Posts by Author: Rachel Dovey

Miami Transportation Board Approves BRT Plan

Metrorail/Trirail station at Miami International Airport (Photo by Phillip Pessar)

It’s no secret that many Miami-Dade leaders believe funds from a certain notorious half-cent sales tax have been hijacked. The tax, passed in 2002, was supposed to finance rail expansion; instead, a large chunk of the $290 million per year it generates has been poured into the county’s bus system.

That now 16-year-old measure has colored local elections and complicated County Mayor Carlos Gimenez’ efforts to expand a proposed BRT network. Now, however, the county transportation board has thrown its support behind the mayor, meaning that the funds from the 2002 tax will probably keep favoring buses over rail.

A vote last week by the regional Transportation Planning Organization “marked a milestone” in the county’s ongoing transit debate, the Miami Herald reports. The board approved the county’s first rapid-transit bus system, which is projected to cost $243 million.

As Next City has covered, Gimenez has championed the bus option because of its price tag. Extending Metrorail the same 20 miles to Florida City would cost roughly $1.3 billion. The mayor has previously voiced concern about securing federal funding for the rail project under the Trump administration and planned on relying on a combination of state and local funds. Now, however, county leaders do plan on applying for a federal grant of up to $100 million, according to the Herald.

The county vote followed on the heels of another local decision with a very different conclusion. Only days before the TPO approval, the Citizens’ Independent Transportation Trust board voted to simply cut off funds from that 2002 tax. In essence, that board wants to block the county from subsidizing any more operating costs for existing bus and rail projects, according to another Miami Herald article.

“Let’s just stop them from doing this,” Citizens’ Independent Transportation Trust board member Evan Fancher said recently, according to the article. “Let’s move forward.”

The TPO is the more powerful board, however. And County commissioners can override the citizens’ board vote, although they may need a two-thirds majority to keep the subsidy going.

All in all, the potential impact of that citizen board vote is still unknown, according to the paper. But things are certainly looking up for local supporters of BRT. For leaders in South Dade, however, that 2002 promise is still unfulfilled.

“I’m going to support rail, because that’s what we promised the people,” County Commissioner Dennis Moss said recently, according to the Herald.

 

Portland Lawsuit Faults City for Careless Bike-Lane Design

(AP Photo/Jim Mone)

A cyclist hit by a car driving 60 mph is suing both the city of Portland and state of Oregon, reports Oregon Live. The suit highlights the potentially disastrous (and costly) consequences of careless road design.

In December of 2017, cyclist Robert A. Smith was struck by a car that cut in front of a truck and sped up to reach Interstate 5.

According to Oregon Live:

In a lawsuit filed Thursday, Robert A. Smith claims it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to the government entities responsible for designing a North Greeley Avenue bike lane that a cyclist would one day be seriously injured or killed. The southbound bike lane crosses an on-ramp to Interstate 5 —a section of road where the speed limit is 45 mph but drivers often travel 55 mph to 60 mph.

Smith suffered a broken leg, ankle, pelvis, hand and ribs in addition to chipped teeth, collapsed lungs and a traumatic brain injury, the paper reports. He seeks $1.35 million.

The lawsuit is similar to a string of legal actions in Los Angeles. According to the Los Angeles Times, the city faced skyrocketing costs — paying out a total of about $19 million — for lawsuits over bike crashes in 2017.

From the Times:

The surge has defied city efforts to brand Los Angeles as a place that welcomes bicyclists, and comes as officials trumpet that its streets have improved. The Bureau of Street Services says it reached “a historical high of 4,821 lane miles” paved in the past two budget years, bringing the average grade of city streets up to a C+.

But fixing the most badly broken streets is so costly that the city has instead focused on preventing salvageable roads from sliding into disrepair.

The article makes several unfair characterizations, according to Streetsblog — only one of the crashes mentioned actually took place in a street with a bike lane. And that $19 million pales in comparison to the $40.9 million in settlements paid to drivers in 2017.

Still, as Bicycling points out, cycling has grown dramatically in popularity throughout the Los Angeles area. The number of L.A. bike commuters increased by 33 percent between 2010 and 2016, according to Census data. That dramatic growth — coupled with poorly maintained streets and inadequate signage — could continue to leave the city vulnerable to lawsuits. In San Diego, where promoting cycling has been part of the city’s strategy for slashing emissions, a similar string of actions occurred last year.

Of course, as Next City has covered, lawsuits also can be a tool wielded to prevent bike lane creation in the first place, from Seattle business owners worried about bike lanes eating up parking to the New York politician who claimed in 2015 that cycling infrastructure harms the environment.

 

Disney Wants Anaheim to Cease Tax Breaks

Disneyland in Anaheim. (Photo by Harshlight)

The Anaheim City Council this week voted to end an incentive deal with Disneyland Resort, the Los Angeles Times reports. The move — scrapping agreements for tax breaks in exchange for investments in Disney’s theme parks and an adjacent shopping district — was requested by Walt Disney Co.

Disneyland Resort President Josh D’Amaro sent a letter to Anaheim officials last week saying the deals have “created an adversarial climate where there should be cooperation and goodwill,” according to the Times. But the company may have ulterior motives.

From the paper:

By eliminating certain tax agreements, Disney may be ensuring that it isn’t affected by a Nov. 6 ballot measure that, if passed, would require the resort to pay all its workers a living wage.

The measure, which was added to the ballot after unions representing resort workers collected enough signatures, would require large hospitality businesses that accept a city tax subsidy to pay workers a minimum of $15 an hour, with a $1 hourly increase each Jan. 1 until 2022. Once the wage reaches $18 an hour, annual raises would be tied to the cost of living.

Roughly 60 Disneyland workers attended the meeting and called on the resort to pay them a living wage — whether or not the tax breaks stand.

“How much is enough for them to make before they share it with the people who make the magic?” Julieta Briceno, a housekeeper who has worked at the resort for 10 years said, according to the Times.

Disneyland representatives claim that the resort has secured a contract with four of its largest unions — representing about 9,700 workers — to raise hourly wages 20 percent immediately, with an additional 13 percent bump in January. But the resort has about 30,000 employees in total.

Like company towns in Silicon Valley, Anaheim does have an often-adversarial relationship with its largest employer. As Next City has covered, the city balked at Disneyland’s request for a $200 million tax subsidy in 2016 to build a massive new luxury hotel.

“Disney of all entities doesn’t need city funds to build this hotel,” Mayor Tom Tait said at the time. “There’s no reason why the city would ever do this, no legitimate reason.”

“[$200 million] is a massive amount of money given our entire general fund budget is $300 million,” he added. “Writing a check to Disney for $15 million a year for 20 years — coupled with tens of millions in other subsidies to hotel developers — is going to have a massive negative impact on our ability to deliver vital services.”

The city did end up approving a $267 million tax break, however, according to the Voice of O.C. But that agreement has also been complicated — perhaps even nullified — by a simple change of address for the planned resort.

 

Austin Can’t Ban Plastic Bags, But it Can Ask Politely

(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

In June, the Texas Supreme Court upheld a state preemption against city plastic bag bans. But while Austin officials have agreed to play along, they’re also testing out a simple new strategy to eliminate single-use plastic: Appealing to retailers’ better nature.

The resolution taken up Thursday by the Austin City Council essentially just asks nicely that local stores keep honoring the (now-forbidden) bag ban.

“Plastic bags, as convenient as they may be, have a really detrimental effect” on the local environment, District 7 Council Member Leslie Pool, a sponsor of the resolution, recently told the Austin Monitor.

The ban was in place for five years, according to the Monitor, and it was apparently fairly popular among local retailers. Not a single fine was ever levied against a business for violating the ordinance. And local retailers made money selling reusable bags — it’s unknown how much, in total, but according to the paper, similar bans in other cities have been quite lucrative.

The “asking nicely” tactic may be a good choice for cities in Utah as well. As Next City has covered, Salt Lake City leaders are ready to “bag the bag” too, but fear that such an effort could bring about a swift preemption from the state.

“Unfortunately, we don’t live in a world where [a ban] always works,” Kate Whitbeck, a member of the Utah Recycling Alliance, said at a Downtown Merchants Association Meeting earlier this year. “The problem, or what we’re seeing in other states, is that frequently one community will say, ‘OK, this is how we want to solve the problem — let’s create a ban, let’s eliminate plastic bags from our community,’ and then, you know, if that’s not a solution the rest of the state feels is the right solution, especially state legislators, then they create a ban a on a ban.”

A better solution — and one favored by a majority of city leaders — would be for states to stop preempting city ordinances that have been democratically enacted. As Next City has covered, state preemption laws that apply to tenant rights, plastic bag bans, fair wage laws and gun regulations disproportionally impact women and people of color. And from blocking the creation of affordable housing tools to preempting paid sick leave, the Texas state legislature is a chronic offender.

 

California Renewable Energy Bill Clears Key Hurdle

(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

California this week came one big step closer to phasing out fossil fuels.

The state will procure all of its energy from solar farms, wind turbines, and other carbon-free sources by the end of 2045, if a bill passed by the state Assembly this week continues to progress. It’s expected to clear the Senate by the end of the week and be signed by Governor Jerry Brown.

The state set its first goal for boosting renewable power use among utilities in 2002, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. Since then, both Brown and his Republican predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, have raised the targets. In 2015, Brown mandated that utilities get half of their electricity from renewables by the end of 2030. The bill passed Tuesday would speed that goal up by four years, requiring utilities to be 50 percent renewable by 2026.

In 2015, Hawaii became the first U.S. state to mandate a complete switch to renewables by 2045. Like communities on the mainland, Hawaii’s state-level shift was largely led by city leaders — Maui County Mayor Alan Arakawa among them (Next City interviewed Arakawa in 2015, here).

“[A]round the world, you are seeing more and more island communities become renewable energy leaders,” he said in a keynote at the 2015 Maui Energy Conference.

Cities across the rest of the U.S. are setting similar goals, as Next City has covered. Minneapolis and Denver have committed to being completely powered by renewables by 2030. Seventy-seven other cities have made a 100-percent pledge with varying deadlines.

Particularly notable is a small midwestern utility that recently made the 100-percent commitment. Utilities tend to be more cautious than elected officials in making such promises since they’re in the actual business of keeping the lights on. They also tend to be monopolies with a vested interest in fighting distributed power sources. But the Traverse City Light & Power board’s recent decision to set a more aggressive target than its surrounding cities bodes well for renewables, and wind power in particular.

In California, the state’s original renewable power requirements spurred such a boom in the construction of solar plants and wind farms that “the state now often produces more renewable power at midday than it needs,” according to the Chronicle.

“When it comes to fighting climate change and reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, California won’t back down,” the new bill’s author, Sen. Kevin de León said, according to the paper.

Now the state just has to get its tailpipe emissions under control.

 

Police Killings Could Be Easier to Prosecute under Washington Law

Seattle police officers block a street during a protest march in December 2014. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren) 

A measure that could overhaul Washington state’s controversial law on police shootings will go before voters, the state Supreme Court has ruled.

I-940 would make it easier to prosecute police who use deadly force, King 5 News reports.

Similar to provisions in many other cities and states, Washington law says that officers can’t be charged if they acted in good faith and without “evil intent,” when using deadly force.

Demonstrating malice “makes it so that it’s nearly impossible to charge a law-enforcement officer who wrongfully kills or injures someone in the line of duty,” the Seattle PI recently reported. I-940 would change the law’s language so that instead of evil intent, courts would look at “what a reasonable officer” might do, according to the PI. The measure would also mandate more training in de-escalation methods.

Earlier this year, the state legislature tried to pass I-940 with a compromise amendment giving more oversight to law enforcement agencies and stakeholders. A County Superior Court judge found that move unconstitutional, ad ordered that the original I-940 be placed on the November ballot. After an appeal from the state Attorney General’s office, the Supreme Court sided with the county judge.

The campaign behind I-940, De-Escalate Washington, turned in 360,000 signatures last December. Its leaders include black police union and tribal council members and the relatives of people killed by police in Seattle, Tacoma and Burien, among other Washington cities.

Andre Taylor is one of the organization’s chairs. His brother Che Taylor was fatally shot by Seattle officers in 2016.

“We can’t allow a situation where somebody has a feeling, or a subjective feeling, of threat and that justifies killing somebody,” Taylor told KUOW last year. “We have a real problem in our law that probably encourages bad behavior. Right now when an officer says, ‘I feel threatened’ or ‘I feared for my life,’ that’s all he needs to say. The circumstances of the case don’t come into place.”

As Next City has covered, the Seattle Police Department has a history of excessive use of force — a 2011 federal civil rights investigation even led to increased federal oversight. SPD officers have also come under fire for public displays of racism.

Nationwide, two things caused police killings to spike in the 1990s after a precipitous drop throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s. First, big city homicide rates went up, causing many agencies to switch from revolvers to semi-automatic pistols. Second, the Supreme Court ruled that officers could justify their gun-fire if they reasonably believed a life was in danger.

But de-escalation has been proven to work, as examples from Washington D.C., New York City, and Camden, New Jersey bear out. In Washington state, voters will now get a say in how police officers are charged.

 

Denver Airport Workers Make Bid for $15 Minimum Wage

Denver International Airport. (Courtesy of Denver International Airport)

Denver International Airport is slated for $3 billion in upgrades in coming years, but many employees feel left behind.

About 6,000 airport workers make less than $15 an hour, the Colorado Independent reports. A ballot initiative spearheaded by New York-based Unite Here aims to establish a Denver airport-specific minimum wage. Organizers launched the effort last week — if they gather the necessary 4,726 signatures, the proposal will be put before voters in Denver’s 2019 municipal election.

“After 19 years of working at DIA airport, neither my wife or I make $15 an hour,” Amelton Archelus, a Haitian immigrant who works in food services for United Airlines, said on Thursday, according to the Independent. “After 19 years, I still struggle to pay my bills, to pay my rent on time.”

Complicating matters, workers aren’t all employed by one entity — some are employees of the city, some work for the federal government and some are employed by specific airlines. Many of them do already make $15 an hour, according to research from Unite Here. Airport spokeswoman Emily Williams told the Independent that she believes all 1,500 city employees make at least $15 an hour.

Should Denver voters pass the initiative next year, DIA will become the country’s 16th airport with an airport-specific minimum wage, according to the paper.

Living wage campaigns spread from Seattle to city halls nationwide in 2015, and were a hot topic on the 2016 presidential campaign trail, as Next City has reported. Workers are now organizing around fair workweek legislation — in 2016, Seattle passed a secure scheduling policy that requires advance notice of schedules and compensation for canceled shifts. San Francisco and New York have also begun advancing legislation that requires advance notice for schedules and extra pay for on-call shifts or last-minute cancellations.

Cities in Texas are also getting behind paid sick leave provisions, but state law will most likely preempt local voters.

 

Food Forest Movement Finds Fertile Ground in the Midwest

The Freeway Food Forest in San Francisco. (Credit: Zoey Kroll) 

As others are doing in Seattle and Philadelphia, the small city of Davenport is addressing local food insecurity with a regenerative, seven-layer garden, known as a ‘food forest.’

The Quad City Food Forest uses permaculture techniques to create a layered “guild” system — i.e., a group of plants that help each flourish. The layers include “root, mushroom and shallow-rooted foods at the base of the garden, followed by vining varieties, ground covers and herbs,” according to the Quad-City Times. Next, there’s a flowering- and fruiting-shrub layer, then a low-tree layer and finally a full fruit- and nut-tree layer.

According to the paper, the food is available to the community for free.

“Volunteers take food home on a weekly basis, and anything that is left over, we will take to several local shelters and food pantries,” food forest president Conza Borders recently told the paper.

As Next City has covered, closed-loop agriculture is increasingly being used by cities to address hunger, food deserts and even mental health. The food forest model is particularly effective for low-income families because many community gardens require money for membership dues, seeds and tools. Food forests are designed to regenerate, with volunteers sharing seed-saving methods and planting native perennials that boost harvests year after year. They also tend to have an open-door policy.

“Anyone can come at any time of day and take whatever they want,” Michael Muehlbauer, the agricultural engineer and orchardist behind the Fair Amount Food Forest, told Next City earlier this year.

In Philadelphia, agriculturists want to borrow an idea from Seattle and use public land to create food forests. Their proposal wouldn’t just address food insecurity, but create a “different model for the civic commons,” Muehlbauer told Next City.

“Humanity used to have more of these spaces, for collectively growing food for each other and sharing it, and this is just trying to bring that back a little bit,” he said.

 

Bay Area Weighing a Regional Transit-Oriented Upzoning

BART's Antioch station is one where parking for suburban commuters has been debated. (Photo by Pi.1415926535​)

Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) is already in the housing business — to date, it’s worked with developers to bring roughly 2,000 apartments and townhomes to its stations. A bill that passed the state senate last week could help the agency streamline the permitting process for even more transit-oriented development on its land by bypassing local zoning codes.

Of course, “bypassing local codes” are fighting words in the Bay Area. SB 827, which died earlier this year, proposed removing density limits and parking requirements state-wide to facilitate up-zoning near transit. The bill sparked opposition from many city leaders and community advocates (and at least one reported brawl), with critics claiming it would spur gentrification and strangle city-level environmental checks on development.

AB 2923 is smaller in scope. It’s limited to BART properties in the Bay Area, although it could facilitate the creation of up to 20,000 new units, Curbed reports. But it’s being met with similar opposition, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

In an editorial published Sunday, the paper’s board highlighted the East Bay stations surrounded by large parking lots, suggesting that those lots — while useful for suburban commuters — would be more useful as housing space. Building multi-family units near mass transit is “an excellent way to reduce greenhouse gases, grow the region’s housing stock and reduce traffic congestion,” the board claimed.

From the paper:

These are enormous benefits for the entire Bay Area. So it’s been deeply disheartening to watch a wide range of local officials, including state. Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda, state Assemblywoman Catharine Baker, R-San Ramon, multiple Bay Area mayors and the Berkeley City Council, stand against it.

Their major argument? The bill usurps the power of local governments to make land use decisions.

This is an old NIMBY argument, and it’s a large part of the reason why the state is in this mess.

As Next City has covered, “NIMBYism” is often used as code for “upholding historically racist zoning policies.” And it’s true that, particularly in the Bay Area’s suburban, lower-density communities, “local control” is often the cry of advocates and policy-makers who don’t want to see multi-family developments (and the people who supposedly come with multi-family developments) in their counties, let alone their backyards.

But the opposition to SB 827, at least, was slightly more complicated. Many residents of San Francisco’s Chinatown, in particular, worried that giving developers freer reign would lead to more luxury developments that would displace communities of color already hit hard by skyrocketing rents.

For now, AB 2923 features an amendment to “require a replacement-parking policy so that suburban commuters will continue having access to the stations,” according to the Chronicle. That should help with the ongoing debate about adding new parking to facilitate public transit from the region’s exurbs. Still, Alameda County and the cities of Berkeley, Brentwood, Concord, Danville, Dublin, Fremont, Hayward, Lafayette, Livermore, Martinez, Novato, Orinda, Palmdale, Pittsburg, Pleasant Hill, Pleasanton, Riverside, San Ramon and Walnut Creek have all come out against the bill, according to Curbed. Now that it’s passed the state senate with the amendment, it heads back to the state assembly.

 

Reports of Subway Sex Crimes Are on the Rise — and That’s Not Necessarily a Bad Thing

(Photo by Denys Argyriou)

Reports of subway sex crimes in New York City are on the rise, City Limits reports. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the crimes themselves are increasing.

The number of reported crimes rose last year for the fourth consecutive year.

From City Limits:

The NYPD received 1,024 reports of sex offenses in the transit system in 2017, up 8.8 percent from 2016, when there were 941 such crimes, according to statistics provided by police. The number of incidents in 2016 were also up 27.5 percent from 2015, when there were 738 incidents, police said. So far this year, however, the trend appears to be slowing: there were 501 subway incidents reported in 2018 as of July 29, compared to 593 during the same time period in 2017, according to NYPD stats.

Advocates say that uptick is the result of more victims coming forward, inspired by campaigns like the #MeToo movement, according to the site.

“Women, and people in general, are starting to realize that they have agency over their space, their body, and feel comfortable coming out and sharing, ‘Hey, this is happening to me,’” Maliyka Muhammad, a board member with the nonprofit Stop Street Harassment, told City Limits. “‘This is my body. I don’t have to tolerate it, and I don’t have to keep silent when it happens.’ People are starting to feel empowered.”

But as Next City has covered, policymakers — as well as the people planning city spaces — have yet to respond to that newfound agency. If lasting change is going to be achieved, seemingly small changes like establishing better lighting near transit stations and ensuring that buses and trains run on time can make a huge difference. The Inter-American Development Bank has found that the closer transport systems stick to their schedule, the less likely it is that a woman will become a victim of a crime.

Few stars of urban planning are female, which is one reason advocates believe those simple policy fixes aren’t often passed or budgeted.

“Patriarchal power structures govern not only relationships between people, but also interactions between people and space,” Jana Korn wrote in an op-ed for Next City last year.

New York agencies are implementing some structural shifts, according to City Limits. Both the MTA and the NYPD have more actively urged subway victims to come forward in recent years. In 2014, the MTA created a website for victims to report incidents of subway sexual misconduct online. In April, meanwhile, the NYPD launched an awareness campaign encouraging all residents to report sex crimes to the police.

 



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