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Live-Blogging Obama’s Transportation Announcement

obama3:59 p.m.: Obama says funding for these projects is going to be in jeopardy unless Congress passes a new transportation bill. Doesn’t go into details. “God Bless the United States of America,” and we’re out.

3:56 p.m.: People go wild for new Metro green line, which will run through Union Depot. Obama says he just got a look at those “spiffy new trains.” “You’ll be able to get from one end of town to another in 30 minutes. And here’s the best part: Not only have you made a more efficient transportation system… this Depot has also helped to boost economic development. Just across the street, the old post office building is becoming apartments and shops.”

3:54 p.m.: Obama: Infrastructure shouldn’t be a partisan issue. But some Republicans in Congress — it’s not that they don’t like roads; they just don’t want to pay for ‘em. “While Congress is trying to decide what to do next, I’m going to do what I can to create good jobs. And that’s why I came to St. Paul. Because [Union Depot] symbolizes what’s possible.”

3:53 p.m.: Obama: I’m going to send Congress a budget with a four-year transportation budget to pay for investments by simplifying tax codes.

3:49 p.m.: Obama: Put America back to work by repairing America’s infrastructure. Housing bubble burst, construction workers were hit hard. Unemployment in that sector has been cut in half but still too high. 100,000 bridges old enough to qualify for Medicare. Minnesota winters mean potholes.

3:48 p.m.: “We can’t wait. We gotta move.” Obama reiterating new plan to bypass Congress where they move too slow.

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MIT Study: Benefits of Placemaking Go Deeper Than Better Places

StreetsAlive in Fargo and Moorhead, Minnesota, is changing attitudes about transportation beyond just two Sundays a week, organizers say. Image: FMspotlight

For two Sundays every summer, a three-mile loop between downtown Fargo, North Dakota and nearby Moorhead, Minnesota is transformed. The open streets event StreetsAlive draws between 6,000 and 8,000 people — on bikes, sneakers and rollerblades — into the space that is normally occupied by cars.

The event began as a healthy living initiative, with sponsorship from Blue Cross of Minnesota, managed by the Dakota Medical Foundation. But organizers say that as it has grown in popularity over the last three years, the event has evolved into something potentially transformative.

Local leaders are trying to use StreetsAlive to educate the public about the benefits of non-motorized transportation, and it seems to be working. Last year’s theme was “Life After Cars.” Embarking on a regional planning process, local officials reported high levels of support for amenities like bike lanes.

“People see this as a fun event, and we see it as the beginning of a conversation about better transportation,” Jill Chamberlain, a funding officer from Blue Cross Minnesota, told researchers at MIT recently.

Cleveland residents led the design of "Intersection Repair," cleaning and beautifying blighted areas. Image: Neighborhood Connections

“Placemaking” activities like this one — defined as the “deliberate shaping of an environment to facilitate social interaction and improve a community’s quality of life” — have important benefits that last far beyond when the street barriers are packed up and traffic returns, according to a new report by Susan Silberberg and her research team at MIT. According to their report — Places in the Making: How Placemaking Builds Places and Communities — the actual process of placemaking can be even more important than the physical outcome.

Open streets events, Park(ing) Day demonstrations, or a Better Block effort — these projects build social capital and empower citizens to drive change in their communities. And that can have a powerful impact long after the project’s completion.

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Washington, Colorado, and Oregon Win Top Bike-Friendly State Honors

The League of American Bicyclists' annual bike friendly state rankings.

Congratulations are due to Washington, Colorado, Oregon and Minnesota; those four states took home top rankings this year in the League of American Bicyclists’ annual Bicycle Friendly States appraisal. The winners were announced this morning.

Washington has held the top position for six years running. But there were a few shake-ups further down the list.

Delaware was one of the main up-and-comers, jumping from number ten to number 5. The Bike League’s blog praised Governor Jack Markell, along with the state legislature and advocacy organizations.

“The benefits of biking are countless, and that’s why I’m proud to support dedicated federal funding for biking and walking infrastructure,” U.S. Senator Tom Carper (D-DE) told the Bike League.

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, meanwhile, said his state is not satisfied with second place.

“An important part of making Colorado the healthiest state is encouraging people to be more active in their everyday routines,” Hickenlooper said. “We’re proud that our bicycle-friendly policies have skyrocketed Colorado’s rank up 20 places in just five years, and we are committed to being No. 1 in the near future.”

Among the other most-improved states were Illinois and Arizona.

Michael Sanders, the Arizona Department of Transportation bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, said his state has been studying bike collisions and developing ways to reduce them.

These testimonies from high-ranking political officials prove how effective the Bicycle Friendly State program is at incentivizing a little good-natured competition to make cycling easier, safer, and more convenient for everyone. 

Here’s a preview of the top 15:

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In Which Chuck Marohn and I Talk to Exurban Minnesotans on the Radio

Charles Marohn — our planner/engineer friend from Baxter, Minnesota and Strong Towns — and I appeared on a Minnesota Public Radio show on Friday about “the death of the exurbs.” The starting point of the conversation was the article I wrote last month about the new census numbers and what they tell us about the shifting patterns of housing development.

We entertained calls from people who feel the need for a two-acre buffer between them and their neighbors and from some whose own dalliance with exurban living ended in a bitter breakup. Later that day, I published the results of a Demand Institute study that found that the exurbs remain a “toxic” place that the housing recovery isn’t reaching.

Is the turn away from the exurbs really all about gas prices? And what is an exurb anyway? Are they getting too crowded? And what does it have to do with lobster?

Take a listen.


FHWA: Small Investments in Bike/Ped Infrastructure Can Pay Off in a Big Way

Before and after: Sidewalk on Marshall Avenue, St. Paul. Source: Bike Walk Twin Cities

If you ever doubted whether a small investment in biking and walking could have a large impact, here is your proof.

The last transportation law, SAFETEA-LU, provided four communities with four years of funding to build an infrastructure network for nonmotorized transportation (a fancy way of saying “sidewalks and bike paths”). It wasn’t a lot of money — $25 million each to Columbia, Missouri; Marin County, California; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Sheboygan County, Wisconsin.

The program built 333 miles of on-street biking and walking routes, 23 of off-street facilities, and 5,727 bike parking spaces in the four municipalities — not to mention some outreach and education. Not bad, especially when you consider that $100 million would only buy about five miles of new four-lane highway in an urbanized area [PDF].

Total two-hour bicycling and walking counts for all pilot communities, fall 2007 and fall 2010. Source: FHWA Report to the U.S. Congress on the Outcomes of the Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program

FHWA summed up the results in its report on the outcomes of the pilot program [PDF]:
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Paved With Good Intentions

Cross-posted from Strong Towns blog.

How can a country that is so wealthy be in such enormous debt? How can a country that can build such marvelous transportation systems not find the money to sustain them? How can a people that enjoyed decades of unrivaled economic hegemony — staggering levels of growth beyond anything seen in human history — be facing such economic turmoil after a couple years of, not even decline, but just slowing growth? The answer to these questions reveal some uncomfortable truths about who we are, how we got here and what options we have for our future prosperity.

I’m struck by how strongly our culture associates growth and prosperity with highway construction and expansion. Tom Friedman, a respected left-of-center columnist with the New York Times, had an entire chapter in his most recent book, That Used to Be Us: How America fell behind in the world it invented and how we can come back, devoted to the concept that “our winning equation” is, in part, to invest in infrastructure and then watch prosperity flourish, just like it did in the 1950?s and 1960?s.

Of course, this ignores that fact that our investments during the first generation of America’s Suburban Experiment (1950-1975) were higher return investments that generated a lot of positive cash flow. I like to point out that, when we built the 35W bridge here in Minnesota for the first time, it connected far flung areas of the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan region in a way that had not been done before. Following that investment, new commercial real estate was developed, new residential housing went in and the resulting influx of tax receipts made us feel wealthy. When the bridge fell down and had to be rebuilt, we didn’t experience all that new growth, just the costs of construction and delay. Maintenance has an entirely different set of financial metrics than new construction.

Which is why our transportation spending is set up to favor new construction. It is just so much more fun. Maintenance is simply a pain, a local concern. That highway fix it project means nothing but congestion and delays and, when it’s all done, all you have is a little smoother ride. By contrast, new construction is so much better. Not only do the politicians get a ribbon cutting scene, but we can all (once again) “solve” congestion while getting a new WalMart, Taco Bell and Quiki Mart in the process. New growth just feels so much better.

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To Change Your Community’s Streets, the Action Is in the Statehouse

Anxious about Congress messing up the federal transportation bill? There’s a lot at stake in Washington, but consider this: 78 percent of transportation funds come from the state and local levels.

Delaware Governor Jack Markell. Photo: Delaware Bicycle Council

At a National Bike Summit panel yesterday on state-level bike advocacy campaigns, Dan Grunig of Bicycle Colorado spoke about the importance of reforming the agencies that spend the lion’s share of America’s transportation funding. “If you were starting from scratch and you said, ‘Where do I want to put my limited resources, where can I get the biggest bang for the buck?’, the federal piece of the pie is the smallest,” said Grunig, “and the states’ is the biggest.”

States even influence local spending, and they govern traffic laws. And who owns the roads? Grunig gave his own state as an example. Of 35,754 miles of roads in Colorado, 41 percent is city-owned, 26 percent is state-owned, and 33 percent is county-owned.

The federal transportation bill is extremely important, and national programs like Safe Routes to School have prompted state and local agencies to think about more than just moving cars and trucks. But advocates shouldn’t let Congress dictate the pace of change. Sure, it would be huge if Washington raised the gas tax, Grunig said, but “the states aren’t waiting.” Between 2008 and 2010, 17 states enacted 29 new transportation funding bills.

A regressive transportation agency can stymie good federal programs at the state level, too. State DOTs don’t spend all the money that should be allocated for Safe Routes to School and other key bike/ped programs, for instance, choosing instead to rescind that money back to the federal government. Robert Ping of the Safe Routes to School National Partnership said SRTS was allocated $978 million for 2005-2011, but a lot of it “still needs to get out the door” or else it’s vulnerable to rescission.

“We’re saying this is an important investment into our state’s transportation network. We can’t just keep building our roads and building our roads and not providing other alternatives.”

Delaware Secretary of Transportation Shailen Bhatt

Delaware Secretary of Transportation Shailen Bhatt oversaw the state’s first uses of Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) money for bike/ped projects. He says his counterparts in other state DOTs aren’t so bad. “Lots of secretaries ‘get it’,” he said, pointing to Paula Hammond in Washington and DOT chiefs in Oregon, Tennessee, and Minnesota. But he added that a secretary that “gets it” can only do so much if she or he doesn’t work for a governor that “gets it.”

Bhatt says he doesn’t act alone. He half-jokingly offered a four-part recipe for advocacy success:

  1. Elect a governor who bikes.
  2. Elect senators who bike.
  3. Elect a congressmember who bikes.
  4. Get them all to show up at all of your events.

Easier said than done, right? Bhatt put the onus on advocates to close the deal by figuring out what message will speak to officials, some of whom haven’t seen a bicycle since their elementary school days. The desire to increase biking for biking’s sake might not resonate with them. Recreational cycling might not seem to be a cause worth spending scarce state dollars on. But they might listen to arguments about household budgets in times of high gas prices.

And state budgets are even closer to governors’ hearts. Most states are suffering under tremendous burdens of cutbacks and debt. Bhatt said 36 percent of Delaware’s transportation operating budget goes to debt service.

And yet, his agency proposed $13 million for bike/ped improvements this year. “We’re not saying that this is a nice thing to have,” he said. “We’re saying this is important. This is an important investment that we’re making into our state’s transportation network. And we’re doing it in the face of all of these rising costs because we can’t just keep building our roads and building our roads and not providing other alternatives.”

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Midwest Rail Lives! Work Underway in Four States

Intercity rail dreams in the Midwest have certainly seen their share of  setbacks — with federal funds being returned in Ohio, Wisconsin and, more recently, Michigan. But all is far from lost.

Plans for intercity rail that will travel as fast as 110 miles per hour are well underway between Chicago and St. Louis. Photo: Illinois Department of Transportation

Yesterday, U.S. DOT announced a $186 million grant to Illinois DOT to upgrade the line between Chicago and Joilet — about 40 miles southwest of Chicago — one of the final segments to be built in the 284-mile Chicago to St. Louis line.

The project will allow trains to travel up to 110 miles per hour and, when completed, will save travelers about an hour, U.S. DOT reports. That’s good news for the about 35 million people travel the corridor annually. According to the Illinois Department of Transportation, about 90 percent of those trips end at either terminal: St. Louis or Chicago.

Michigan, Minnesota and Indiana are all in the midst of upgrading intercity rail lines as well, although it might not be accurate to describe many of these projects as true high-speed rail. (True HSR runs at an average speed of 110 miles per hour, as opposed to a maximum of 110.)

Michigan has funds for line upgrades between Kalamazoo and Dearborn — just outside Detroit. Meanwhile, Amtrak will be completing the remainder of the Detroit-Chicago link west of Kalamazoo to Chicago. The line will top out at 110 mph, said Richard Harnish, Executive Director of Midwest High Speed Rail Alliance.

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