Sunday, September 13, 2020

The Death (and future rebirth?) of Baltimore’s Red Line

Just in case you were getting too cheery about how things are going these days, you should read the recent article in the Washington Post about the death, 5 years ago, of Baltimore’s Red Line transit project at the hands of Maryland Governor Larry Hogan (available here).  Seriously, you should read it, because although a major battle was lost then, I for one haven’t given up on the war.


As I have repeatedly said, the Red Line is a success story waiting to happen. The proposed east-west rapid transit line would link major employment and residential centers, generate significant economic activity, transform a set of transit lines into a real network that unites the metropolitan area, partly redress the inequities in transit access in the region, and leverage high-quality urban redevelopment. It is not too much to say that the Red Line is the key to Baltimore’s emergence as a vital 21st century city.


And yet here we are. 


Despite a lot of despair in the air, there is a bunch of stuff that supporters of the Red Line can do, such as:

·      Salt the Red Line into local and regional planning documents (too many missed opportunities for this),

·      Use city planning and zoning powers to orient development around proposed stations,

·      Enlist corporate and public “sponsors” to promote transit-ready development at station sites, and

·      Continue to encourage the Legislature to support transit in general and the Red Line in particular.


Many people have pointed out that our country is currently facing a “triple crisis” of Climate Change, an outcry for racial justice, and an economic mini-depression.  The Red Line can help us make progress on all three fronts at once.  We need to get busy! 

Monday, August 10, 2020

Peering deeply into the future

 Scary thought!  On the positive side, 2020 has to end at the regularly scheduled time. But there is always the possibility that the future could get worse!  Or not.

People that do regional planning for a living face a lot of challenges.  It used to be that planners could get away with charting a trend that had been developing over the previous decade or so, taking a straight edge to the trend line, and drawing the trend line into the next decade.  Of course, that methodology didn’t always work out, but at least it had some plausibility to it.  What do you do in today’s crazy world of continually unprecedented events?  (As someone asked recently on Twitter, will we ever get back to “precedented” again?)

Enter “exploratory scenario planning.” 

This is the approach that DVRPC (the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, the metropolitan planning organization for the greater Philadelphia region in Pennsylvania and New Jersey) is taking in trying to find a logical framework for its next long-range plan. 

DVRPC has convened a Futures Working Group (full disclosure: I am a member of this outstanding group) to work through all the forces potentially affecting the region’s future and ultimately organizing the possibilities into four broad scenarios.  The goal isn’t so much to predict the future as it is to structure our thinking about the future in ways that allow us to formulate policies and actions that seem to make sense.

DVRPC’s latest report, “Dispatches from Alternate Futures: Exploratory scenarios for Greater Philadelphia” (available here), lays out four possible scenarios in a delightful, easy-to-read format.  Yes, there is some methodology here – forces, focus areas, signposts, collaborative decision making, etc. – which serious planners should read.  The heart of the paper, however, is a collection of “news stories” from the future that vividly illustrate possible outcomes.  Some of the possible future headlines: “Climate Refugees Compound Crisis on Southern Border,” “Hedge Funds Become World’s Largest Landlord,” “Heat-Related Deaths in Philadelphia Reach an All-Time High,” “American Bumblebee Officially Extinct,” and, on a more optimistic note, “Major Legislation Gives Hope against Climate Change” and “Economists Struggling to Adapt Theories to Growing Abundance.” On the transportation side, we have such headlines as “Transit Renaissance Continues as SEPTA Regional Rail Returns to West Chester,” “Robotic ‘Road Butlers’ Coming to Crash-Prone North Philly,” and “Push for Programmable Roads as Carbon Tax Dwindles.”

It’s all good fun, but also very serious.  This approach really helps us to do the thought exercises we need to perform to prepare ourselves for an unpredictable future.

Kudos to DVRPC for grappling with the serious issues and advancing the practice of regional planning.

Monday, May 18, 2020

The “Congestion Con” – Important new report from T4America

T4America is out with an excellent new report which sets out in well-reasoned, documented, and easy-to-read fashion why building new lane-miles of freeway is foolish and counter-productive.  The report – “The Congestion Con: How more lanes and more money equals more traffic” – is available here.

The core of the argument is that adding lane-miles, in addition to being hugely expensive and destructive, is self-defeating, as it only encourages suburban sprawl, longer commutes, and ultimately more congestion.  Now, some of us have known this for a long time (see New Jersey Transportation Plan, 1989), but – remarkably – some state DOTs and others persist in pursuing grandiose new freeway widening projects.  Having been involved in a few of these fights myself (Milwaukee, Maryland, etc.) I never fail to be surprised at how this outdated thinking can drive the potential spending of Billions of dollars on projects of pure folly.

The report argues persuasively that growing the freeway network actually makes congestion worse through stimulating induced demand.  And, even more to the point, focusing on congestion as the problem diverts our attention from what our real goal should be: improving accessibility.  People don’t spend hours stuck in traffic for the fun of it.  They are trying to get somewhere.  If the “somewhere” (work, school, shopping, doctor’s office, etc.) is close by – ideally within walking distance – life gets a lot better.  The land use/transportation relationship is well illustrated with nice graphics.

The report is an easy read, so I won’t attempt to summarize it, but will note briefly the 5 policies it recommends:
1) Reorient our national program around access—connect people to jobs and services,
2) Require that transportation agencies stop favoring new roads over maintenance,
3) Make short trips walkable by making them safe,
4) Remove restrictions on pricing to help manage driving demand, and
5) Reward infill development and make it easier for localities.

Although there is a discussion of the relationship between freeway expansion and sprawl development, the argument is not carried forward to the relationship between sprawl development and the climate crisis.  As I have often pointed out, I feel that the climate crisis by itself justifies a moratorium on Federal funding for all highway expansion.

Ironically, the T4America report was unveiled at about the time the country began shutting down.  Congestion is definitely much less of a problem right now!  There is a lot of speculation about how and when we will come out of the current pandemic and what the long-term effects will be.  The truth is we just don’t know.  What we do know is that we will have an opportunity to examine congestion, accessibility, climate change, and that whole bundle of transportation issues with fresh eyes.  Let’s plan to do it right!

Friday, April 24, 2020

Joe Biden’s – very progressive – transportation program

It’s difficult to remind ourselves that we are in the middle of a critical election year.  But we are.  And when (hopefully) some sort of normalcy is back, we will all need to deal with it.  At any rate, I thought this might be a good time to think a bit about the transportation program of Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee.  One reason I do this is to respond to the talk that Biden is somehow “not progressive enough,” is too beholden to Wall Street, or something similar.  I believe it is important to note that on transportation issues, his proposals are very progressive indeed.  (For a more general argument that Joe Biden is more progressive than people might think, see Michelle Goldberg’s column here.)
I will summarize his program, under the bullet points on his website (here), and add a few comments of my own.
·      “Jump-start the repair of our highways, roads, and bridges.”  Fix-it-first is always a good way to start, and the Biden plan would allocated $50 Billion in the first year toward roadway system preservation.  In a theme repeated in several places, the program promises that a significant portion of these funds would go directly to local governments.  Perhaps this theme emerges from memories of the 2009 Stimulus bill.  He also promises to “expedite permitting.”  Many a brave knight has gone forth to slay that dragon, but none has succeeded.
·      “Make American roads the world’s safest.”  In addition to spending more money on highway safety programs, this element in the program calls for promoting Complete Streets and new technologies, “including ‘smart’ pavement, vehicle-to-infrastructure communication, connected intersections, and other infrastructure-related innovations.”
·      “Invest in historically marginalized communities and bring everyone to the table for transportation planning.”  The Biden plan calls for several steps to promote transportation equity, including a “robust public engagement process” and a Community Restoration Fund targeted at frontline communities.
·      “Pair new infrastructure investments with new training programs.”  This item promotes workforce development, including “new Apprenticeship Readiness Programs that specifically target veterans, women, and communities of color.”
·      “Stabilize the Highway Trust Fund.”  The program calls for “new revenues” to stabilize the Trust Fund.  I think this is the right approach, as it confirms the need for more tax revenue without prematurely getting in to the thorny issues of gas taxes vs. VMT taxes and so forth.
·      “Speed the transition to electric vehicles.”  Thank you!  This seems like an obvious point, but we as a country are so far behind where we need to be that it bears emphasis.  Specific measures outlined include restoring EV purchase tax credits, investing $5 Billion in battery research and development, promoting domestic manufacture of EVs, building a national charging network with 500,000 outlets, investing in workforce development for charging station installation, and providing federal funding for demonstration projects.
·      “Launch a new generation of low-carbon trucking, shipping, and aviation technologies.”  These are the toughest parts of the transport sector to decarbonize.  The Biden plan is basically to plow a lot of R&D money into the problem.
·      “Spark the second great railroad revolution.”  This section refers both to passenger and freight rail, which of course share the same infrastructure but are very different beasts.  On the passenger side, the plan is very aggressive, including cutting trip time between DC and New York in half, building a new trans-Hudson tunnel (which is needed under any scenario), extending the Northeast Corridor to the south, and – the most ambitious element – beginning “the construction of an end-to-end high speed rail system that will connect the coasts.”  On the freight side, the plan mentions some specific projects, such as the Chicago-area CREATE improvements.  Unfortunately, the freight sector is controlled by a small oligopoly of companies who own most of the infrastructure and who are resistant to change.
·      “Electrify the rail system.”  The plan actually says “work with Amtrak and private freight rail companies to further electrify the rail system.”  I’m all in favor of it.  I don’t seen the freight rail companies having any interest without major carrots and sticks.
·      “Offer tens of millions of Americans new transportation options.”  This element of the plan would provide major investments to “provide all Americans in municipalities of more than 100,000 people with quality public transportation by 2030.”   This would include investments in light rail, existing transit systems, bike/ped, and microtransit.  There are also land use elements, including creating “a new program that gives rapidly expanding communities the resources to build in public transit options from the start.”
·      “Reduce congestion by working with metropolitan regions to plan smarter growth.”  This bullet covers a lot of territory.  Biden would encourage a synthesis of smart growth, climate friendly, and innovative mobility strategies.  How to do this?  The specifics include: a competitive grant system “to help leaders rethink and redesign regional transportation systems” and a highway funding bonus for states that “embrace smart climate design and pollution reduction.”
·     “Connect workers to jobs.”  The program promises “an additional $10 billion over 10 years specifically for transit projects that serve high-poverty areas with limited transportation options.”·      “Encourage innovation and launch smarter cities.”  The Biden proposal for addressing new auto technologies: “a yearly $1 billion competitive grant program to help five cities pilot new planning strategies and smart-city technologies that can serve as models for the country.”
·      “Invest in freight infrastructure, including inland waterways, freight corridors, freight rail, transfer facilities, and ports.”  Various programs include doubling the size of the program formerly known as TIGER and other discretionary programs and more funding for ports and waterways.
A few comments:
1.     I would call this program “progressive” under most any definition.  It not only supports a transportation reform agenda, but it is explicitly linked to the climate crisis (his climate agenda is outlined elsewhere in his program).
2.     Although definitely progressive, there is plenty here to please mainline transportation agencies: lots more money for system preservation and operating needs!
3.     Biden obviously has very good transportation advisors.  There is nothing here that rings amateurish.
4.     There are lots of signs that the greatest influence on Biden’s thinking is the 2009 Stimulus bill, which I think is a good thing!  (My stimulus thoughts here.)
5.     The program is a laundry list, not a bill.  But I think almost all the pieces are here.
6.     What would I add?  A 10-year moratorium on the use of federal funds for highway capacity expansion.  I think we have to stop that right now in order to reorient the program.
7.     How will the current coronavirus crisis affect the timing and shape of the next big transportation bill?  I have no idea.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Learning from the Recovery Act: Lessons and recommendations for future infrastructure stimulus

Smart Growth America and Transportation for America have issued a new, and very timely, report by this name (available here).  With Congress poised to (potentially) pump significant funding into the transportation sector, it’s a good idea to remind ourselves of the experience of the last big stimulus bill and what we can learn from it.  I was part of the SGA team that worked on implementing the Stimulus, so not surprisingly my conclusions are very similar to those in the new report.  (My retrospective on the Stimulus was done five years after the program was started – here – and my views are still the same.)
The report is a clear, crisp, easy-to-read text of 8 pages, with 6 lessons and 6 recommendations, so if you have any interest in the subject you should read the whole thing.  But – spoiler alert – the main takeaway is that the experience of 2009-2010 teaches us that transportation stimulus money should be targeted toward transit (especially operating costs) and roadway repair (maintenance and rehab) to have maximum impact.  Back in the earlier Stimulus, some states did better than others, so better guidelines and reporting are needed this time.
Just a few thoughts of mine to add:
·      I would put more money into planning and engineering than the SGA report suggests.  Planning and design firms took a heavy hit in the Great Recession.  We need to keep those firms healthy not only to protect the jobs there but to preserve and build up a robust planning and engineering capacity for the next big wave of construction (AKA Green New Deal).
·      TIGER TIGER TIGER.  The SGA report notes the importance of this program, which spurred a whole raft of innovative projects.  More, please.
·      As a general rule (extrapolating from the two points above) we should, wherever possible, design any new stimulus program to provide stepping stones to what needs to be a much bigger, sustained program for the future (did I say Green New Deal?).
·      The SGA report recommends that all resurfacing projects incorporate a safety review.  I would also require a bike/ped review.  Resurfacing projects – which usually require paint striping anyway – are the easiest way to get bicycle and pedestrian improvements on the ground.  Many state DOTs will avoid that step if they can.
·      Speaking of bike/ped, now would be a great time to provide funding and incentives for what many cities are already doing: striping out streets to meet the current emergency by reducing unneeded auto space and increasing needed pedestrian and bicycle space.
·      I would simply rule out the use of any stimulus funds for highway capacity increases.  The SGA report suggests this requirement because of the inefficiency of capacity increase dollars for providing jobs and putting money into the economy.  I think we should also insist that we do nothing that will cause more trouble in the long run for our other big emergency – the climate emergency.
Speaking of the 2009 Stimulus coming around again, anyone who takes a close look at Joe Biden’s transportation program (more on that at another time) will see lots of elements that suggest the large impression that his involvement in the Stimulus made on his thinking.
Finally, congrats to Beth Osborne, Will Schroeer, et al. for producing a very timely (and hopefully effective) set of recommendations!

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

We’re building a lot more highway miles than transit miles

A while back I reviewed the TRB Interstate highway report, which I gave high marks for documenting the need for rebuilding the system, but low marks for being wobbly on the issue of adding lane miles to the system at a time of climate crisis (my posting here).
The flip side of too much highway expansion is too little transit expansion.  Yonah Freemark captures the comparison in this graphic (yes I know these numbers are not in some respects equivalent).  His story is here.
Dramatically ramping up the number of transit miles built is not easy, but something we need to address in the next surface transportation (Green New Deal?) bill.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

The New Jersey State Plan is Back!

Or at least the State Planning Commission is back, with a mandate to finally update the State Plan.
New Jersey’s State Development and Redevelopment Plan, an ambitious, comprehensive, state-of-the-art planning document for guiding public policy and investment in the nation’s most densely populated state, was published in 2001 (it’s still available here).  But later attempts to update it – as required by statute – languished, largely for political reasons.
Now New Jersey’s current governor, Phil Murphy, has funded the State Planning Commission and given it new members and a renewed mission.
As Donna Rendeiro, executive director of the planning office, stated at a presentation at the recent Redevelopment Forum sponsored by leading state thinktank New Jersey Future, the commission is systematically attacking the work that needs to be done, beginning with updating policies and procedures and rules.  They are in a “listening” mode, taking in views as to how the old plan should be updated.  A core issue is how to respond to the criticism that the old plan was too detailed, too prescriptive, and too burdensome, especially for small towns with little or no professional staff who needed to comply with its provisions.  A related issue is whether or not to include a detailed map – as the old plan did – showing where development was to be encouraged and where discouraged.
There are lots of details to be resolved, but I (a veteran of many New Jersey State Plan battles) am glad it’s back.  Statewide planning is an enormous challenge but can have enormous benefits!  Good luck NJ State Planning Commission!