Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Provocative Thoughts on Sustainability Planning

Gar Alperovitz and colleagues have posted a provocative piece on “Anchoring Wealth to Sustain Cities and Population Growth” which bears reading by thoughtful transportation planners.  They suggest a rethinking of neighborhood-based economic development strategies that fit with a climate change—constrained future.
The authors discuss some of the transportation ramifications of new urbanist strategies (especially more transit and high-speed rail) but there is plainly more thinking that we need to do at our end.  As I have said before, one thing we are not as good at as we should be, as a transportation community, is neighborhood and community transportation planning.
Although many of the concepts that Alperovitz and company outline are far removed from the normal sphere of transportation planners, they are worth your consideration.  Why?  Although conventional thinking in recent years has been that climate change denial is an immutable and overwhelming force, my feeling is that this situation may flip much sooner and much more rapidly than one might think.  We may be only a few more natural disasters (God willing, not too horrible) away from the public demanding that transportation planners come up with solutions! 

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Congrats to Amtrak on New Union Station Plan

I was very pleased to see Amtrak (as lead agency) adopt a first-rate master plan for upgrading Washington’s Union Station.  The plan is both visionary and eminently practical.  It works for transportation (both intercity rail and all the modes gathering there); it works architecturally; and it works as a catalyst for high-quality urban development.
At a time when so many agencies have assumed a defensive crouch, it is refreshing to see Amtrak and a collection of other agencies put forward a plan for a “world-class transportation hub worthy of a great nation.”  They have expressly looked at the great new and refurbished European stations for inspiration.  And they have designed in capacity not just for the next round of expansion but for future expansion that should serve well in to the 21st century. 
The planners understand that Union Station is not just a train station, but also serves Metro, buses, taxis, bicycles, pedestrians, and (soon) streetcars.   The future Union Station will also serve (and stimulate) urban redevelopment in the neighborhood and serve (and stimulate) sustainable development in the entire Northeast mega-region.
The first priority, thankfully, will be improvements to “Concourse A”, the area where passengers now crowd into inadequate spaces to board trains.  Those of us that are frequent Amtrak customers will appreciate any relief we can get there!
The $7 Billion plan won’t happen overnight, but adopting the master plan is the first step in getting there.  Well done, Amtrak!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

More NASTO Notes

If you’re like me, sometimes it takes a few days (weeks) to sort out your notes from a conference or meeting.  So, although time has marched on, there are several points from last month’s NASTO (Northeast Association of State Transportation Officials) conference in Baltimore that are (in my opinion) worth remarking and thinking about.
In no particular order:
Natural disasters really are disastrous and we really really need to plan for them – Those of us who were largely spared the worst effects of Hurricane Irene last year should not forget about how bad it really was in some places.  Vermont’s transportation secretary, Brian Searles, described in detail the devastating impact of the storm, including widespread flooding and a complete disruption of parts of the transportation network.  The state was cut in two by closure of the east-west mountain passes, and many towns could only be reached by helicopter.  VTrans is still working on fixes in some spots.  Vicki Arroyo, of Georgetown Climate Center, showed slides from the destruction in New Orleans caused by Hurricane Katrina, including pictures of her own family, which always helps to put a human face on tragedy.  The clear message is that we all need to step up our game in planning for natural disasters, which appear to be a growing part of our future. (FYI, this can happen anywhere.  A couple of weeks ago both mainline rail connections between England and Scotland were shut down due to landslides caused by flooding.) On that point, Sonal Sanghavi, of Maryland DOT, talked about that department’s efforts to develop a comprehensive asset management system for drainage infrastructure, done in an ecosystem-based approach.
Funding is different from financing! – Thanks to Laurie Mahon of McKinsey, who gave a “master class” on the difference between the two, something I’ve been talking aboutwhenever I can.  Financing schemes – debt and borrowing  – don’t work without adequate funding – taxes, fees, tolls, fares – behind them.  (Laurie also had some good guidance on how to make projects more attractive to investors.)
High-speed rail is still moving forward in the Northeast – Although California has gotten most of the attention lately, several speakers pointed out that planning and investment in HSR in the Northeast continues to advance, without nearly as much controversy.  Just one item of interest: Bob Garrett of PennDOT noted that that agency is investing nearly half a billion dollars in the Keystone Corridor (although it owns no infrastructure and operates no service of its own there!) and is seeing explosive ridership growth and expanding TOD investment.
Transportation finance – See my earlier post.
Best luncheon speaker ever – If you ever have a chance to hear a talk by Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, don’t miss it on any account.
Congrats to Jim Redeker – Connecticut DOT’s commissioner is the new NASTO president and offered some thoughtful remarks on how to position the transportation community to deliver and succeed in today’s difficult environment.  Jim has a strong background in transit, transportation and land use, economic development, and strategic planning, and is a great choice for the coming year.
Congrats to Maryland DOT – As host agency, MDOT did the thoroughly professional job we always expect of them.  They are still the benchmark DOT in my book.  We will definitely miss Beverly Swaim-Staley, who has been a first-class CEO!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

And Some MAP-21 Bad News

Many people have already noted this clinker – under Section 1316 of the new Reauthorization bill all highway projects built within the existing right-of-way lines are classified as Categorical Exclusions under NEPA and can’t be held to the higher requirements of Environmental Assessments or Environmental Impact Statements.
Why is this important?  Presumably the issue is highway widening projects – adding new lanes – within the existing ROW.  DOTs and other agencies who want to widen highways look to the “inside” approach where they can, because adding lanes on the inside doesn’t require ROW acquisition and has fewer environmental impacts than adding lanes on the outside, and is therefore much faster and cheaper.  But apparently some folks have wanted to make that process even faster and cheaper by shortcutting the NEPA process.
Some points to consider here:
First, the main impact of highway widening projects on the natural environment usually has very little to do with trout streams and bog turtle habitats, although these are the sort of issues that get the most attention.  The main impact is the stimulus to sprawl settlement patterns and the resultant costs to both natural and built systems.  And our present NEPA process underrates those impacts.
Second, a “categorical exclusion” isn’t really what the name implies.  Typically, a CE may require 6 months of technical studies and preparation of a significant document to justify that status.  It isn’t necessarily a free pass.
I’m not sure where this leaves us, and we will have to see how the process plays out.  In a sensible system, we should be adding capacity to the system within comprehensive regional plans – “blueprint” plans – that link settlement patterns, transportation networks, and natural systems to maximize benefits to all three.  Still work to be done there.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

MAP-21 (or, as I sometimes call it, ATLAS-T 1000 ½), Some Good News on the Grid

Now that the Reauthorization bill has been signed, many of us are looking through it to identify the good bits (more than we might have thought a few months ago), the bad bits, and the head-scratchers that we will need to see play out.
We will start with some good news.
A provision that has gotten little attention is the one that makes projects on minor collector roads eligible for STP funding where those projects improve level of service on an adjacent NHS highway and meet other conditions (see Section 1108).  Although there are still more limitations than I would like (and why can’t NHS funding be used?), this is still a step in the right direction.  Smart Growth planners have known for a long time that improvements on the local grid are often better and more cost-effective than improvements on the mainline highway.  Improving the connectivity of the local grid disperses and tames traffic and supports neighborhoods.  Expanding capacity on the NHS highway often stimulates sprawl development and divide towns without doing a very efficient job of improving traffic flow.  I hope that state DOTs take advantage of this opportunity and that FHWA encourages it!
What is ATLAS-T 1000 ½?  AT Least it’s an Authorization bill for Surface Transportation (although 1000 days late and ½ the size it needs to be).

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

MAP-21 or ATLAS-T 1000 ½?

So, to most people’s surprise (including mine) we have a 2+ year Reauthorization bill, with more or less steady spending levels and more or less steady programs.  The sighs of relief can be heard emanating from every state DOT and MPO!
The final bill has the Senate name, MAP-21.  I think of it as ATLAS-T 1000 ½: AT Least it’s an Authorization bill for Surface Transportation (although 1000 days late and one-half the size it should be).
It’s an ungainly combination of current programs, a few relatively progressive Senate provisions, and a few turn-back-the-clock House provisions.  There’s a lot to digest and both congressmen and commentators have begun to point out the flaws (some troublesome transit provisions, setback for Transportation Enhancements, etc.) and some of the opportunities (at least a nominal start on national objectives and performance measures, freight planning, etc.).  I may offer a few thoughts on some of these in the future.
For now, two general comments:
First, the funding for the bill is obviously unsustainable.  It depends on a patchwork of unrelated financing provisions that pay for two years.  Although the creativity of politicians in avoiding revenue issues should never be underestimated, this would seem to be the last hurrah for the current transportation finance system. 
Second, two years is probably the right amount of time for everyone to take a deep breath, get through the election cycle, and focus intently on a new bill.  My preference is to start with a new draft bill that does what really needs to be done:
1.     Double (or more) the size of the program.
2.     Enact sustainable funding.
3.     Reach and maintain a state of good repair for our existing systems.
4.     Double (or more) the mileage of fixed guideway transit.
5.     Create (at least in some places) genuine transit networks that provide the density, frequency, speed, quality, and connectivity that make them an all-purpose mobility system for a majority of users.
6.     Build regional backbones of a national high-speed rail network.
7.     Redesign and rebuild the national highway system as a real “all-weather” network that keeps working in almost all conditions.
8.     Rethink, replan, design, and build community-scale transportation.