Thursday, June 14, 2012

Great Neighborhoods Initiative Going Strong in Massachusetts

The Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance has posted thepresentations from their recent Great Neighborhoods Summit, and it’s good to see this initiative moving forward.  The Great Neighborhoods program provides expert assistance to communities working for smart development and redevelopment, often with a transit-oriented development angle.
Two of the best success stories (with a transportation perspective) from MSGA’s update report:
·      In the Fairmount corridor in Boston a suburban commuter rail line runs through otherwise transit-poor neighborhoods.  MBTA is building new in-town stations, which will function almost like rapid transit stops, and a variety of agencies and groups are promoting redevelopment along the line, including  “village centers” and greenways.
·      In the more upscale, suburban setting of Winchester, MSGA is working with the town to plan a major upgrade and infill development of the CBD, centered on the commuter rail station.
Historically, transportation agencies have not been very good at planning or project development at this scale.  This will be a challenge we need to address in coming years, as “great neighborhoods” will be a key building block for a successful, sustainable future.  Thanks to MSGA for providing some good lessons.

Monday, June 11, 2012

NASTO Notes – Reauthorization and Funding

The biggest topic at NASTO (Northeast Association of State Transportation Officials) is – as at all transportation conferences – Reauthorization and funding.  And as usual, no one is very optimistic.
John Porcari (USDOT Deputy Secretary) noted that if we are all asked to do more with less for much longer, pretty soon we will be asked to do everything with nothing.  He said we are living off the infrastructure our parents (and grandparents and great-grandparents) bought and paid for.  He naturally pointed out some of the good things the Obama Administration has been trying to do, but said it was hard to be optimistic about Reauthorization.
Jack Basso, AASHTO’s finance guru, had to provide another in his long series of rather depressing accounts of the current and future state of transportation funding.   The Highway Trust Fund is in critical condition.  No more transfers can be expected from general funds.  The new CBO report on the financial effects of the new CAFÉ standards makes it clear that current funding is not viable.  And there is now no escaping the revenue issue.  (Here I have to disagree.  Congress and state legislatures can be incredibly creative in escaping revenue issues!)
We will miss Jack Basso, retiring soon from AASHTO, who has been a major voice of reason in transportation finance for many years.
When will we turn the corner and start talking about all the wonderful things we can do in this country in the 21stCentury?

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Oklahoma Transportation Funding is (not so) OK

Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin has signed a bill (HB 2247) that will dedicate another $18 million a year in general revenue toward fixing state highway bridges.
The good news is that Oklahoma has in place an aggressive program to rehab or replace structurally deficient bridges, which the added money will accelerate.
The bad news is that the funding doesn’t come from new revenue: it comes from general revenues diverted to the transportation budget from other purposes.  This continues a pattern Oklahoma started a few years ago.  And by the way, Oklahoma has a lower gas tax than every state other than South Carolina, New Jersey, Wyoming, and Alaska.
Now, ODOT does a lot of good work, and I’m sure they’re happy to get the extra funding.  But I have to say that effectively diverting money from education, health, and public safety (the big budget draws in Oklahoma) is a bad bargain in the long run for transportation.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Southern Towns – Fredericksburg, VA

I recently had occasion to spend some time wandering around some southern towns I was unfamiliar with, and saw some positive – and some not so positive – signs of smart growth.
Fredericksburg, VA, is a welcome oasis in the horrendous I-95 corridor between Washington and Richmond.  It’s a charming town with an historic district reflecting both Revolutionary and Civil War events, although still a little rundown and gritty in spots.
Some of the positives:
·      Excellent street grid and good architecture.
·      Lots of antique shops – bins and bins of Civil War prints!
·      Boutiques, craft beer, locally owned bookstore, Victorian B&Bs, etc.
·      College town (Mary Washington)
·      Good north and south train service (Amtrak, last VRE station on the line to Washington) from a restored train station.
·      The city is right on the Rappahannock River but doesn’t seem to have made the connection.
·      Not much downtown housing.  A few streets of townhouses around the train station and riverfront could make a big difference.
The town has real charm and offers real promise for the future.