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What is NOACA? Here's what you should know and why you should care

Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating agency building in Cleveland
Zaria Johnson
Ideastream Public Media
The Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency controls federal and state funding that affects how Northeast Ohio moves.

There’s been a lot of tension around whether to approve a contract extension for the executive director of the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency. And while Ideastream has covered the conflict, a lot of people in Northeast Ohio may not be aware of what NOACA is in the first place.

NOACA is a metropolitan planning organization serving Cuyahoga, Geauga, Lake, Lorain and Medina counties. Metropolitan planning organizations are required for every metropolitan area to manage federal transportation dollars, said Tom Hilde, assistant professor of Urban Planning at Cleveland State University Levin College of Public Affairs and Education. And organizations like NOACA are responsible for maintaining and improving how people get around.

"It's a really important job in terms of coordinating," Hilde said. "If you think about transportation systems, they don't start and stop at each jurisdiction or each city or town or village. It really is a system that stretches across and connects a lot of different individual places. So it's really hard if cities don't really have the means to do that kind of work."

NOACA receives about $51 million annually, according to the agency's website, from the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Transit Administration and the Ohio Department of Transportation. The NOACA board of directors, comprised of elected officials and administrators from across the five-county region, determine which transportation projects receive funding.

Mike Summers, a former mayor of Lakewood, served on the NOACA board from 2011 to 2019. During his tenure, the agency received around $57 million to fund multi-modal transportation projects that he said are essential to the region.

"This notion of transportation planning is essential, the long term viability," Summers said. "Without it, you really remove yourself from the mainstream of commerce, and commerce ultimately determines jobs. Jobs determine where people live and and how well they live."

NOACA takes on planning in three main areas: annual priorities, its four-year view through its Transportation Improvement Program and a 20-year strategy through its Long-Range Transportation Plan, Summers said.

"There's a lot of wisdom to thinking 20 years out because things that are impossible to do in years one or four. Become possible in years 10, 15 and 20 or beyond that. So this notion of really how we aspire to build the region of the future, by putting a big stake in the long term you can begin to make incremental investments towards that future."

Though NOACA has an executive director and a board of elected and appointed officials, the U.S. Department of Transportation oversees metropolitan planning organizations like it.

NOACA also plays a role in maintaining the region's environment, Hilde said, due to intersections between transportation and the environment.

"Everything you build impacts water quality usually makes, stormwater runoff pick up more pollution on its way to streams and eventually the lake in our region," Hilde said. "Of course, transportation really impacts air quality as well, so anything they do related to transportation planning, can benefit the environment as well."

While it may be unclear at first why NOACA represents five counties, rather than one county or even one city, the purpose of metropolitan planning organizations to focus on transportation at a regional level.

"Cuyahoga County may be the biggest [of the five regions], but it's not the only. The folks who ... work in Cuyahoga county disproportionately, these days, live in Medina, Lorain, Lake County and Geauga County. So if we're going to really plan this, well, those counties need to be at the table in a meaningful way."

Zaria Johnson is a reporter/producer at Ideastream Public Media covering the environment.