You, Me and the Opportunity Corridor

The senior inquisition

Sheehan Hannan

Outside of the Civil Engineering department, building roads is probably not the first thing on the average Case Western Reserve University student’s mind. In fact, it’d be news to them that there were plans to build a brand spankin new one that ends right in our neighborhood.

It’s called the Opportunity Corridor—a name so Orwellian it might as well be the Happiness Highway. Or the Big Brother Biway.

The $331 million dollar project will connect the stubby end of I-490 with University Circle by way of E 105th Street – extending a highway that currently dumps drivers unceremoniously at a stoplight on E 55th St, staring straight at a junkyard.

The project has been in the works for over a decade and is being spearheaded by the Greater Cleveland Partnership, our region’s favorite consortium of local business groups. In short, it promises to connect one of Cleveland’s most vibrant neighborhoods (University Circle) with the southern stretch of the freeway system. Proponents of the expansion also promise economic revival along the roadway, a method of improving an area dubbed, in another Orwellian twist, the Forgotten Triangle. Indeed, a study by Allegro Realty Advisors conducted released in 2011 predicted 2,339 permanent jobs along with 3,368 temporary positions.

The Corridor has also received plenty of press coverage and institutional support. Terrence Eggers, the grand poobah of The Plain Dealer, sits as the co-chair of the project’s steering committee, and Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson is solidly in the pro camp.

Of course, the project also has its detractors. Clevelanders for Transportation Equity is just that group. They aren’t fans of the idea, to say the least, arguing that it reinforces car dependence while current trends point in exactly the opposite direction—toward greater use of public and alternative transportation. They also say it is a poor investment of a sizable chunk of taxpayer dollars that could be used for something that is, as their name suggests, more equitable to the area’s current residents and Cleveland as a whole.

Taking both sides into account, there is a case to be made for the dangerous nature of the project’s gentrification factor. Building a large-scale road from the highway to University Circle probably isn’t the most effective means of investment for the Kinsman neighborhood, and painting it as such is more than a little disingenuous. Additionally, a solid 40 percent of residents in the area don’t have access to a car, and investment in a roadway that isn’t especially focused on public transit options is an odd oversight. Really, it best serves the folks in University Circle whose commute in from their neighborhoods along the southern Outer Belt will soon get a little easier.

However, as someone who commutes from University Circle to downtown on a regular basis, an alternate means for suburban commuters to come and go to their jobs in the Circle could take some pressure off Cleveland’s notoriously pothole-stricken surface streets. On the flip side, as Angie Schmitt, a transportation blogger, activist and outspoken critic of the project pointed out to me, there is a very real chance that the Opportunity Corridor could actually make traffic worse by providing an incentive to drive.

But let’s take a second for some realpolitik. The Opportunity Corridor seems like a done deal. Barring any unforeseen technicalities, it will be constructed, completing a glaring gap in the region’s highway system. It remains to be seen whether or not it will actually help the people it’s advertising to.

Perhaps more worrying is the trend for which it is a prime exhibit—building highways as a permanent transportation solution. The Opportunity Corridor serves the Cleveland of the ‘90s well, ferrying suburban workers to and from their jobs at the city’s employment nuclei. It will most likely still serve the Cleveland of today fairly well. Northeast Ohio is still a region spread wide (including Akron, Cleveland, Kent and Youngstown) and is still constructed around car-based travel.

But how well will it serve the Cleveland of 2030? What about the Cleveland of 2050? The national trend among young people is moving away from car ownership, and the Cleveland of the Tremont crowd is exactly what the city is now selling itself as. Just take a quick peek at the new Positively Cleveland campaign, resplendent in its hipster-grit tourism bureau glory.

When I first moved to the Midwest, people told me a joke; the kind that gets repeated over and over until it’s intensely dull. “If something happens on the coasts, wait 10 years, then it will finally get here,” it went.

The Opportunity Corridor fits that bill, on the tail end of one trend and yet not quite counter to the new one, coming in the awkward lag between the two.

Maybe give it 10 years.

Sheehan Hannan is a senior English major. He was formerly the Director of Print for The Observer and the Chairman of Media Board. His writing has also appeared in Cleveland Magazine and Inside Business Magazine. By his count, there was only a single grandma in Positively Cleveland’s tourism video.