Posts by Author: Rachel Dovey

Tampa Mayor Wants to Fix the Streetcar He Once Voted Against

(Photo by Infrogmation)

Like San Francisco’s trollies and Seattle’s monorail, Tampa’s heritage streetcar was built for tourists, not residents.

“It’s the only streetcar in the country that doesn’t operate until noon,” says Kevin Thurman, executive director of local transit advocacy group Connect Tampa Bay. (According to a map on the streetcar’s website, it begins service at 11 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.)

Despite its cheery vintage exterior, Thurman explains that the streetcar is costly to ride, runs infrequently and has a small footprint (about 2.7 miles, from Ybor City to downtown’s Channel District). Although he lives near the line, he rarely uses it.

“I’m about to go to a meeting and I’m probably not going to take it … if I ride my bike, I’ll get there faster,” he says.

But earlier this month, Florida’s Department of Transportation promised $1 million for a feasibility study, meaning that Tampa officials may soon have a unique opportunity: turning a heritage line — which a Tampa Bay Times editorial recently called “more novelty than useful transportation” — into a viable means of getting around.

“I think that when all’s said and done, it will prove to be an asset to our urban environment,” says Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, listing several must-fixes: It needs to cost less, run more often and get going earlier in the day. The rest is still pretty much TBD; according to an April 22nd release, the study will explore route expansion and system modernization, addressing “potential ridership data, environmental impacts and economic development opportunities.” FDOT’s funding will become available in July (the start of FY 2016), and Tampa plans to chip in $250,000 in matching funds.

According to Buckhorn, the next year will serve as a research period that should have come much earlier, before the line was built. When the heritage proposal first came before city council in the mid-1990s, he says he was the only member to vote it down.

“It was driven by the trolley hobbyists,” he recalls, adding that he believed fares, location and maintenance weren’t adequately addressed in the initial plan. “We had the trolley caps running a transportation network.”

“In spite of voting against it, I’m now the mayor that has to fix it,” he says.

Back then, Tampa’s heritage lovers weren’t alone. While players in today’s modern streetcar boom tend to lay infrastructure according to current transportation or (perhaps more commonly) redevelopment needs, lines like Tampa’s, completed in 2002, followed a different trend: revamping or replicating yesteryear’s trollies and sending them along historic routes. Memphis, Tennessee, opened one in 1993 Kenosha, Wisconsin, in 2000; Little Rock, Arkansas, in 2004.

Several of the earliest heritage lines were eventually deemed useless and scrapped. But Tampa’s began running on the tail end of the trend, after Portland opened the modern line that would begin the latest era of a streetcar love affair (and its inevitable backlash). Its timing was fortunate, because trolley enthusiasts and city planners were starting to think about location and redevelopment (not just train whistles and overalls).

“It was one of the last heritages to be built, but one of the first streetcars to go in an area that needed to be redeveloped,” Thurman says.

And he believes that the line has helped trigger new development in parts of downtown, which has brought more urban-dwellers to the city’s core.

“Look at the population density from 2000 to 2010 within the census tracts around the streetcar,” he says, calling the shift an example of “If you build it they may not ride it, but the developers will still build.”

Buckhorn is skeptical of that connection.

“I think it’s a stretch to say that the trolley triggered development,” he says.

But regardless of whether the heritage line spurred the changes Thurman describes, Buckhorn agrees that they’re happening. When trolley advocates made their first proposals roughly 20 years ago, he recalls thinking the line went “from no place to nowhere.”

That’s changed.

“Now we’re in the midst of a huge explosion in the urban core,” he says. “So the current streetcar configuration makes sense.”

Whether that’s a happy accident or intentional planning is apparently up for debate. But Buckhorn says that even if the city decides to modernize the streetcar based on upcoming research, and even if it decides to expand the route, it will keep the heritage spine.

Still, for today’s city officials enamored with modern streetcars, he offers a few words of advice.

“Proceed with caution, build a business plan that is realistic — based on real numbers and not wishful thinking — and make sure that the route is appropriate,” he says. “If you do that, a streetcar, modern or otherwise, can be successful.”

In other words: Keep that trolley cap off.

 

State of Emergency: Two Cities Strategize to Fix Infrastructure Fast

The mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, has a bold idea for funding infrastructure repairs. (AP Photo/Rogelio Solis)

From politics to layout, Jackson, Mississippi, and San Diego, California, don’t have much in common. But last Tuesday, the city councils in each heard strategies for fixing the system that fixes infrastructure. And while Mayor Tony Yarber of Jackson won the award for boldest proposal — declaring a formal state of emergency — both sessions shone an exacting spotlight on the time-consuming and expensive procurement process that often meets officials who want to maintain their roads and pipes.

In San Diego, Public Works Director James Nagelvoort helmed the presentation.

“Infrastructure needs a lot of attention,” he told council. Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s FY 2016 budget prioritizes maintenance investment, which will expand the department’s workload. Nagelvoort explained that to top its current rate of about capital improvement 1,000 projects a year, some changes need to be made. He presented a list — not of two or three proposals, but of nearly 20.

Some are small: digitizing the bid process and allowing online signatures; passing low-cost projects like sidewalk maintenance off to other city departments; standardizing blueprints for buildings that are often replicated, like fire departments.

But some have more reach. Currently, the city sets aside project funding on the front end, even if those finances won’t actually be needed upfront.

“It’s kind of like buying your house with cash — you know, wait ‘til you get all your cash together,” Nagelvoort explained.

Under the mayor and council’s direction, the department wants to restructure the process so that funds sitting idle in that fiscal year can be used. Because developer impact fees and sales tax revenues that accrue over time provide so much infrastructure funding, the new system would theoretically jumpstart more, faster.

And while it’s riskier than the old system, San Diego’s council showed unanimous support. Granted, the presentation was informational — council will vote on several items at a later date — but members had nothing but compliments for the plan.

“It just makes too much sense to pay as you go on these projects rather than waiting until you have that full amount,” Council Member Lorie Zapf said. “Who does that out there in the real world anymore?”

Her enthusiasm was not mirrored by Jackson’s council. But Mayor Tony Yarber’s proposal, which they voted down four to one (with one member abstaining and one absent), was more than a little unusual.

Jackson hasn’t just had an earthquake or hurricane — but Yarber’s idea to declare a formal state of emergency does point to a city water system that’s so dilapidated it could create a citywide crisis.

“What we know is that we have infrastructure, critical infrastructure, that is at risk of failing at any time, and that’s all over the place, and we know that because we’ve had upwards of 100 water main breaks since the top of the year,” he said. “It’s kind of like waiting on the New Madrid fault line to finally start cutting up and the big one to hit. What we want to do is be positioned to be able to address those as soon as possible.”

A state of emergency could potentially relax procurement laws, and make federal and statewide finances available. As Yarber put it:

“We think that the emergency gives us some leverage, not only to be able to get things done faster but also get us in rooms and find out about information as relates to resources that we otherwise would not know about or be able to apply to.”

But though members of the council seemed to agree that the water system could create a crisis, they were reluctant to take such a big step.

“We know we have an emergency, which is the Chastain watermain,” said Ward 6 Councilman Tyrone Hendrix, adding that the council could probably agree that certain pieces of infrastructure posed a public health threat. But he took issue with the broader, non-specific declaration — and its implications.

f we relax the procurement laws for such a wide general area that encompasses the entire city, I think that puts us in trouble,” he said.

Probably, he’s right to be cautious. Procurement laws vary state to state, even city to city, and though they tend to be a bureaucratic headache, they often provide some public safeguards in dealing with private industry. (For much, more more on procurement law, here is a 3,000-word story in which I speak with people who hate it and people who love it.)

Still, the strategies discussed at both city sessions resonate. As federal funding stalls, chronic disinvestment rears its ugly head and cash-strapped municipalities are tasked with ever more responsibility, city leaders will look to quicker-fix strategies, be they San Diego’s pay-as-you-go or Jackson’s emergency.

For his part, Yarber seemed confident that his declaration had at least struck a national chord.

“We have changed the paradigm and started a national conversation on what an emergency is,” he said.

 

Why Is It So Hard to Get Across U.S. Cities Using Only Bike Lanes?

(Photo by Daveynin)

If you’re a cyclist, they’re the spots you dread, where your lane suddenly ends and you’re forced to veer into traffic and hope that you don’t die. And in many cities they’re all too common according to a Washington Post article that went viral earlier this month, showing bike lane grids in Washington D.C., Boston, Seattle and Miami that look like images from a partially erased Etch A Sketch.

“How hard is it to get across U.S. cities using only bike lanes?” the article’s title asks, and judging by the maps, the answer is “pretty darn hard.”

“It’s at least entertaining to envision possible scenarios for why this may have happened,” Emily Badger and Christopher Ingraham wrote, referring to one particularly vexing lane on their own Washington, D.C., commute. “The city ran out of bike-lane paint. Or maybe the crew that striped the lane became suddenly incapacitated or distracted. Maybe they took a lunch break … during which it started to pour and so no one could finish the job.”

Maybe — but more likely it had something to do with zoning, or funds, or neighborhood opposition, or the ever-present political battle over street space.

As a complement to those maps (and because I like to get nerdy about disjointed walkways and bikeways), I asked several people familiar with the grids why it’s so hard to get across U.S. cities using only bike lanes. Yes, there’s the obvious our-nation-is-built-for-cars response, but those maps display four areas with dedicated bike/ped plans (and funds) that are busily respiring streets. So why not follow well-traveled routes start to finish? Or even start at the center and move out? Why the fragmented, piecemeal approach?

“The more cynical answer is that cities start with the easy bits and implement bike projects that are on roads with loads of room, or don’t involve taking away parking or a travel lane,” writes Andy Clarke, League of American Bicyclists president, in an email.

“That’s not necessarily a bad thing — it’s quite tactical, especially when a city is just getting started,” he adds. “The more pragmatic response is that you’ve got to get started somewhere and eventually the system connects.”

Gregory Billing, advocacy coordinator for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, draws similar conclusions from the capital’s network.

“The city really began planning and implementing bike infrastructure in earnest around 2005, 2006, when they passed a bike master plan that outlined the dream network,” he says. “As opportunities to resurface, reconstruct or retrofit existing roads arose, lines got drawn on the map.”

Often, however, planners gave a more ready OK to lanes on roads already scheduled for maintenance or repaving.

“Which means there are a lot of gaps,” he says. “The city doesn’t do whole sections, it does parts.”

And some of those gaps mark political battles, he adds, citing 14th Street, which is visible on the map.

“There’s four to five blocks missing, and that gap has been there for five years,” he says. “It requires taking away a lane of traffic.”

Seattle Department of Transportation, which provided a written response through communications liaison Norm Mah, adds that the maps don’t tell the whole story because they don’t show “neighborhood greenways.”

“Neighborhood Greenways are a key piece of our planned citywide bike network,” according to their statement. “In fact, 41 percent of our total network will be greenways. Neighborhood Greenways are residential streets calmed to 20 mph, with traffic safety improvements to get across busy streets and good wayfinding along the routes.”

But Seattle is also a newer city, which means the road network is already fractured. According to Clarke, Seattle and Miami were both built, at least partly, on suburban land use patterns: cul-de-sacs and dead ends that break up the grid and wide, multi-lane streets hostile to walkers and bikers alike.

“With a city as relatively small and compact as Boston, you can create a more complete network faster — although you get more quickly into the tougher and more contentious projects,” he writes.

And according to Billing, that contention has slowed D.C.‘s re-striping momentum. Because the city has put so many roads on “diets,” some planners and engineers believe the multimodal throughways need to go through a more thorough public process and environmental review. The old “increased emissions from slowed vehicles” argument is also rearing its ugly head.

But from a national vantage point, Clarke also sees positive strides in the area of connectivity.

“[T]he biggest, newest trend in bike planning is the kind of gap-analysis that looks very specifically at identifying those short connections (that may be relatively quite difficult and/or expensive),” he writes, adding that planners in this school of thought look at syncing up “key pieces of the network to the quiet residential street systems that exist beyond those barriers.”

“Cities such as San Jose have pioneered this approach,” he adds, “and I think it has a lot of promise in focusing scarce resources and political capital on those projects that will really make the biggest difference.”

 

Why Planners and Water Officials Need to Hang Out

California Gov. Jerry Brown talks after a meeting with businesses affected by the drought. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

If you’re reading this, you probably already know the basic premise of smart growth: Compact, walkable cities are more efficient than sprawl. Most likely, you understand the Green Building 101 concept in terms of fossil fuels; it takes a lot of gasoline to get from points A to B across a large, low-density grid.

But according to Smart Growth America, sprawling cities don’t just waste energy — they waste water too. The culprits are myriad: Lawns for single-family homes; paved-over greenspace along an expanding border; parking lots that funnel stormwater into disposal drains, rather than allowing it to seep back into the ground; and a subterranean network of mains and pipes that becomes costlier (and therefore more likely to age, leak and go unrepaired) as its footprint grows.

SGA first made the connections in a 2002 paper called “Paving Our Way to Water Shortages” and though the report is old, the topic is more than a little timely. Earlier this month, Streetsblog picked up a post from Stockton City Limits, a California urbanist blog, examining how city layout affects water consumption.

“[T]he type of growth that’s been a hallmark of the Central Valley the past few decades leads to cities that consume far more water than is sustainable,” Jon Mendelson wrote in the original article, citing the 2002 SGA paper along with one from Western Resource Advocates.

Because the reports are dated (and the Southwest is quickly drying up), I asked both organizations what water/land use issues they’ve been working on since 2003.

Alex Dodds, a spokesperson for SGA, says that municipalities everywhere can still learn from that 12-year-old paper.

“Sprawl doesn’t cause drought nor does smart growth development solve drought, but cities really aren’t doing themselves any favors by building in this really water-intensive way,” she says.

Still, the organization has recently shifted focus to regions that can still build to mitigate. Its State Resilience program, launched last year, offers peer-to-peer insight into land use-based fortifications against a number of natural disasters, including drought.

“We’re helping states and municipalities build in ways that protect them — more compactly, preserving open space,” she says. “Obviously in California and other places that are being affected by drought it’s gotten to a crisis point. It’s sort of a tough time to say ‘We better plan better … 20 years ago.’ But California and the Southwest aren’t the only places that are going to be affected by drought.”

With offices in Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado, Western Resource Advocates works in today’s dry spots. And since joining the organization in 2009, Drew Beckwith has been trying to cross-pollinate local water policy with land-use practices. In 2013, his efforts took the form of a workshop series called the Land Use Leadership Alliance, or LULA, which is part of a broader effort from Pace Law School. It reflected a simple concept: Gather the water people and the land use people under one roof.

“Traditionally water and land use planning have not been done together,” Beckwith says. “The challenge has been that people in the water world and people in the land use field don’t know each other or even speak the same language.”

And that can have serious consequences. For example, water agencies often project a city’s future consumption based on current gallon-per-household-per-month figures. But if planners are up-zoning a city for mixed-use, thereby cutting water demand, everyone ends up with inflated data.

Not all regions have fractured planning processes, he adds, pointing to Las Vegas (funny how many people in the planning world do that lately). Around 2000, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which imports most of its water from the Colorado River, wanted to discourage lawn watering.

“They’re not a land use or planning authority, but they wanted to pass an ordinance that banned turf in front yards,” he says. “They went around and worked with every single local government body.”

Eventually, City Council listened and created an ordinance limiting turf in new development.

Unfortunately, as both reports touch on, the regions hit hardest by water shortages also happen to be the regions that built cities for cars, garages, lawns and single-family homes. Beckwith says that most of the officials he works with understand the need for infill, now. Still, he recalls a saying that captures the region’s ambivalence about buildings that block the sky.

“There are two things that people love and hate about land use,” he says. “One is density and the other is density.”

As Dodds says, they’re in crisis mode now. Hopefully they can build to conserve before the wells really do run dry.

 

Are Georgia Republicans Learning to Love the MARTA Train?

“Shortly after the opening of the North Springs station, we began to see a lot more support.” (Photo by Biomedeng)

We’ve said it before: On the national level, Republicans tend to have a complex and chilly relationship with public transit. But in city and even state bodies, the freeway-loving attitudes of yore are starting to give way, and one fascinating example of this shift — along with its constraints — comes from Sandy Springs, north of Atlanta.

According to census data, the city houses about 94,000 people. But that’s only at night.

“We double in size during the day,” says Rusty Paul, Sandy Springs’ mayor.

The suburb is quickly becoming a corporate mecca: Cox Communications, Rubbermaid, UPS and First Data have all set up shop there. In February, Mercedes Benz USA announced plans to do the same.

Paul attributes the area’s draw partly to the MARTA train, which extends from the very northern tip of Clayton County through the city and up into Sandy Springs. Likely, he’s right. In February, Mercedes USA CEO Steve Cannon told the Atlanta Journal Constitution that the HQ would “help the company tap into the millennial talent who want to live in town, while also being close to executive-level housing in Buckhead and the northern Atlanta suburbs.”

Which is why Paul, a Republican, former Georgia state senator and previous chairman of the Georgia Republican Party is also something of a transit advocate. Currently, he’s supporting MARTA’s proposed expansion to the northern end of Fulton County. That project, which could take rail or BRT form, is still in the early stages of environmental review, with several meetings taking place this month. But should an extension go forward, it would send MARTA north for the first time since 2000. The transit authority is considering several other expansions as well.

If you’ve followed red-leaning, transit-forward leaders in Arizona, Utah and Massachusetts, Paul’s pro-train stance might not surprise you. But this is Georgia, where the suburb/city, right/left, road/transit battles of the last 30 years have been very clear cut. As I covered more thoroughly here, MARTA’s expansion has long been stymied by a toxic combination of white flight, racial fear, failed suburban tax proposals and bright red legislative sessions that favor freeways over rail.

But that could be starting to change — and not just in Sandy Springs. Although Fulton County is already a tax-paying member of MARTA, expanding north of the train’s final stop hasn’t always seemed like a possibility. It’s low density, fed by SR 400. And the northern region is far redder than Atlanta, to the south. Janide Sidifall, a MARTA project planner, says that before the line to Sandy Springs began running, forecasts for ridership farther north didn’t justify an expansion.

“Now north Fulton is one of the biggest employment centers in the region,” says Mark Eatman, also an agency project planner. “Shortly after the opening of the North Springs station, we began to see a lot more support.”

And Paul says that even as high up as the legislature, he’s seeing his party’s transportation priorities shift. He points to the state’s last session, when right-leaning officials voiced transit-funding goals.

“That is a shift in thinking and I applaud it,” he says. “I was maybe the first Republican to say it out loud, but many of us have been thinking it for a while. Roads and cars, in and of themselves, cannot move the enormous number of people who have to be moved, so how do we do it efficiently so we can continue to grow economically?”

Still, Brionte McCorkle, a spokesperson for the Atlanta area’s Sierra Club, says that although those voiced commitments are important, she doesn’t yet see funding strategies to match. And the north Fulton expansion could suffer as a result, she says.

“We’re always in support of regional transit expansion — it’s great, but when is it going to happen?” she asks.

She points to House Bill 170.

“We really think it could have had a lot more in it for transit,” she says, adding that the Sierra Club spent last session advocating a constitutional amendment that would allow state roadway funds to finance transit. So far, they haven’t been successful, and McCorkle says that as is, dedicated transit funds needs to serve 128 systems statewide.

“All of them splitting that money is not ideal,” she says.

But Paul doesn’t seem to share her concerns, and he’s optimistic about a MARTA expansion.

“I’m a refugee from the legislature,” he says. “I say give me all you can and give me the flexibility to innovate, and I’ll just keep on slicing off the salami until we get there.”

 

Make This Woman’s Cracked Bicycle Helmet Count

On April 1st, a car hit Cheri Biggers as she biked across the street. She was in a crosswalk with right-of-way and while she knew that, technically, she probably shouldn’t cycle across, the on-street walkway connects two parts of the same trail. As Biggers, a weekly bike commuter in Santa Rosa, California, says: “Everyone rides through.”

She’d almost reached the street’s west side when a right-turning car slammed into her. She fell, landing “all tangled up” in her bike. Her helmet cracked.

Though she was shocked, she was OK. The driver (a hospice nurse) stopped, took her blood pressure and called 911 and eventually a California Highway Patrol officer arrived. According to Biggers’ account, the officer asked if she wanted an ambulance, and because nothing seemed broken, she declined. That’s when he told her: If there was no damage and no injury, he didn’t need to take a report.

And that, finally, was when she started to cry.

“It bothered me,” she says. “Just because I didn’t need an ambulance doesn’t mean I wasn’t physically hurt. … I felt like there was something to be learned from that situation, like ‘Let’s evaluate how these accidents are happening.’”

I found Biggers’ story through a local bike advocacy Facebook group we both belong to, started by friends when another woman was assaulted near that intersection last year.

“This really hits home with me this week (pun intended),” she posted, linking to a recent study that calls for better police reports on car/bike collisions. After analyzing crash templates from 50 states, the researchers called on state DOTs (and the regional law enforcement below them) to standardize their reporting systems with more detail on how (and where) cars and bikes collide.

“Crash analysis, including with big data, could then be conducted on bicycle environments, motor vehicle potential impact points/doors/mirrors, bicycle potential impact points, motor vehicle characteristics, location and injury,” the study’s intro states.

To do that, though, the responding officer has to take a report. And, as Biggers’ story suggests, that first step doesn’t always happen.

After she began crying, Biggers says she thanked the CHP officer and started walking her bike away. But he came after her, and ended up taking a report.

Officer Post, a spokesperson for CHP Santa Rosa, agreed to look over the report. The reason the responding officer didn’t initially record the crash was jurisdictional, she says: CHP covers county streets, while Santa Rosa Police Department covers streets inside city limits. Although the county unit responded, the crosswalk where Biggers got hit is technically inside the city.

But asked whether the department usually takes reports on car/bike crashes, she says that it depends.

“Sometimes we do and sometimes we don’t,” she says, adding that the officer will if property damage occurs (say, if the car or bike is damaged). If it doesn’t, officers tend to leave the decision up to the people involved.

Biggers says that when she read the study, which appeared in Injury Prevention, later that week, it struck a chord.

“If reports aren’t being taken — if there’s no data on them — then potentially a lot of situations aren’t being factored into these kinds of safety studies,” she says.

Asked what she’d like to see from police reports on bike/car crashes, she says: “Anything.”

Drawing from her own experience, she adds that she’d like to see infrastructure and environment evaluated. The Stony Point Road crosswalk where she got hit connects two pieces of a well-traveled east-west bike path, syncing up numerous north/south on-street lanes. It crosses a four-lane road and abuts a highway off-ramp. When the signal tells pedestrians (and, let’s be honest, cyclists) to cross, cars turning from that offramp also have a green light, and most of them turn.

“I’d like to see [reports] considering the fact that the light was green, but I had the crosswalk person, and the driver [attempting to turn right] was looking left to see oncoming cars,” she says.

Considering those factors could reveal design flaws, and keep other cyclists safe. Because as is, that intersection is clearly dangerous. Case in point: Biggers says that only a few minutes after getting hit, while she was still in shock, she watched another biker cross with the walk signal. A right-turning car in the same exact spot almost hit that person — braking just in time.

 

Tucson and the Case of the Missing Bus Lanes

(Photo by Zereshk)

Last month, Tucson suffered a case of missing bus lanes.

Unlike the protected bike lanes that tend to disappear, Broadway Boulevard’s transit right-of-ways weren’t actually on the ground — yet. They were only blueprints, recommended by a citizen’s task force and approved by city council.

They were supposed to flank the boulevard, for which voters approved an expansion in 2006 as part of a $2.1 billion regional tax. That package promised to widen the arterial from four lanes to eight (six for cars, two for transit) but, faced with falling traffic counts and the destruction of street-side homes and businesses, a city-convened task force slimmed those eight lanes to six (four for cars, two for transit). On October 10th, Tucson officials announced that city council had approved the plan.

But when the task force reconvened on March 19th, the bus lanes were gone. The city’s recommended design featured six lanes, all of them for cars. A press release from December 11th, issued by the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) funding the project, mentions six lanes with bus pullouts — but no right-of-ways.

“The dedicated transit lanes got stripped out — and no one’s really explained how or where that recommendation was made,” says Colby Henley, a member of the task force. “They were taken out behind the scenes.”

That’s not the case, says Beth Abramovitz with Tucson’s DOT, stating that the lanes got lost in translation between the task force and city officials.

“Our takeaway was that they wanted a placeholder for transit, not transit from day one,” she says.

But though several new plans were proposed at a March 26th meeting, and the task force approved a blended version, the new blueprint still doesn’t feature a bus-only lane. It does include a “transit alignment,” which Henley explains as leaving the door open for transit when the city’s mayor and council deem appropriate. But, unlike that first set of plans, it’s not a lane.

Henley believes the city dropped the right-of-ways to appease the RTA, set up in 2006 when voters approved the funds financing Broadway’s expansion.

Jim DeGrood, RTA’s deputy director, also denies any kind of out-of-the-public-view discussion. But he says that the organization does want to stay close to what the public approved in 2006.

“When RTA was set up, the biggest concern that the public had was a lack of confidence that the projects that they had voted for would be executed,” he says. “We want to honor what the voters voted for.”

“We also recognize that the world isn’t static,” he says, acknowledging that Broadway’s EIR was finalized in 1987. Traffic along that street is declining, not rising, though DeGrood questions whether the recent lows come from construction projects that have closed nearby streets.

Bottom line: RTA approved six lanes with bus pullouts, not the eight lanes with dedicated transit voted on in 2006, not the six lanes with dedicated transit proposed by the task force.

“Times may change,” he says, adding that when the region decides to invest in a high-capacity transit system, RTA may “support the conversion of travel lanes in either direction to transit use.”

But although the task force approved a new plan with placeholders for transit, Henley questions when exactly those lanes will materialize.

“If the RTA has their say on how this road is funded, do they have veto authority?” he asks. “What happens if the city does decide to change [the lanes] — could the RTA come back and say ‘We paid for this road’?”

His question hints at a deeper one about the region’s structure.

“The whole dynamic is that the RTA is holding these funds, and yet [the project] is wholly within city limits,” he says. “The city’s task force is telling them to do it a certain way, but they have to please the county for the sake of regional funding.”

It’s an issue that comes up often when county-wide funds target both urban and suburban projects. Boise’s bike lane that died less than two months after installation (which I’ve written about here and here) provides a good example. But, unlike Ada County in Idaho, Pima County voters don’t seem opposed to multimodal projects. That $2.1 billion plan proposed funds for a streetcar, bus services, bike lanes and pedestrian amenities.

“My tax is balanced,” says DeGrood, when I ask about multimodal priorities. “Every single roadway element project has bike lanes, sidewalks and bus pullouts. We provide for these systems.”

Still, the jury is out on those lanes that disappeared. And the jury is out on when — or whether — they’ll be back.

 

Why an Ambitious New Sustainable Growth Plan for L.A. Deserves More Than a Dusty Shelf

Mayor Eric Garcetti on a Los Angeles River tour (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)

Los Angeles’ new long-range plan, released today, was written for skeptics.

At 108 pages, with long-term objectives, “near-term” outcomes and priority initiatives, officials seemed to sense they might face a PR hurdle. L.A., a city known for smog and imported water wants to create a sustainability strategy more ambitious than any policy enacted by the state of California? Really?

Granted, Eric Garcetti’s 2015 Los Angeles is not David Lynch’s 2001 Los Angeles, all wide boulevards, distant headlights and sprawl. As the new plan points out, Los Angeles now leads major cities in installed solar power and is investing in a massive network of buses and trains. It’s a place, contrary to many a stereotype, where people walk.

Still, old tropes die hard — particularly those of cars and thirsty lawns. The new plan takes a cautionary tone, stating that without specific milestones and measurement tactics, many long-range goals “end up gathering dust above the desks of bureaucrats who commissioned them.”

Prediction: This will not be one of those plans. (It’s name however, “pLAn,” might be destined for a rewrite.)

From 2017-2035, it sets ambitious goals: Los Angeles will become “the first big city in the nation to achieve zero waste,” by 2025 and “reduce the urban heat island effect more than any other big city in the U.S. by 2035.” More importantly, it sets emission reduction targets surpassing California’s AB 32: 45 percent below a 1990 baseline by 2025, 60 percent by 2035 and 80 percent by 2050.

So how does the city aim to meet these goals? Again, officials spell out their strategies in 108 pages of detail, but several themes stand out. The most important: To fight climate change, Los Angeles needs to fight poverty. Today, the city has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the nation, so you might tend to dismiss 34 mentions of “equity” as buzzword love.

“Sustainability is not a euphemism,” says Matt Petersen, Mayor Garcetti’s Chief Sustainability Officer. To be truly “sustainable,” he adds, Los Angeles needs to increase its supply of affordable housing, up the minimum wage, improve schools, facilitate urban farming and increase park access.

And the new plan actually does spell out means to those lofty ends: By 2017, the city will begin “constructing 17,000 new units of housing within 1,500 feet of transit.” By 2035, it will reduce the number of rent-burdened households by 15 percent. In 2017, Mayor Garcetti will raise the minimum wage to $13.25 an hour (not Seattle’s $15, but a start). It also outlines targets for asthma reduction, food access and cap-and-trade funds.

Some chapters do seem more idealistic than others. For example, those deep emission cuts (80 percent by 2050) are paired with an entire section on growing the city’s economy through green jobs. And while some very intelligent people argue that falling emissions and economic growth can go hand in hand, others aren’t so sure. Meanwhile, like many long-range documents put out by people who’d like to re-elected, it’s mostly carrot and very little stick. Whether or not the city can really achieve an 80 percent reduction by incentivizing green behaviors (instead of discouraging not-so-green behaviors) remains to be seen.

“Right now we’re focusing on creating options,” Petersen says.

But the nuance with which the plan pairs wealth redistribution and environmental policy shows deep consideration of issues that don’t always line up. It’s much too easy for officials to build a park or rail line in a lower-income neighborhood and call it environmental justice — never mind the gentrification that could follow and drive community members out. But when I ask Petersen about the price increases that often come with green development — counterintuitively helping to further sprawl as people migrate out — he points to the plan’s emphasis on affordable housing and minimum wage increases.

“Those are the kinds of intersections we need to see,” he says.

He’s right. And though pLAn may be ambitious, it’s also detailed, specific and very well thought-out. It was written for skeptics — and hopefully, because of that, it won’t end up gathering dust.

 

Will an Overturned Fish Truck Hurt Seattle’s New Transportation Tax?

Can Mayor Ed Murray sell the $900 million “Move Seattle”? (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Last weekend, Seattle officials held their first outreach meeting for a $900 million transportation levy called Move Seattle. Proposed by Mayor Ed Murray on March 2nd, the tax addresses public transit along with street, sidewalk and bridge maintenance and emphasizes bike and pedestrian safety. In draft proposal form, at least, it’s an ambitious package with clear multimodal priorities. It’s also the largest transportation levy in city history.

So, can it pass?

The Seattle area has a lukewarm history with large transportation bonds but, like many metro regions, city-dwellers tax themselves more readily than suburban residents, giving this Seattle-only measure a better shot. And the region’s progressive politics favor rail/bus/bike taxes over freeway/road expansions, so Move Seattle seems locally in sync.

But several things could work against it. They are: 1. Anti-growth backlash to the city’s increasing density, 2. Bertha, the world’s largest tunneling machine and 3. An overturned fish truck.

Let’s start with the first (and save the fish truck for last).

Roger Valdez is the director of Smart Growth Seattle. For the most part, he likes Move Seattle and feels optimistic that it will pass, citing Seattleites willingness to self-tax for visible capital improvements.

Still, he sees the city’s transportation and land use policies splitting, shoehorned by parking. Last year, for example, a legal decision upped parking requirements for some new development — a threat to density, despite the fact that Move Seattle’s bus and bike lanes would thrive on compact growth. And he says that parking could get in the levy’s way.

“We’re doing all these things like emphasizing bike tracks and trolley — but what happens when people lose their parking spot?” he asks. “The city needs to invest in density, in the land use policies that should come with this levy, and I don’t see that happening. I see it going in the other direction.”

“I think you’re going to see angry neighbors mobilize against this, asking ‘Why should I pay to build more bike infrastructure when I can’t find a place to park?’” he adds.

And it is expensive. The city’s last levy, Bridging the Gap, totaled $365 million and increased the property tax bill of a $450,000 home (roughly Seattle’s median) by about $130, according to Joel Connelly of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

“Move Seattle would more than double that property tax bite to $275,” he writes.

That large sell could be a tough sell right now, because of at least one high-profile flop: the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement tunnel, known as Seattle’s unbelievable transportation megaproject fustercluck and one of the country’s 11 worst highway boondoggles. The underground freeway where a massive drill named Bertha broke down in 2013 (tweeting all the while) was financially green-lit through a 2009 bill sponsored by Murray, then a state senator. And though Move Seattle is the opposite of a giant freeway tunnel, Bertha’s substantial shadow could block voters’ view.

That was one worry for local advocacy group Transportation Choices, when the bus-funding Prop 1 went before voters last fall. But Shefali Ranganathan, the organization’s director of programs, says those fears weren’t substantiated. Prop 1 passed.

“Voters will open up their pocketbooks if it’s a good strong plan that is very specific,” she says, expressing support for the new measure’s mix of maintenance and complete streets-type planning.

And according to Hannah McIntosh, project manager for Move Seattle’s development, residents seem positive on the plan’s Vision Zero-like safety priorities.

“So far that’s something that people tend to be pretty excited about,” she says, based on the three community meetings she’s attended since last weekend.

One concern she’s seen involves traffic.

“It’s at the top of just about everyone’s mind in the city right now,” she says.

But while gridlock could nudge voters toward the multimodal plan, Valdez says that traffic could also work against it. Case in point: the fish truck.

On Tuesday, March 24th at about 2:30 p.m., a semi full of salmon flipped on the Alaskan Way Viaduct. According to Mike Lindblom of the Seattle Times, the truck’s driver sustained non-life-threatening injuries. City police called their go-to contractor, who restored the truck to its upright position around 7 p.m. With lanes closed until almost midnight, the fish truck managed to grind Seattle’s transportation grid to a near halt.

Move Seattle’s emphasis on multimodal transit could certainly address fish truck-like snarls. But Valdez worries that anti-growth activists won’t see it that way. He worries that they’ll only see road space taken away from cars.

“[Move Seattle] could run into the neighborhood crowd,” he says. “And the fish truck could become their rallying cry.”

 

Anti-Growth Lawsuits Are All the Rage

A lawsuit contends that bike lanes created under Mayor Michael Bloomberg are harmful to the environment. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

Do New York’s bike lanes harm the environment? According to a lawsuit filed several weeks ago, they may. The suit comes from a former Libertarian Party candidate for state attorney general, Carl Person, and contends that because former Mayor Michael Bloomberg never completed an environmental impact report (EIR), a number of his lanes and pedestrian plazas are illegal and should be scrapped. According to New York Daily News, Person charges the roadway additions with “significant” environmental harm because they slow everyone down, which wastes gas.

His reasoning might sound like it belongs in the comments section of a regional newspaper, but he’s not the first person to use cherry-picked environmental concerns against a project with clear potential for decreasing vehicle emissions. And he’s not the first person to take those concerns to court, citing state and national EIR laws.

Last year, a San Diego-based group filed a suit with a nearly identical argument: that a road-diet re-stripe could stall traffic and threaten public safety. As Streetsblog’s Melanie Curry pointed out, that case resembled a 2006 suit from San Francisco. And back in New York, the infamous Prospect Park bike lane lawsuit made comparable claims.

Jennifer Hernandez is a San Francisco-based environmental lawyer who’s written extensively on the policies governing EIRs — and the ways they’re abused. She says that environmentally flavored lawsuits against infill and public transit projects are all the rage these days.

“You have a real, partly generational battle being played out right now,” she says, describing many of the suits’ instigators as anti-growth groups defending “the character of our neighborhood” and decrying the lost parking and upped density of transit-oriented development. Central to many of these scuffles are differing understandings of exactly what “environmental” law should do: decrease reliance on cars or, in Hernandez’s words, protect homeowners’ “private view from their bathroom windows.”

She associates the latter particularly with the Golden State’s EIR law, CEQA. A member of the statewide alliance advocating CEQA reform, Hernandez co-authored a 2013 report for the law firm Holland & Knight, where she is a partner, examining 95 cases from 1997 to 2012 (the report looked at plaintiffs who questioned an EIR’s validity, not whether an EIR should have been done in the first place, which is Person’s argument). Of all the projects that could be labeled either “greenfield” or “infill,” nearly 60 percent were infill. Public, not private, entities proposed nearly a third of the challenged projects.

Last year, Hernandez also co-authored an in-depth look at lawsuits under CEQA’s national counterpart, NEPA.

“Everywhere you have people trying to preserve the status quo, but do they go to court and win?” she asks. “In New York, agencies win all the time.”

But in California cities, they very well might not. Agencies in the Golden State win about 53 percent of the time, Hernandez says, while challengers win about 47 percent of the time. Plaintiffs have a good shot at slowing the development of environmentally iffy projects — big box stores, industrial polluters — but also neighborhood libraries, high-density housing and mass transit.

According to Michael Teitz, a professor emeritus of city and regional planning at UC Berkeley, the laws that mandate and govern EIRs are still important.

“The environmental community sees CEQA as an absolutely essential line of defense,” he says. “And there’s some truth to that — without CEQA it would be very difficult to defend against really egregious ways of plundering the environment.”

But as a paper he co-wrote in 2005 examines, the law’s piecemeal evaluation strategy (project by project, EIR by EIR) can encourage short-sightedness, particularly in the area of mitigation.

“[L]owering a residential project’s density might help mitigate traffic congestion or open space problems at the local scale, but when viewed regionally might only compound the problems if development is pushed to outlying areas,” the paper states. “If, instead of being displaced, the development fails to occur, then the so-called mitigation may compound housing shortages.”

In the years since Teitz co-authored that paper, California lawmakers passed SB 375, which does help streamline regional planning, and enacted a few minor CEQA reforms. In New York, a progressive DOT is busily re-striping city streets-, and in San Diego, an aggressive climate action plan calls for a transit remake.

Still, environmental litigation under EIR law remains. And in California, it’s still, often, successful.

 



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