use just doesn’t call for it.
“Traffic projections never indicated we needed to add a [third] lane,” Slusher said. There just won’t be enough travelers or enough congestion to warrant the $60 million project.
The department projected what traffic on the interstate would look like in 2037, and, though it was close, it wasn’t enough for a third lane.
“Allen County’s population is shrinking, or at least holding steady,” Slusher said. “It’s not growing.”
Between 28,500 and 39,600 vehicles travel on the Allen County I-75 corridor every day, Mazur said in an email.
The I-75 corridor supports some 778.5 million vehicle miles of travel or 68.7 percent of the total traffic in Allen County, Mazur said.
Though that’s still not enough for another lane, and the lack of growth in the county means Slusher’s Allen County transportation planning differs from areas where there is projected to be growth — such as Findlay, where the department is adding a third lane to I-75.
For Allen County, the future planning the department is doing involves doing the I-75 construction with a possible future third lane — and everything to make it happen — in mind.
The construction crews are adding the drainage systems that would be needed if there were to be a third lane in the future, and pushing the existing lanes out, he said. But for now, that’s all the “future” planning that’s going on on I-75 in Allen County.
U.S. 30 in Allen County sees an average 9,640 vehicles on the corridor a day, Mazur said in the email.
“Congestion is non-existent other than that experienced as a result of construction or crashes,” he said. “Personally, I have never run into congestion on US30. And I-75 is rarely congested unless construction, roadway maintenance or a crash has occurred.”