Monday, November 8, 2010

It's About Diversity

Everyone in Michigan's transit community was tickled by the October 20 announcement of $150M for Wolverine rail corridor improvement under TIGER II, part of ARRA. This amount - trivial by highway standards - is truly significant for rail.

Congressman John Dingell was given the honor of announcing the grant, and I'm sure it's as significant for him as for us. But let it be noted that these funds were awarded based on US DOT's merit-based formula, not on earmarks from the Congressman. I'm proud that Michigan earned the money fair and square, rather than by whining to our legislators.

As a competitive program, TIGER II is able to fund the best projects from around the country. Using merit-based evaluation criteria allows the Department of Transportation to address some of the nation’s most critical challenges like sustainability and economic competitiveness. (

BTW - there was lot of negative campaign noise about Dingell 's age and long service in Congress. In the words of one blog comment/flame, "He’s a washed up old geezer…. Move on old dude and let some new blood and new ideas into office". I find it interesting that a congressman who was in office when the Interstate highway system was legislated (and I have to believe he supported it!) is now such a staunch advocate of high(er) speed rail. I wonder what "new ideas" our flaming friend was thinking of (if any)?

Many negative commentators seem to fear that transit investment will "take away" our cars. Of course, no transit advocate has ever suggested that seriously. But the critics seem quite happy to keep others from having further options. As one commenter jokingly put it, "We don’t need a railway. Rich people have cars and poor people can just walk."

It's a well-accepted maxim that there's strength in diversity. Michigan's economic woes stem in large part from lack of diversity. Over-reliance on manufacturing (primarily of automobiles) brought Michigan down further and faster in this recession than most other states.

It's the same in transportation. Cities with high-capacity electric rail don't quake in fear of OPEC as much as cities that depend on oil for mobility. They have a backup system. Families with transportation options over and above the automobile can spend their money on more diverse things. They have a backup system. We're still seeing a savings of about $9000/year for families that can use transit rather than owning and operating a second auto.

Transit makes it possible for a more diverse group of people to live in an area - including senior citizens and mobility-challenged folks, as well as immigrants from countries that don't depend on privately owned vehicles for mobility. Remember, Michigan Future found that the nation's most successful metropolitan regions are all more welcoming to diverse populations, including immigrants, than is Michigan.

Diversity and mobility options are hardly new ideas, but they have a powerful, positive effect on society. I appreciate John Dingell's support of those ideas, whether they're new or old. I'm glad he will be back in Washington come January.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Election Results: Where We Stand

After Tuesday's midterm elections, a lot has changed. For those of us watching transportation policy and sustainable development, the results offer a mixed bag of good and bad news. Let's start at home and work our way up...

Local: Washtenaw County

The Ypsilanti City transit tax initiative was approved. According to the national Center for Transportation Excellence,

City of Ypsilanti voters were asked to approve a charter amendment to levy an additional 0.9789 mills specifically for public transit, restoring the original 20 mills that had been reduced. With the amendment in place, Ypsilanti would secure an additional $281,429 in revenue in 2011 for bus transportation through the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority.

The measure passed by a very comfortable 72%, indicating that even in hard times, Ypsilanti residents consider public transportation a high priority.

Ypsi residents often come to City Council meetings and protest cuts to AATA service, but being willing to pay for it is often another matter. Good job, Ypsi, for putting your money where your mouth is. Now, how about Ypsi Township...?

State Representative-Elect David Rutledge took an Internet class from me many years ago, before serving as Trustee at Washtenaw Community College. I found him to be thoughtful, curious, quick-witted, and eager to learn. Though I've disagreed with him over the proposed WCC parking structure (Blog: December 8, 2009) I'm very positive about his ability to bring about effective policy in Lansing.

State: Michigan

Governor-Elect Rick Snyder appears to understand the need for mass transit and the benefits it can bring - including attracting talented young people to our state and providing a life-line for people who don't have access to automobiles for one reason or another. His results-oriented investment budgeting philosophy is encouraging, since in state after state, investment in rail transit has brought spectacular dividends. I recommend the on-line video interview by the Detroit Free Press in which Snyder talks about Lansing's culture, his budgeting strategy, and specifically about transportation (at 4:20 in the 5:50 minute video).

Michigan citizens across the state voted overwhelmingly for improved transit options. According to the Center for Transportation Excellence, five transportation-related property tax issues were on local November 2 ballots around the state. Only in Eaton County did an issue fail. I mentioned Ypsilanti's victory for transportation ; in addition, there were victories in Bennington Township (by 66%), Caro (by 62%), and Spring Lake (by 80%). Looking back to the election of August 3, 2010, a lot of property tax mileages for transit were passed or renewed in Michigan: Bay County (64%), Branch County (70%), Clare County (61%) Genesee County (63%), Ingham County (67% and 63% on two issues), Lapeer County (67%), Ludington and Scottsville (figures not available), Saginaw (65%), Shiawassee County (figures not available), St. Joseph County (61%), Van Buren (68%), Wexford County (61%), and the SMART renewal in the counties of Wayne (74%), Oakland (78%), and Macomb (72%). Not a single issue got less than 60% support, except a failed proposal in Eaton County (lost by 45% in August).

And look who gave the highest percentage approval for transit in August: arch-conservative Oakland County, with 78%! Who says good transit is just a liberal issue?

Regional: the Midwest

The Big Bad News in the Midwest is two governors-elect, those of Ohio and Wisconsin, vowing to kill their state's high speed rail projects. This is especially disappointing for Wisconsin, which had contracted with Spanish railroad equipment builder Talgo to construct trainsets in a disused Milwaukee-area factory. For a governor to kill a project that was providing jobs is unusual. Wisconsin's high speed line was to run from Chicago through Milwaukee to Madison. The governor's reason for killing the project was its ongoing cost to the state (apparently ignorant of the ongoing economic benefits of passenger rail). He would rather put the money into the state's "crumbling roads and bridges".

Ohio's governor-elect apparently opposes rail for the same reason. Their brand-new passenger service would run from Cleveland through Columbus and Dayton to Cincinnati. In both Ohio and Wisconsin, supporters of rail haven't given up on legal remedies, though they admit their situation is grave.

On the positive side, Illinois continues to be solidly rail-supportive. As the rail hub of the Midwest, we need Illinois's continuing support.


Nationwide, the Center for Transportation Excellence tells us, "On November 2, voters approved 23 of 31 transportation ballot measures for a 74% sucess rate. When added to the 21 out of 26 measures approved earlier in the year, voter support for transportation ballot measures remains strong with 77% approved in 2010. This is well above the 10-year average of 70%."

According to Transportation for America (T4A, of which Wake Up Washtenaw is a partner) the general outlook for transportation reform is not bad at the Federal level. Although fiscal conservatives will be in charge of the House, and the Minority Leader of the Senate has vowed not to compromise, many of the new leaders understand the value of transportation diversity in general, and rail in particular. John Mica (R-FL) will chair the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, replacing James Oberstar. Although Mica has strongly criticized Amtrak in the past, he is a supporter of rail, of walking, and of biking. (You don't have to dislike rail to be a critic of Amtrak...)

As you probably know, the Surface Transportation Authorization Act (STAA) was introduced, but tabled during the last Congress, and the previous legislation extended. Congress will have to address transportation early in its new session. T4A expects that, compared to what the bill looked like when it was introduced during the 111th Congress, this will be:

  • Smaller
  • Involve more creative financing;
  • Have fewer programs;
  • Encourage quicker starts by reducing the environmental review process;
  • Focus on repair, maintenance, and safety;
  • Support performance measures; and
  • Encourage "smarter" transportation investments.

Though we can't expect the level of investment we saw during the last Congress, we can expect a shift that will encourage transportation diversity. Could be worse for transportation reform. Could be a lot worse.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

When Transit Oriented Development Disappoints

Rail~Volution 2010 was great. I'm very thankful to have been able to go to Portland this year. We expect great transit in large cities like Boston (which hosted Rail~Volution last year), but it's more refreshing to see a mid-size metro area that has invested in transit for that last 25 years.

There are so many great lessons to be learned when a thousand transit-oriented development folks gather in one place. What I'd like to focus on is when TOD doesn't work, or when it looks different from what we might expect or prefer.

The highlights of the week for me were the two field trips to TOD sites. The first was east to Gresham, the second west to Beaverton and Hillsboro.

East Side

In 1986, Gresham was a working-class town that became the eastern terminus of Portland's first light rail service, the Blue Line. It's still a working-class town with very little "gentrification" evident. Transit-oriented development appears confined to a few new buildings near stations, and a shopping center.

The TOD does follow the new urbanist principles of mixed use, residential over commercial. In the shopping center, the parking will eventually be located underground or beneath commercial-residential buildings. Otherwise, there's little to distinguish it from other recent developments. Well, perhaps the fact that it's recent development is a distinguishing feature in itself, since very little development has taken place recently.

Most of the eastern Blue Line runs in the middle of a wide boulevard. It wasn't a boulevard until the light rail was built, though - and lots of engineering work had to be done to mitigate the widening and leveling of the original two-lane roadway. The cost of building the line included re-doing hundreds of driveways, lawns, fences, and retaining walls. And though the neighborhoods don't look well-to-do, they certainly don't look run-down or impoverished except in one or two old warehouse districts where the loft/office refurbishing trend hasn't quite taken off.

A couple of things were disappointing. One was the new county office building whose front is turned away from the Gresham Central Transit Center, as if to ignore its presence. Another is the new station at Civic Drive being built within 30 yards of a new mixed-use development, with no architectural connection to it. In many parts of the world, developers and mall owners are eager to attach their space as closely as possible to rail stations. In most Japanese cities and towns, the railway station is the central shopping center, crowded not only with travelers and commuters, but with shoppers. There seems no physical reason why electric rail vehicles can't run through the middle of a shopping center here in the US, too. Federal transit legislation for years has encouraged public-private partnership in the construction of transit stations. So why aren't we doing it? In this case, the answer was, "Hmmm, well, we had this Federal grant to built the station, so we just did it." It has a (very nice) outdoor platform covered with a (very nice) glass roof, but is basically an outdoor space. What a shame the concept of integrating transportation and shopping just isn't part of most planners' thinking here in the US.

So on Portland's east side, light rail appears to provide a foundation to keep property values steady without overly inflating them. TOD has been modestly successful, and there is likely to be more as the economy recovers.

West Side

Beaverton and Hillsboro are in the opposite direction from Gresham on the Blue Line, both geographically and socially. Where Gresham is mainly working class, the west side is predominantly middle class and high-tech. In fact, Beaverton and Hillsboro were small towns up through the 1960s. Change came in the late 1960s when the Sunset Highway became a freeway, built to speed access to downtown Portland across the Tualatin Mountains from the west. Light rail didn't arrive until 1998, because it required a 3.1-mile tunnel bored through the mountains. But both towns have been sites of high-tech industry since the 1960s, starting with instrument-maker Tectronix in Beaverton, followed by Intel, which now operates four large campuses for research, development, and chip fabrication in the Hillsboro area. If there is a place where TOD should work, this is it.

Has it? Yes, and no.

The Beaverton Round is such an exciting project, and such a disappointing failure. Conceived by visionary developers Selwyn Bingham and Sylvia Cleaver, it was to include condos, shopping, and office space built, literally, around the light rail station and a park. What could have gone wrong?

For one thing, construction problems. The site is apparently over a disused sewage treatment plant, with all the remediation and uncertainty such a place can bring. Then there was use of shoddy materials and construction techniques, resulting in multiple law suits and requiring expensive replacement of windows and facing. (The sad details are here if you really want to know.) Continually plagued with financing problems, only part of the planned development has been built, and even less occupied.

Orenco Station's development fared much better. Longer in the planning, it involved more community input and balanced practicality with idealism. No compromise was made in new urbanist principles. The big disappointment to me is the location of the town's center: at a busy intersection, not at the rail station. In fact, it's a good quarter mile through (currently) empty space from station to center. Traffic in the center is heavy, and our group was warned that when the walk-light came on, we must hurry across the road because it was a short light. I hate to see a town center where pedestrians are chivvied and it's too noisy to hold a conversation. But as the developer pointed out, they couldn't have made it work without the traffic passing by to lure customers to the town's businesses.

And centering the town on the highway has worked financially. Businesses have leased most of the available space, and residents have bought most of the available housing. Once away from the highway, the open spaces and built environment are very inviting and peaceful.

This is a well-studied project, and one finding from the developer's study was what most attracted people to this TOD. No, it wasn't the transit (shucks!). Transit was seen as a good amenity, but what really drew people was the architecture and design.

Pac Trust, the developer, went in with little if any experience building residential communities - they had specialized in commercial and industrial. Not knowing what buyers would prefer, they had a number of styles illustrated by photos and drawings, and showed them to people. What folks kept saying "Wow" about was a design based on Boston's classic townhouses, so that's what they built for the town center. Free-standing houses are built in an English cottage style, with lots of quaint detailing. And it sold beautifully (though of course it doesn't hurt to be surrounded by large Intel facilities). What about shopping? Yes, there is a Starbucks on the main corner ;-) and one of the best Indian restaurants in the Portland area (Intel influence again). More important, they attracted New Seasons, Oregon's biggest regional natural foods grocery chain, to anchor the shopping district, along with a number of small, trendy shops. There's still a lot of undeveloped land in the TOD, but what there is has been developed very densely: 9.9 houses per acre, and far more units per acre in the townhouse and rental spaces. Washington County had no zoning that would allow that much density, so planned unit development standards were crafted and implemented for the new urbanist model.

The article cited has lots of discussion on whether there's decreased auto use due to proximity of work and shopping options, and that's clearly a win-win for any development. There has also been support in Todd Litman's blog of the notion that the biggest advantage of TOD is that people walk more. Looks like this is a case in point.

So what to take away? First and foremost, TOD has to be done well, and the financing has to be as solid as any other type of development - even if financing TOD has to be creative. But also, we may have to sacrifice some of our ideals to make it work, at least while the automobile is still in the ascendant. We can't expect TOD to create instant transit riders out of everyone, but if we can get them to walk and ride their bikes for the short trips, we've really done our job.