Saturday, October 31, 2009

Inspiration from Rail~Volution

My last blog entry was such a downer (for me, at least) that I didn't send out a notice about it to anyone. If you haven't read it, now's a good time, because a) this will be an antidote, and b) I'm going to mention some stuff in it shortly. (Link to "Left Behind" here.)

So I'm in Boston now at Rail~Volution - "Building livable communities with transit". A couple of years ago, Megan Owens (of Transportation Riders United) recommended that I come to this conference, but last year I headed off to Japan instead. I'm glad I did, but this conference is "freakin awesome"! I don't feel any better about Michigan's situation, but I feel much more able to cope. I got good pointers from several people, I've seen lots of transit, a fair amount of transit-oriented development (TOD) and heard about much more, but most of all I've been inspired by the people and places that have made transit really work - and really bring prosperous development - in their cities.

It started with the first plenary session. Speakers included Michael Dukakis, former governor of Massachusetts and 1990 presidential candidate; Bill Millar, President of the American Public Transit Association (APTA); Ron Sims, Deputy Secretary (and COO) of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development; Peter Rogoff, Administrator of the Federal Transit Administration; and Derek Douglas, Special Assistant to the President for Urban Affairs. Big hitters.

Bill Millar is a wonderfully warm, loud and boisterous fellow, well placed at the head of APTA. He reminded us of all the great advances transit has made in the past year, including the opening of several new rail transit systems around the country, and of course the 180 degree shift in federal policy on transit with the new administration. This policy shift is also the reason why the FTA, HUD, and the White House were all represented here together.

You see, the President understands the close link between transportation policy, urban development, and quality of life. Sims emphasized the President's commitment to meeting diverse housing needs. Rogoff recognized that some metro areas are real pros when it comes to writing government grant proposals for transit, but many of the areas that need transit the most are newbies, and need help with the whole process. He will direct the FTA to shepard those areas through the process.

Douglas mentioned the President's commitment to more efficient ways of moving people around: the 50 major metropolitan areas of the country share one characteristic: congestion. The President has said that the US can't be globally competitive if we're burning up resources in congestion.

All of them stressed the essential nature of regional cooperation. Loners (jurisdictions that don't work with their neighbors) don't stand a chance of getting a government grant. And all the agencies - FTA, HUD, the Federal Railroad Administration, and the Federal Highway Administration - are committed to working together on grant approval. That's because of the realization at all levels of the interconnectedness of transportation and urban growth. What a waste of funds to build affordable housing where there's no transit. John Porcari, Deputy Secretary of Transportation, echoed all these messages when he took part in a panel today. At last, the federal government "gets it".

Today's plenary was an inspiration to persistence. Congressman Earl Blumenauer of Oregon knows how to work effectively over a long time period. As you may know, Portland is the "poster child" for light rail, streetcars, and smart growth; it's in his district. He is willing to work long and hard to get things moving - on rails or any other way that makes sense.

The final inspiration came from an unexpected source: John Cowman, Mayor of the City of Leander, Texas (population in 2000: about 7,000). I quoted him in my last blog entry. Yesterday afternoon I was on Boston's Red Line subway with a group going to see the Ashmont TOD site. I looked across the crowded car and did a double-take, seeing what looked like "John Cowman" on the conference badge of a very ordinary-looking fellow - in spite of his memorable name. OMG, I thought, is this the man I quoted in my blog last week without permission? If so, I'd better talk to him before he discovers it for himself!

It was indeed the Mayor of Leander. He turned out to be very friendly, and admitted to not using the Internet much, so I need not have been concerned about quoting him. He's very positive and projects an image of having succeeded almost by accident. Not at all, of course! He is a master of getting people to do what he thinks is right. He often says, "I just want to help," and "I just wanted to make things better."

He heard about smart growth from people at The Seaside Institute, and immediately recognized it as an opportunity to take his city from backwoods obscurity to sustainable prosperity. He campaigned successfully for the Austin-to-Leander commuter rail service I highlighted last time, and got Council to set aside a large area of town - 23,000 acres, or about 1/3 of the city - for TOD. How did he manage this in conservative Texas? (Well, maybe not as conservative as we thought?) A combination of political smarts, enthusiasm, a willingness to fight for his town, knowing his limitations, and what he calls "moxie".

Oh, and by the way...the employer coming to Leander is Valence Technologies, a maker of lithium-ion batteries and other green-energy equipment. (Michigan: are we green with envy?) According to The Statesman of Austin, Valence plans to employ 2,700 people by 2012, and 1,300 more by 2016, making 160,000 battery packs each year. Valence is an Austin company that currently manufactures batteries in China, but they've decided to bring their operation back home. Keeping local business in the area is the best way to grow our prosperity, according to many economists, because unlike outside companies they have roots and a stake in the community. And let me remind you: "the first words out of their mouth about why they selected Leander was, 'access to public transit.'"

I told Mr. Cowman how I impressed I was, and how much I wanted that kind of growth for my home town. He laughed and invited me to "come on down" and let him give me the "dime tour".

According to him, the best thing that had ever happened in Leander was a severe water shortage in the late 1990s, which forced the town to re-think everything about how they would operate. Michigan is in a pretty severe shortage now too - though it's not about water...

Bottom line from Rail~Volution for us in Michigan? Don't be discouraged. Use our misfortunes to re-think how we operate. Be humbly persistent, and very enthusiastic in our determination to turn things around. Use our resources, not limiting ourselves by thinking that resources = money and we don't have any. Use a lot of moxie!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Left Behind

Michigan is getting left behind. No, it's hardly the "rapture". As our state writhes in the grip of legislators who refuse to allow investment in our people or our infrastructure, population drops and industries leave. Planning Commission meetings in Ypsi Township are cancelled because there's practically no new development, and scant money to pay the commissioners for their time. economy is bad. But it's not like that all over the country. I subscribe to Rail magazine, ("Connecting Communities by Moving People") whose current issue features articles on five regions that have recently inaugurated new rail service. All are very much like what Wake Up Washtenaw has been proposing for the rail line north and south of Ann Arbor: (1) use a freight rail line that sees little freight traffic or has been abandoned, and (2) use diesel multiple-unit cars (DMUs). These paragraphs really jumped out at me in the article about Austin, Texas's, new MetroRail:

Leander Takes the Lead

Leander Mayor John Cowman is an enthusiastic proponent of Capital Metro's Red Line and of regional rail in general. He credits passenger rail with fundamentally changing the image - and future - of Leander (pronounced Lee-ann-duhr [li 'æn dr]).

"Our sleepy little hamlet, which many regarded as the laughing stock of the Austin region, [nothing like Ypsilanti, of course! - LK] has been awakened and rail is a key component in that change," says Mayor Cowman.

Indeed, the changes around Leander in the past decade have been significant. Since Cowman was first elected in 2003, the population of Leander has jumped from 12,000 to more than 30,000. [Probably half of them from Mexico and half from Michigan. - LK]

Today, significant transit-oriented development is underway in the town and the local economy has seen the arrival of several new employers. [Mostly relocating from Michigan? - LK] In 2005, Leander adopted a 23,000 acre transit-oriented development community plan that encourages more dense development as well as improved pedestrian and biking right-of-ways. [23,000 acres? WOW!!!]

"Recently, a manufacturing firm located itself here in Leander," says Cowman. "This brings hundreds of new jobs along with it, and the first words out of their mouth about why they selected Leander was, 'access to public transit.'"

For mayor Cowman and many residents of Leander, the approach of the Red Line is more than just a passenger rail link to Austin, it is an affirmation of the community's dedicated sales [...] tax to Capital Metro and [its] vote in 2004.

"We're energized by the train, we've been anticipating the day it starts serving Leander for a good while and it gives us a feeling that we did the right thing," says Cowman. "And since that vote, so many issues have cropped up like the economy and fuel prices that the train will help us manage." of course, nothing like this could happen here in Michigan, right? We're too dedicated to being left behind. No sense investing our dollars in a sinking state. *Sigh*