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Posts from the "Utah" Category

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A Conservative Utah Republican’s Path to Transit Enlightenment

Greg Hughes is the majority whip of the Utah State Legislature and the chair of its conservative caucus. He got a 100 percent score last year by the conservative Sutherland Institute, a Utah think tank. He also chairs the board of the Utah Transit Authority.

Utah state legislator Greg Hughes points to his daughter, sitting behind him, and says her generation wants to ride transit.

Utah state legislator Greg Hughes points to his daughter, sitting behind him, and says her generation wants to ride transit.

The man loves transit.

Hughes grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He said he always understood that public transportation has a place in a city of that size. In fact, he used it himself, as he didn’t have access to a car while he lived there. (Hughes attended college in Utah, so may not have been of driving age for much of his Pittsburgh residency.) But even at the time he joined the board of the UTA, he still thought transit didn’t make sense for Utah.

“As a conservative Republican, my opinion of mass transit was that it seemed reasonable — or a necessity — in Pittsburgh, but certainly in a state like Utah may be an over-subsidized social service,” he told members of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Highways and Transit Subcommittee this week. “So I warned the mayors that if I was going to serve on this board they might not like what I had to say.”

He said he was able to bring a state official’s emphasis on fiscal conservatism to the board, but he also gained some valuable perspective:

[I] was able to understand a little bit better, in a state like Utah, where you see how quickly we’re growing, the absolute need we have to be multi-modal. When I sat every year and looked at how many roads we needed to keep in good repair, and how much expansion we needed for the population that was growing, I became agnostic in terms of mode.

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Robert Grow on Utah’s Decision to Build Transit and Shun Sprawl

In the late 1990s, an organization called Envision Utah brought together a broad spectrum of people to figure out how to plan for major population growth. They started by asking participants to mark out areas that shouldn’t be developed — wilderness, national parks, agricultural land. Then, they had to figure out how to fit future residents in the developable areas that were left. They concluded that the way to do that without massive congestion, soaring public costs, and environmental ruin was to build walkable development with good transit access.

How do you get people to ride transit? Make it serve their needs. It worked for Utah. Photo: ##http://www.fta.dot.gov/about/region8_3396.html##FTA##

How do you get people to ride transit? Make it convenient, and make it serve their needs.
Photo: FTA

Ever since, Utah has been a national leader in transit-oriented growth, putting into practice the values Utahns articulated during a long and painstaking public process.

I recently caught up with Robert Grow, chair of Envision Utah, to hear how they did it. We published the first part of our conversation yesterday. Here is part two, lightly edited for length and clarity.

I wanted to ask about the building of transit, especially the TRAX light rail. The impression I had was that the Utah Transit Authority was already on that track and doing that separately and that your contribution was more in bringing the public along.

They had a vote in 1992 to fund the first line, and the vote failed. UTA are magicians at finding the ability to get things done; they then were able to scrape together the resources to start that first line. So at the time we did the vision there was a first line underway, but before the vision, a lot of people in Utah were skeptical about rail.

When we came out of the vision, over 80 percent of Utahns — it was the high 80 percent range — were in favor of expanding the system rapidly. Then the public voted twice to fund the system.

So were there plans? Were there lines on maps? Absolutely. In fact, we did a bunch of those lines on maps as part of the scenarios. And then the public saw that if we build a rail system, along with expanding the other transportation modes, their lives would be better off. They’d spend less time in traffic. They’d have choices of how to get around. As the region grew — if you model out 25 years — it becomes more and more obvious you need a multi-modal system.

The result was an attitudinal shift when people saw their values would be served better if we had this multimodal approach. And so, yes, UTA was underway. They were smart, entrepreneurial; they’re great friends. Call up Mike Allegra, who runs UTA, and ask him what got him the money — and he’ll say Envision Utah.

So the last vote, we actually voted to take the entire 2030 system of rail and build it all by 2015. Nowhere else in the country has done anything like that.

It’s one thing to convince people that transit is important, but then how do you get them to actually ride it themselves? A lot of people say, “Transit is great; it makes the roads less congested for me to drive on.” How do you get them to ride it?

How do you get them to ride it? You make it convenient, make it serve their needs, make them realize they can live with one car — or no cars. The fact is 80 percent of the people who ride our rail system have a car in the garage. We’re not a place where people ride it because they have no choice. We’re a place where people ride it by choice.

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Q&A With Robert Grow: How Utah Decided to Embrace “Quality Growth”

Envision Utah didn’t tell Utahns they should build light rail, says Robert Grow. Utahns expressed their hopes and desires for the future, and plans for transit construction arose from those values. Photo: Visit Salt Lake/Eric Schramm

If you’ve ever wondered how a deep-red state like Utah has managed to build some of the most ambitious transit expansions in the country, the short answer is: Envision Utah.

Starting in the late nineties, the non-profit Envision Utah brought together an incredibly broad spectrum of interests, including plenty of people without a specific stake in the process, to explore how the 10-county region surrounding Salt Lake City, known as the Greater Wasatch Area, should cope with anticipated population growth. Organizers showed people what would happen if the region carried on with business-as-usual development, then outlined the ramifications of three other potential scenarios with scientific rigor. The extraordinarily thorough process involved hundreds of public meetings, leaving no one out and turning every participant into a problem-solver. Along the way, Envision Utah pioneered a new approach to regional planning, bringing together transportation and land use decisions in unprecedented fashion.

Robert Grow says he didn't tell Utahns what to do; they told him what their values were and they came up with a plan together, Photo: Envision Utah

Robert Grow. Photo: Envision Utah

It would be fair to say that after this effort, nearly the entire state was on board with the vision that came out of the process: Quality growth with compact, mixed-use development, multi-modal transportation options, and untouched wild and agricultural spaces.

If you have some time, this history of Envision Utah will hold your attention like no other planning document. (If you have a little less time, you can get the basics in this PDF.)

Robert Grow was the founding chairman who guided Envision Utah through its formative stages. He returned to the helm last year as its president and CEO. In the interim, he helped bring lessons from the Envision Utah model to 80 regions around the country. After a recent swing through the East Coast where he shared the Envision Utah story at an event organized by Transit Center, I called up Grow to see what the rest of the country can learn from his home state.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Envision Utah gets a lot of attention for having done this process and instilled these values in a place where people wouldn’t have expected it. You don’t talk about “smart growth,” you talk about “quality growth.” I was curious where that phrase came from.

It came from the fact that this was Utahns deciding how Utahns wanted to grow, and therefore we gave it our own name: “quality growth.”

If you look at many of the goals — transportation choices, housing for everyone, spending infrastructure money smart, preserving water, making sure we have clean air — people across the country have differences, but also have common things they really want. They want to have personal time and opportunity; they don’t want to be stuck in traffic and waste their lives. They want to get home for dinner with their kids or spend time with their friends. The things we value actually drive that quality growth strategy in Utah.

So we did not, quote, “instill” those values. Those values are the ones Utahns already had. So the goal was to understand not how to manipulate or push people toward an outcome but to listen to them in a way that we understand what they really wanted. And then to show them, through the scenarios, the choices.

Envision Utah has absolutely no authority. So we just show people, if you choose this, this is the outcome, but if you choose this, that’s the outcome.

What other language changes or thematic adaptations did you have to make when taking on a quality growth mission in a place where people are deeply skeptical of government, deeply skeptical of planning, deeply skeptical of urbanism?

I’m not sure they’re skeptical of all those things. Their values are their values. When they see choices and they choose how to grow, those strategies may look like strategies other places but adopted by Utahns. We used the words that Utahns used.

This values study approach which we used is not a poll. It involved almost 100 multi-hour interviews, laddering people — and laddering is a term I could describe but essentially saying: What are the attributes of living here? How does that affect your life in a functional way? What is the emotional quotient of that — how does it make you feel? And how does that attach to your values?

By value laddering you learn what people want, but you also learn why they want it. And knowing why they want it and the words to describe it, when you present scenarios you can present them in Utah words. And so Utah is here to keep Utah “beautiful, prosperous, neighborly and healthy” for future generations. We added “healthy” a few years ago. Those were Utah’s words for a prosperous economy.

Those are Utahns’ words for things you might say in completely different words somewhere else. But we didn’t pick the words. Utahns picked those words.

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A Transit Ad That Puts Car Commercials to Shame

This new ad from Västtrafik, Sweden’s second-largest public transportation company, has all the well-worn cliches of a good car commercial: the baritone narrator, the stunning landscapes, the empty roads. What’s different about this ad is that what it’s selling will help preserve that natural scenery, rather than pave and pollute it.

If only public transit in the United States had the same marketing bucks behind it that car companies do, maybe people wouldn’t be spending $42,000 — not much less than the median American household income — on a used GMC Sierra.

Which is not to say that there aren’t any good transit commercials stateside. This won’t likely be dominating the airwaves during the big game, but it’s another good spin on the car ad:

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Salt Lake City: How a Remote Red-State City Became a Transit Leader

Salt Lake City's transit system is the envy of cities five times its size, and it's all because planners listened to what the public wanted. Image: Smart Growth America

It’s number one in the nation in per-capita transit spending. The only city in the country building light rail, bus rapid transit, streetcars and commuter rail at the same time. And that city — Salt Lake City — is a town of just over 180,000 in a remote setting in a red state.

It’s a remarkable story that began in the 1990s, when an organization called Envision Utah facilitated a regional visioning process and created a plan that has been recognized as one of the most promising smart growth models in the nation.

There’s a lesson here for other cities. In 1997, leaders in a 10-county region centered on Salt Lake County set out to see what people valued about where they lived. They designed a plan around those values, with a communications campaign to support it. At that time, the state was expected to grow by a million people by 2020. Rather than cede that growth to meandering sprawl, the region chose something more orderly and compact.

“At that point, to many Utahns, ‘smart growth’ was not a popular word,” said Robert Grow, Envision Utah’s president and CEO. “We made people some promises. We’d save a lot of time, money, lower emissions, improve air quality, develop more housing choices, and build a transportation system with greater efficiency.”

The organization interviewed 150 key stakeholders — elected officials, activists, heads of major institutions. And they surveyed some 20,000 Utahns about their hopes and wishes. Leaders even engaged in an effort at “value mapping,” to get a sense for local priorities and deeply held beliefs as they related to land use and transportation.

Project leaders discovered Utahns liked the idea of transit more than they expected. The Envision Utah effort began shortly after the first light rail track was laid in the city, which had been controversial. But polling showed 88 percent of residents favored expanding the system.

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How States Are Adapting to MAP-21’s Changes to Bike/Ped Funding

One state's plan for Transportation Alternatives: Utah will use some of its $6.4 million for Recreational Trails and Safe Routes to School, give some to metro areas, and spend the rest on any type of surface transportation they want. Image courtesy of UDOT

The current transportation law dealt a few hard knocks to bicycling and walking programs. One big one was the restructuring of the Transportation Enhancements program into something called Transportation Alternatives, which has to fund more types of projects with less money.

The idea is that each state’s TA money will get split in half. Fifty percent gets allocated to Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) and Transportation Management Areas (TMAs) based on population. Let’s call that the “Local 50.” Then the state gets the other half – the “State 50” – and is supposed to distribute it via a competitive grant process.

Local 50: It’s not quite 50

The first thing to know is that even the Local 50 isn’t always entirely under local control. The Local 50 gets distributed according to population to whatever entity represents each area. For large metro areas and sometimes even small urbanized areas, there’s an MPO or TMA in charge. But for rural areas, sometimes it’s just the state that run things.

President Obama signed MAP-21 nearly five months ago, but states are still trying to figure out what it all means. Photo: Fastlane

Take Michigan, for example. The state is looking to get $26 million in Transportation Alternatives funds. Of that, $2.9 million comes off the top for Recreational Trails, a separate program with its own money (raised from off-road vehicle fees) that’s administered by the Department of Natural Resources, not MDOT.

That leaves $11.6 million each for the Local 50 and the State 50 in Michigan.

About $6.5 million of the Local 50 will go to the TMAs in jurisdictions of more than 200,000 people. But the rest of the money — over $5 million from that supposedly “Local” 50 — goes to the state to distribute.

That’s before you even get to the half that the state is supposed to control.

This is how the Cardin-Cochran amendment is being interpreted on the ground. The amendment was a creative and hard-fought way to make sure that some TA money actually went to the sorts of projects the old Transportation Enhancements program used to fund – primarily bike and pedestrian infrastructure, plus some safety education.

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Streetsies 2011: The Local Edition

Yesterday, we started our year-end 2011 round-up. We lamented transit cuts in places where transit is more important than ever, cheered the successful ballot initiatives that will fund transportation lifelines, took a moment to explore the nuances of some difficult issues, and called out Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin for some hare-brained ideas about the best way to spend money.

Now we continue with the second installment: What cities shone a little brighter and what cities lost their luster?

Let’s start with the good.

Cities That Led the Way: Bike-share caught on in 2011 like never before. New York City announced a system to dwarf all others, complete with 10,000 bikes. Boston had a great first season. DC and Arlington expanded Capital Bikeshare. Chicago got a TIGER grant to go full-tilt on its system. And bike-share is popping up in places you wouldn’t necessarily expect it – most recently, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. All those cities deserve credit for investing in active transportation options for their residents.

Minneapolis took the Greenway to a more sustainable future. Photo: Micah Taylor / Flickr

Meanwhile, in the DC area, suburban retrofits in White Flint and Tysons Corner started transforming these into urban, transit-rich communities with vibrant daytime and nighttime populations.

And Salt Lake City showed the country how to solve some of the most vexing geographic, political, cultural, and ecological challenges of urbanism. The city got behind a set of growth principles that champion walkability, density, transit options, and land conservation. The city’s new, sustainable developments are wildly popular and incredibly successful at encouraging active transportation.

But it was Minneapolis that stole our hearts this year. The city rocketed to the top of the Bike-Friendliness charts with its Nice Ride bike-share system and its beloved Midtown Greenway, which transformed an old industrial railroad trench into a major cyclist thoroughfare connecting key parts of the city. And that’s not all – Minneapolis has gone through the whole complete streets shopping list, from road diets to bike parking to improved crossings to bike boulevards.

Perhaps even more significantly, the Twin Cities aren’t just tacking some nice cycling amenities onto an otherwise roads-heavy transportation program. They’re actually divesting from road infrastructure, tabling 14 planned highway expansions and improving transit options instead. They’re maximizing existing highways by adding bus lanes and priced shoulder lanes, and they’re investing in transit-oriented development. As one city transportation planner said, “We couldn’t keep going on acting as if we were going to get money to build our way out of congestion.”

Cities That Lagged Behind: We at Streetsblog aren’t shy about calling out state leaders who make bad decisions in favor of sprawl and against smart transportation options. We talked about some of those yesterday (we’re looking at you, Scott Walker). But sometimes it’s not the state but the cities themselves that have a special knack for making bad decisions. And this was a big year for it.

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How Salt Lake City Became a Leader in Transit-Oriented Development

In 2004, Salt Lake City faced a challenging question: How do you fit 1.4 million additional residents into a region hemmed in by mountains on the east and water on the west? In the course of solving that problem, the city ended up answering several other head-scratchers, like: How do you get buy-in for smart-growth policies from conservatives wary of urbanism? And, how do you make new greenfield development both sustainable and wildly popular?

In the Daybreak development southwest of Salt Lake City, streets were laid out in a connected network, and rates of walking and biking to school are sky-high. Image: Daybreak, Utah

At the Rail~Volution conference last week, Andrew Gruber, executive director of the Wasatch Front Regional Council, showcased the transit-centered solution that’s now propelling development in Utah’s capital city.

If official projections are right, the high quality of life and thriving economy of the Wasatch Front could invite population growth of more than 65 percent by 2040.

If the region continued along current growth trends, Gruber explained, it would add more than 300 square miles of development to meet the housing and commercial demand by 2040. Vehicle miles traveled would nearly double, from 49 million to more than 90 million per day, by 2030. By 2020, the cost of new infrastructure could balloon to more than $26 billion.

In just a few decades, a region known for its open space and outdoor lifestyle would be a mighty congested and costly place to call home.

So, in 2004, the state’s two largest MPOs came up with a comprehensive plan for growth and development in the four-county region. “The Wasatch Choice for 2040″ prioritizes housing and transportation choices — and earned a $5 million Sustainable Communities Planning Grant from HUD in 2010.

Now, Salt Lake City is investing more, per capita, in new public transit than any other metro area in the country, and exporting ideas to the rest of the country.

Starting in 2005, citizens and planners in the Wasatch Front evaluated different scenarios for growth, looking at the long-term consequences of each development pattern. Perhaps surprising for such a conservative state, the consensus that emerged included a set of progressive growth principles focused on efficient infrastructure, transportation and housing choice, and coordinated planning.

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Transportation Projects Chosen For Federal Fast-Tracking Lean Multi-Modal

Last month Streetsblog asked whether President Obama would select transportation projects that reduce congestion, improve air quality, and create jobs when he picked several infrastructure investments, among those recommended by agency officials, to fast-track. The selection of these projects, intended to help spur short-term job creation, could avoid the mistakes of the 2009 stimulus program, which funneled billions to “shovel-ready” projects that will also promote sprawl. Leading up to the announcement, the president’s rhetoric seemed to indicate that the administration would opt for road maintenance and transit projects rather than newer, wider highways.

The Tappan Zee bridge overhaul is supposed to include transit facilities, but some fear that those may get dropped later on. Photo: SamuelWantman / Wikimedia

Today the administration announced its list of 14 projects, and at first glance, it seems like most of the transportation-related projects take transit, bicycling, and walking into consideration. Some of them will induce sprawl nonetheless, because they expand traffic capacity.

These projects won’t get more federal funds, but they will get federal help in expediting the process. The president promised that this fast-tracking won’t shortchange environmental reviews. The projects were highlighted by officials in several agencies and final selection was done by the White House.

Here’s the list of surface transportation-related projects, most of them recommended by the Department of Transportation:

Tappan Zee Bridge, New York: The bridge is rated structurally deficient as well as functionally obsolete, meaning that in addition to carrying more traffic than it was designed for, the structure is unsafe to carry vehicles. Constant repairs have made the bridge into a money pit, and a significant overhaul could produce long-term savings on maintenance. Notably, this project is not close to “shovel-ready” status, so its selection seems to indicate that the administration had long-term goals in mind, in addition to short-term job creation. There are plans to include a Bus Rapid Transit lane and a commuter rail line on the bridge, as well, but some advocates worry that all that widening could happen without the transit components coming through in the end.

Crenshaw/LAX, California: LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has become a champion for federal loan programs because of his zeal to expand transit in his city. The Crenshaw/LAX project is a cornerstone of his efforts and will provide a critical transit connection to the airport. The city has done a good job attracting federal interest and assistance, and the FTA is already helping them shorten the approval time for the project.

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