Monday, August 27, 2012

New Town Takes Shape in Connecticut

The exciting project of designing and building a new town center in Storrs, Connecticut, is finally taking shape.
If you don’t know Storrs, it’s the town (actually a placename in Mansfield Township) that is home to the University of Connecticut.  And actually until recently it wasn’t much of a town at all, with very little to offer for the thousands of students, faculty, and staff congregated in this rural northeastern Connecticut setting.  But a partnership of the university, the town, and others decided to change that and to make a town – a real college town – with shops, apartments, townhouses, offices, streets, and squares. 
Having visited Storrs a few years ago, when the project was just getting started, it’s very satisfying to see it moving forward so well.  The design both of the overall town center and of individual elements looks really first rate.  It will be eminently walkable and bikeable, with a transportation center providing local and regional connections.
I am especially pleased because the Storrs town center may prove to be a good model for a project I am currently working on to design new settlement patterns for rural New England.  More on that later.

Friday, August 17, 2012

West Virginia Takes the Blue-Ribbon Path – Good Luck!

West Virginia Governor Early Ray Tomblin has set up a blue-ribbon commission to come up with recommendations for transportation funding in the Mountain State.  Those of us who are veterans of blue-ribbon commissions know that many start out with high hopes but fewer succeed in really making strong recommendations and far fewer get results in the legislature.  But it is important work and should be done right.
The WV commission starts out right by avoiding the worst pitfall – ruling out gas tax increases. 
The make-up of the commission is suitably broad, but has some notable gaps.  There is no representation from the transit, environmental, MPO, or public interest communities.  All too many governor’s offices do this – presumably to avoid annoying the highway interests – but these omissions weaken both the process and the product.  Hopefully more people can be brought on to the team.
Good luck, West Virginia!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

High-Speed Rail in Philadelphia? Stations and Tunnels

Amtrak is beginning the conversation on how to gethigh-speed rail through center city Philadelphia, avoiding the circuitous routing now in place and ideally reaching the airport.  Some of the controversies include whether to build a new station in the Market East area (replacing the historic 30th Street Station as the main hub) and whether it’s worth the money to build a 10-mile long tunnel through the city.
It’s great news that Amtrak is going straight at these issues.  Some of my concerns:
·      The current Market East Station works well for SEPTA’s regional rail, but is the idea to put high-speed rail there as well?  The absolute worst outcome would be ending up with some sort of Vietcong tunnel complex like Penn Station in New York.  Has anyone thought about Suburban Station as an option?
·      It’s really important to consider the transit connections for high-speed rail.  Most of the intersystem connections in Philadelphia work poorly.  We need to make that better.
·      Most importantly, I’m concerned about the Pennsylvania east-west connection, which no one in the state is actively pursuing.  The 250-mile trip between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh now takes 7 hours and 23 minutes by train.  The high-speed rail trip between Madrid and Barcelona, which is half again as far, takes 2 hours and 45 minutes.  And they have mountains in Spain too!  Imagine what high-speed rail would do in terms of effectively moving Pittsburgh closer to the Northeast Corridor and tying Pennsylvania together.  Somehow a new north-south routing needs to be made to work with a new east-west routing.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Beverly Swaim-Staley the Perfect Choice for Union Station Challenge

Having recently given a very good review to the newWashington Union Station plan and wished future success to the talented BeverlySwaim-Staley (just leaving Maryland DOT), I’m happy to put the two together and offer congratulations to Beverly in taking on the leadership of implementingthe new plan!
Her background and skills make her the perfect choice for the job and give me real hope that this visionary plan for a world-class transportation hub in a world-class capital can really happen!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Massachusetts Legislature Earmarks the New Transportation Bill

I was happy to see Massachusetts enact a new $1.5 Billion transportation bill (see my earlier comments here) but I was amazed to see the extent to which the funding was sliced up by legislative earmarks.
By my count (I could have missed some!) there are some 212 earmarks in the highway portion of the bill alone.  Many of these are small, but 86 of them (again my rough count) amount to $1 million or more and 6 of them amount to $10 million or more.
Just reading through the project list, most of them appear to be reasonably meritorious, but any list this big and disorderly probably has some clinkers in it.  (There are also some “earmarks” in the list that have no money attached.  I guess some folks got there after the money was all divvied up.)
I have no philosophical objection to earmarks, and sometimes they make sense both as a policymaking tool and as a way to fund transportation projects that otherwise may not be easily fundable due to their size, lack of fit with existing categories, and so forth.  But, really, the scale of earmarking in the Massachusetts bill is a bad way to make policy and is certainly no way to prioritize a capital program.  After so much progress has been made in transportation reform in Massachusetts over the past few years, it’s disappointing to see the details in this bill.  If you want to see for yourself, look here.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

MassDOT Gets Some Green…and Gets Greener

Good news that Massachusetts transportation projects have been funded to the tune of $1.9 Billion in a bill just passed in thelegislature (although I haven’t worked my way through the bill yet – more on that another time).
What’s also good news, if you haven’t been following it, is that MassDOT continues to get environmentally greener with its “GreenDOT” program.  The GreenDOT initiative was started just two years ago by the first MassDOT secretary, Jeff Mullan, as a way to launch his brand new agency on a progressive, forward-looking, environmentally friendly path, and has been pushed along by Secretary Rich Davey.  A new GreenDOTimplementation plan is now in the works, with goals, tasks, and performance indicators for air quality, energy, land, materials, planning/policy/design, waste, and water.  An ambitious agenda!
The MassDOT folks are running a first-class change program, but of course the long-term success will only show itself over time.
People often say that changing a large agency is like “turning a battleship,” but I’m not sure that’s the best analogy (and not just because battleships can actually turn pretty fast).  It’s probably better to think of trying to turn a fleet – one composed of battleships, barges, freighters, submarines, and every other kind of vessel, in all kinds of ages and conditions.  Good luck and keep at it MassDOT!