Saturday, June 25, 2011

Winning Transit Elections, part 2

In this post, I'll share about educating, persuading, and arguing transit issues. Plus, we heard at the Transit Initiatives conference from a great - but very unusual - transit advocate, whom I'd like to tell you about.

One very important difference between electing an official and passing a transit proposal is this: Individuals campaigning for office are expected to "go on the stump" and ask people to vote for them. In transit initiatives, the "candidate" is the transit agency, but they are not allowed to "stump" for their issue because they're public agencies. A citizens' group must be formed to advocate for the transit proposal, tell people "Vote Yes", and get them out to vote.

For this reason, transit campaigns are divided into two parts: education and advocacy.

If a transit issue is on the ballot, there must be a transit plan. The plan is normally prepared by the transit agency, often with the help of specialized consultants, and paid for with public money. It will usually involve expansion of service, or at least propose maintaining existing levels. Since the plan is paid for by the public, it's the public's right to know what it is, and the transit agency's obligation to educate the public about it. So the education campaign is generally the transit agency's primary activity in an election campaign.

The Vote Yes part and the Get Out The Vote (GOTV) part are handled by the citizen organization. In St. Louis, this was done primarily by Citizens for Modern Transit (CMT), an organization founded in the mid-1990s. It corresponds in many ways to Detroit's Transportation Riders United (TRU). Their job was to pull together groups that support transit and raise funds for campaign expenses - primarily advertising - but they also hired a consulting firm specializing in transit initiatives.

In conjuction with their consultant, CMT came up with a really effective campaign message: "Transit: some of us use it, all of us need it." They reinforced the message with interviews on the Metro rail trains of service providers who need transit to get to work - nurses, restaurant servers, and others. The point of the ads was that even if you don't use transit yourself, you depend on people who depend on, Vote Yes!

Another very effective move on their part was recruiting two co-leaders for the campaign: one, a leader of the African American community, the other...the mayor of a conservative St. Louis suburb.

John Nations, Mayor of Chesterfield, Missouri, was elected by a staunchly Republican electorate to be in charge of an upper-middle-class, white suburb. He was certainly not the obvious type of person to head up a pro-transit campaign. He was a lawyer (not currently practicing) who had prospered as head of a suurban development company. But he understood the business value of transit. In fact, when the St. Louis transit agency was defeated in a 2008 renewal measure and had to cut service drastically, Mr. Nations lead his City Council in budgeting extra funds to maintain bus service to Chesterfield. Naturally, that's what suggested him as co-leader of the campaign.

One of his first decisions as campaign co-leader was to engage an election consultant specializing in conservative, Republican campaigns. These people knew what the hot-button issues for conservative voters were, and were able to craft a campaign to address them.

That did not mean arguing against conservative issues. One very important point in transit campaigns - which all the experienced people agreed on - was, don't argue with your opponents. You won't convince them, and you'll get into negative statements that are more likely to damage than to help your cause. Rather, stick to your main message - in this case, "Some of us use transit, all of us need it". That can be said in many different ways using many people's stories.

In fact, stories are very important, and far more helpful than "arguments" or "doctrines". One consultant went so far as to say, "Don't talk ideology - talk only business". "Ideology" includes environmentalism, social justice, global warming, CO2 emissions, and a host of other good reasons for funding transit. "Business" is the positive impact transit has on the economy of a region. Especially in these "down" times, "it's the economy, stupid!" that makes or breaks elections.

Now, the message can - and should - be varied depending on the audience. Younger voters, especially college students, are very aware of environmental issues and are concerned about the earth. For them, the environmental message is very important, and needs to be included. Social justice is critical in minority and faith-based communities. But the central message for the general electorate is the economic benefit transit brings.

An important aspect of this is, "What's in it for me". All voters want to know that their taxes will be used for something that will help them as individuals and families. The more direct that is, the better. Hence the value of stories.

I'll close with a story that was very effective in the St. Louis campaign. Mayor Nations received a phone call from a constituent who thanked him for insuring good bus service to Chesterfield. Why the call? The woman said she had never ridden a public bus in her life, but wanted to thank the Mayor on behalf of her mother. Oh, she takes the bus or uses Call-A-Ride? No, she's in a nursing home. Huh...? Well the woman had heard conversations among the nursing aides and staff about how they wouldn't have been able to get to work without the bus. If the bus had been discontinued, there would have been a critical staff shortage at the nursing home, and the quality of care would have seriously deteriorated. Either that, or they would have had to raise the wages of the aides so they could afford their own cars, which would have driven the cost of the nursing home beyond this family's means. So, Thank You, Mister Mayor!

St. Louis Metro won the 2010 transit tax initiative. And Mr. Nations is now CEO of St. Louis Metro Transit!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Winning Transit Elections, part 1

This week I've been attending the Center for Transportation Excellence conference on "Transit Initiatives and Communities". It's about best ways to fund transit, with emphasis on winning funding elections. There's a lot of good info, so I'm going to break it up into more than one post.

Confession time: I'm totally new to politics. Worse yet, I hate politics. But you've got to "do politics" to fund transit in a democracy, and I wouldn't want to be part of any other kind of government, goes!

You might be familiar with how elections are won or lost, but apparently there are important differences between electing candidates and passing funding proposals. We were fortunate to have at the conference not only consultants who specialize and have a lot of experience in transit funding campaigns, but also advocates and politicians who had worked on them. They shared their experiences of losing and winning, and were able to give us tips on what to do and what not to do.

I'll start with something that's probably well known to political activists, but was relatively new to me - and was presented in a very clear fashion. It's how you categorize voters by when they vote and how they vote.

How People Vote
    For Proposal Undecided Against
When they vote Always Educate + Enlist
Educate + Persuade
Sometimes Educate + GOTV
Educate + Persuade + GOTV

The critical point is who to talk to, and how. That's shown in the shading of the squares. The short version is this:

  • Educate everybody about what the transit plan is;
  • Persuade people who are undecided and get them to vote; (GOTV = Get Out The Vote)
  • Get all who support transit out to vote, especially if they only vote sometimes;
  • Don't try to persuade people who oppose transit or taxes - it doesn't work, and of course, don't try to get them to vote.

Presenting transit issues usually works much better in "off" elections - that is, elections that are not presidential or congressional contests. If you want to advertize (you probably do!), it's much less expensive in "off" election seasons. Fewer people come out and vote during "off" elections, and the ones who do are more likely to be in favor of transit. But if university students are a big part of your constituency, the election shouldn't be in August, when they're not in town! They usually vote enthusiastically for transit.

OK - enough for now. More later!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Tübingen's Development Story: part 3

If you haven't already read part 1 or part 2 of Tübingen's Development Story, better read them first...

You and your group have just decided on a general design for you building: like most in Tübingen, it will be narrow, fairly deep, and fairly high - five stories, in your case. It will have buildings right next to it on either side, so the windows will all be either in the front or the back. The dentist's office will be on the ground floor and his family apartment will occupy one of the floors above; the retired couple and the professor's family will each have a floor too. You get to share the top floor with the two students.Französisches Viertel (French Quarter Project, completed 1993)

But you really don't have the money for putting up a five-story building! The retired couple have some savings squirreled away, but the two working families have none to spare. The students? You? Don't even ask!

So the group will have to try to get a bank loan. Sounds pretty unlikely for a motley crew like yours to get a loan, doesn't it? Well, at first it was. When the city of Tübingen first started this system, cooperative groups had a hard time. But now, it's really no problem. According to Herr Soehlke, the banks discovered an interesting fact: cooperative groups were more reliable than developers. Here's why: if a development doesn't work out and the development company goes out of business, the borrower legally ceases to exists, so the loan becomes a write-off for the bank. But the cooperative group is treated as a collection of individuals. Each one receives a loan for a portion of the building costs. If an individual defaults on their part of the loan, they normally have heirs or next-of-kin who inherit the liability and the legal responsibility to repay the loan. So the banks have found it's actually preferable to lend to these cooperative groups than to development companies!

The City has invited representatives of the banks to come to City Hall on the fifth of July to conduct loan interviews with co-op groups interested in putting up buildings in the Alte Weberei project. That way, the co-ops can get terms from several banks and make their own decision on which they want, rather than leaving it up to a bank to decide on them. You've talked it over among ourselves, and decided that the two families and the retired couple will be permanent members of the cooperative and secure the loan. You and the two students will rent your apartments from the cooperative, since the three of you aren't in a position to make a long-term commitment to a bank.

The three families who form the core of the coop will decide on an architect, but all of you will have input on the floor plans for your floor. You and the two students sit down together one evening in a coffee shop in Tübingen to talk about design ideas. After a lot of ideas are batted around and you're all laughing together, several rough sketches grace the napkins at your table. During the next couple of weeks, each of the families goes through a similar exciting exercise, and before long you're all ready to meet with the architect.Französisches Viertel (French Quarter Project)

Of course no plans can be finalized until the actual building site has been assigned. That process takes place Monday, July 11 (for real!). A committee from the City Planning Department sits down at a big table and sorts all the applications by size and by preferred location. Then the hard part begins: discussing the relative community benefits of each application. At the moment, we don't know how many applicants there will be compared to the number of lots available. In the past, there have been more applicants than space, meaning that some have to be turned down, or at least put on a wait list.

Assuming your coop actually gets into the project, it will be 18-24 months before your building is ready for occupancy. Meanwhile, you'll have to rent a room somewhere in town, or perhaps in an outlying town where you can take the train in to Tübingen every day. Either way, it won't be inexpensive...but I guess you knew that Germany isn't cheap before you came, right?

Well, good luck! I sure hope your co-op gets in - if so, I'll be jealous of you!

To learn more (and in case your German is rusty, here's Google Translate)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Tübingen's Development Story: part 2

If you haven't already read part 1 of Tübingen's Development Story, better read it now...

You've just arrived in Tübingen needing a place to live, and discovered the high cost of housing. Although served by excellent public transportation, including eight local and express rail lines, it's much more convenient to live in town, where shopping and the university are within walking distance.

So you go to the city Web site (all links are grouped at the end of this post). There you find the Office of Urban Development's page, complete with a list of projects they're working on. You learn that you can take part in a group that will design, build, and own a building in one of several project areas. These are known as "building cooperatives". Some of the projects are complete and nearly full, like the French Quarter, but the Alte Weberei Lustnau (Lustnau Old Mill) project is still in the development phase.

Sounds like a possibility. Your first step is to fill out an application stating that you're interested in joining a group and approximately how many square meters of space you'd like. That done, you need to find a compatible group of people who are looking for more partners, and who have ideas about housing you agree with. You can look at a list of open groups on line, and you can come to the "Stock Market" (or "flea market", as Cord Soehlke calls). At the "market", each open group has representatives at a table, and you can go talk with them. Some may have concept drawings illustrating their idea of what the group's house might look like.

After looking at the on-line list of each groups, you go to the "market", where you talk with the groups you thought looked promising. (I believe the market is held one evening a month, either at City Hall or at the project itself.)

You end up going with a group of seven others: one retired couple, two women university students, and a university professor and her husband and child. The professor is the daughter of the retired couple, but the two students are not related. After you join, they still need another family or partnership to join the group and provide more financial clout.

The group is interested in a low-energy building with a traditional look, but lots of light to dispel the gloom of winter - which is about the same in Tübingen and Ann Arbor. The ground floor will be either a shop or office space, depending on who else joins the group. This is a requirement of the City, so that the neighborhood will have employment and shopping opportunities in it. There will be four or five stories of apartments above the ground floor, depending on whether the commercial partners want to live in the building or not. In any case, the building will have an elevator, since the retired couple aren't good on stairs anymore.

The professor and the retired man seem to be the most active members of the group. They explain that the group first needs to put in a bid for some plots of land in the project. The bid is not in terms of money, because the City owns the land and sells it at the same price per square meter to everyone. Rather, the bid explains what our building will be like and what it will offer the community. Bids are scored according to their intrinsic value and also their contribution to the community. Your group can't submit the form until you have a partner who will use the ground floor because that determines, to a large extent, its contribution to the community...and the deadline for submission is July 1. So they're quite anxious to find a commercial partner.

One possible commercial partner comes along: a young man and his girlfriend who are interested in finding space for a bar. The retired couple aren't sure they want to live over a bar, and bar entrepreneurs aren't sure this group will have enough space for them, but the group signs them up tentatively in case nothing else works out. Before long, however, a dentist and his wife and two kids come along, looking for a dental office space and an apartment. You and the group agree to go with them rather than the bar people.

You now have a complete group, and can file the application. An important part of that is your space requirements: about how large a footprint do you need? You need to give a minimum amount of space for what you have in mind, and the maximum your group can afford to buy. You will be using 60-80% of the land area for building, and at least 20% will be for outdoor public space. You might have a private garden if you get enough land, but it will be pretty small. There will be plenty of shared open space in park areas throughout the project. You also need to indicate your preferences on which building areas you'd like your building to be in, too, based on the overall layout of the project, which was prepared by the city planning department.

The group then decides the ground floor of your building will become a dental office, and there will be a floor each for the dentist's family, the retired couple, and the professor's family. You and the two students will have apartments on the top floor (the fifth) but you have yet to decide on a floorplan.

Next step: financing! You'll also need an architect and - possibly - a project manager. We'll tackle those challenges in the next post...

To learn more (and in case your German is rusty, here's Google Translate)

Monday, June 13, 2011

Tübingen's Development Story: part 1

We have a delegation in Ann Arbor from our sister city, Tübingen, Germany. It's a city about the size of Ann Arbor with a major university (where my daughter Katy studied for a year! :-). We're sister cities because of our similar academic and demographic character.

Tubingen's Mayor for Building and Development, Cord Soehlke, gave a fascinating talk at the Ann Arbor Library this evening as part of the visit. Let me fill you in by quoting the Library's description:

During the last fifteen years, Tübingen has converted many former industrial or military used areas into lively and attractive neighborhoods. The French quarter, the Loretto and the Mühlenviertel are now characterized by a mixed use, a colorful architecture and a high impact of private building groups. For this success the City of Tubingen received numerous awards and distinctions - the German Urban Planning Award 2001 - the European Urban Planning Award 2002 and the National Award for Integrated Urban Development and Building Culture 2009.

I'm tremendously excited about this! It has great applicability to what we can do in Washtenaw County. I'm going to tell you about it in story form: the story of someone who wants to live in Tübingen. To give you the full details would take more words that I want to put in one blog post, so I'm going to break it up into several shorter posts. How many...? We'll see!

But first, who is this person who wants to live in Tübingen? It could actually be anyone. Academic or high-school educated; young or old; single, couple, or family; student, worker, or retired; native German or immigrant; highly paid or not. That's a large part of the beauty of the plan.

Französisches Viertel. Foto: Anne FadenWhen you arrive in Tübingen, you find that - like Ann Arbor - living in the city is very expensive. But unlike Ann Arbor, there are stringent growth limits to the perimeter of the city. Land outside the city may not be developed, though during the 1960s there were tract houses (or their German equivalent) developed in the suburbs. Because of the intense, long-term use of the land in Germany for millennia, sprawl didn't work for long.

So what to do? The key lies in two two foundational concepts: remediation of old industrial and military brownfield areas in the city, and small, ad hoc housing cooperative associations.

Brownfields we know all about. But the Tübingen concept of housing cooperatives is quite different from what you may be familiar with in the Ann Arbor area. They are not like Colonial Square Cooperative or University Townhouses. Next post, I'll tell you more...

Continue with part 2...

Friday, June 10, 2011

What is Michigan Paying for Amtrak Service?

Ever heard someone say something like this? "I'm not going to pay to subsidize passenger rail, because I never use it. Always loses money, anyway!"

This is an important question for Wake Up Washtenaw, because we strongly support the idea of making public transportation profitable for the transportation providers without degrading service to the public.

So how much subsidy does rail get in Michigan? Here's a tidbit based on 2010 figures in the Michigan Department of Transportation Rail Draft Plan:

In 2010...

  • 775,997 passengers boarded or alighted from trains in Michigan
  • Amtrak collected $24,600,000 in fares from those passengers
  • The State of Michigan paid $7,585,976 to Amtrak to operate the Blue Water and Pere Marquette trains
  • Amtrak paid about $35 million for the Wolverine trains
  • Average fare on all Michigan services was $31.70
  • Average state contribution per trip $9.78
  • State contribution plus passenger contribution was $41.48 per trip
  • Passengers contributed 3.243 times more for Amtrak service than the state did, 76% of the state+passenger contribution

By contrast, the Federal Highway Trust Fund (paid for mainly by fuel taxes and other user fees) covered only 70% of its expenditures for new highways and existing highway maintenance.

John Langdon, Governmental / Public Affairs Coordinator of the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers, writes in an email dated June 8,

Going back over 5 years ago a Amtrak spokesmen stated that it takes 35 million to cover the operation of the 3 Wolverines trains with 10 million being generated from fare box leaving 25 to come from state support per PRIIA section 209. The rolling 12 months [revenue] ending May 11 is
Oct 10 - May 11

The question is how much has the cost of operation gone up?

As we face the looming deadline of 2013 when we'll have to pay for our own Wolverine service, an important question is, how can revenue be increased without increasing fares or expenses? There are several possible ways.

  • Adding cars without adding locomotives or staff. Amtrak has been doing this, as a matter of fact. Many of the Wolverine trains are powered by two 4,250-HP locomotives, one at either end to avoid a lengthy and expensive turn-around procedure in Pontiac. I believe 8,500 HP is enough to propel ten or twelve cars to 110 MPH. The problem as I understand it has been a shortage of coaches, but as ARRA funds allowed, refurbished coaches have been added to trains. (Amtrak purchased a lot of locomotives in the 1990s when they planned a big expansion of rail-express service, but they had to get out of that business, leaving them with more locomotives than they really needed. Some were leased to other passenger lines, but most remain available.)
  • Marketing efforts. A surprising number of people aren't aware of Amtrak service availability, and might ride the train if they knew the schedules and fares. The universities along the lines (MSU, WMU, WSU, and UM) already provide a great many riders, but might provide more.
  • Volunteers at stations. Station agents often have long lines waiting for either tickets or information. If the information could be reliably given by volunteers, it would make the experience much more pleasant and attract more repeat business. With proper training and authorization, volunteers might be able to open one or two more doors of the train and help passengers on and off to speed boarding.
  • Booster groups. Amtrak's Texas Eagle (Chicago to San Antonio) went through a hard time ten or fifteen years ago, when it was threatened with discontinuation. A number of cities and businesses along the route got together and worked for its continuation, forming the "Texas Eagle Marketing and Performance Organization". Each of our lines could have similar organizations.

There really is a lot we can do to preserve and improve our train service, and we should get busy and do it.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Public-Private Partnership and Michigan's Rail Packages

We learned today that the Illinois state legislature just passed the "Public-Private Partnerships (PPP) for Transportation Act" (HB 1091). It lays out the details of how private companies can invest and participate in public transportation projects. Among other things, this will provide a very important source of revenue for the ambitious plans Illinois has for high speed rail.

We also learned today that Illinois's governor, Pat Quinn, has set up a partnership between the Illinois Department of Transportation and the University of Illinois to design and evaluate a 220-mph bullet train line. Our friend Rick Harnish, leader of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, was appointed to the nine-person advisory board for the partnership.

What does this have to do with us? Well obviously, it sets an example of what a state can do to improve its sustainable transportation infrastructure. We've been watching Illinois rather enviously as they've funded and nurtured their "emerging speed" rail program, linking Chicago with all parts of the state by trains running 60 to 110 MPH.

Interestingly, the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) recently published a draft rail plan. (This plan is in response to the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 "PRIIA" Sec. 302) It offers four "packages" dependent on available funding: Baseline, Good, Better, and Best.

Under the Baseline Package, $3.6B would maintain the current level of rail funding, but would eliminate the Wolverine (Pontiac to Chicago) passenger service. This is because, under PRIIA Section. 206, all states will have to pony up funds for their passenger corridor service (defined as lines under 750 miles long). This primarily affects New York and Michigan, since all other states with passenger rail corridors - notably, California, Oregon, Washington, Illinois, and North Carolina - already pay for their own corridor service. Michigan now pays for the Pere Marquette (Chicago to Grand Rapids) and the Blue Water (Chicago to Port Huron), and Amtrak funds the Wolverine.

The Good Package looks for $7.2B, of which $3.1B is currently unfunded. It adds 90 projects to the Baseline, including the Wolverine, WALLY, an intermodal freight facility in Detroit, and a new rail tunnel under the Detroit River to Windsor.

The Better Package, for $7.9B (a $3.7B increase) adds track upgrades to the Chicago-Detroit-Pontiac corridor to allow more high-speed passenger service, and feeders to the Grand Rapids and Port Huron services, plus other projects associated with the Detroit intermodal terminal and studies of further passenger services.

And finally, the Best Package costs $9.2B, requiring a $5B additional shot in the arm. More projects would be completed, the most exciting of which would be buying new passenger rail equipment and providing passenger service to Traverse City. It will be a cold day in hell before the legislature approves anything like this, but what if the climate in Michigan were right for public-private investment?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Geothermal for Michigan

This may not be news to you, though it was to me: last June, the City Council of Wyandotte (downriver from Detroit, due east of Metro Airport) approved a city utility to provide residents with geothermal energy. Geothermal systems use the constant temperatures underground to heat and cool buildings. In addition to not emitting greenhouse gasses, such systems cut way down on the need for electricity in the summer, and eliminate the need for gas in the winter. Lawrence Technological University installed a geothermal system for its Taubman Student Services Building when it was first built in 2006. In 2009, they revised their system, having discovered that the wells were spaced too close together for efficient cooling during the summer.

The main drawback is the high up-front cost: the system requires a pair of wells about 400 feet deep, which is where the City comes in to help residents out. Here's what the Great Lakes Energy News for June, 2011, has to say about it:

Wyandotte homeowners are lined up to become customers of a geothermal public utility, thought to be one of the first of its kind in the country. Customers can save about $500 to $1,000 a year because they will need less electricity in the summer and no natural gas for heat. Wyandotte expects most customers will have the city install the well and own and maintain the equipment outside the home, while the ground source heat pump will be owned by the homeowner. So far, Wyandotte has installed geothermal systems on homes owned by the city and has built or renovated 44 homes with a $7.7 million grant through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program. Officials in Dearborn Heights are also working on plans to make geothermal energy available to their residents.

Good going, Wyandotte! Go for it, Dearborn Heights! What can we do in our own communities?

PS - I hear brevity is a key to blog success. I'm giving it a try!