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Posts from the "Sustainable Communities" Category

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Akron Sets Out to Dismantle a Giant Road

Akron's Innerbelt Freeway carries about a quarter of the traffic it was built to accommodate. The city wants to convert it into a local road. Image: Alps Roads

Akron’s Innerbelt Freeway carries about a quarter of the traffic it was built to accommodate. The city wants to decommission the road and build on the land. Image: Alps Roads

Some places just talk about prioritizing transit and walking over highway construction. But Akron, Ohio, is putting its money where its mouth is.

The Akron region will spend more money this year to reduce road capacity than to add it, according to Jason Segedy, head of the Akron Metropolitan Area Transportation Study, the regional planning organization. Of the 39 projects approved for funding this year, the largest is $5 million to decommission a portion of State Route 59, the Akron Innerbelt Freeway.

That project will account for 17 percent of AMATS’s 2014 budget. That is a portion of the 74 percent of AMATS’s budget is being spent on maintaining existing roads, while 14 percent will go toward adding bike and pedestrian infrastructure. And 12 percent will go to projects that add road capacity.

Cleveland, Akron and Youngstown -- all bright red -- have shed population in recent decades as the region has sprawled. Image: NEOSCC (Click to enlarge.)

Cleveland, Akron, and Youngstown — all bright red — have shed population in recent decades as the region has sprawled. Image: NEOSCC (Click to enlarge.)

That’s not an accident. Leaders at AMATS are deliberately attempting to control the size of the region’s road infrastructure — and for good reason. At the height of Akron’s reign as the center of the American rubber industry, the city had almost 300,000 residents. Today, the home of Goodyear Tires is down to less than 200,000.

Although many Akronites have moved to the suburbs, the whole of northeast Ohio is losing population as well. The area, which includes Akron, Cleveland, and Youngstown, peaked in the 1970s, and has declined 7 percent since, according to recent research from the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium, the region’s sustainable communities planning effort.

But even as the region bled population, it continued to expand its highways. Northeast Ohio has added 323 highway lane miles since 1990, even though the regional population continually declined, according to NEOSCC.

Most shrinking regions haven’t yet come to the same realization Akron has — that continuing to expand its infrastructure in the face of declining population and revenues is a recipe for disaster.

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In Cleveland, An Old-School Planning Agency Sees the Light

Cleveland’s metropolitan planning organization was one of those transportation agencies that had never quite gotten over the Eisenhower era. Sure, it threw some money at the transit agency every year. But for the most part, the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA) treated its mission as a simple matter of expanding roads to reduce congestion.

Note the emptiness of the street in the background. Grace Gallucci, director of Cleveland's metropolitan planning agency, NOACA, has her work cut out for her. Photo: Cleveland.com

This is a common attitude on the part of regional and state transportation agencies, and not without some encouragement by the federal government. But this “business as usual” approach was especially damaging in a shrinking region like Cleveland, where the road network was expanded into ever-more-distant suburbs while the city and inner-ring suburbs hollowed out.

Despite the dynamic of suburban sprawl and urban abandonment that prevailed for decades, NOACA refused to consider how its decisions affected land use. Its erstwhile director, Howard Maier, simply said that the agency wasn’t empowered to do land use planning, which was technically correct, but not especially helpful.

NOACA was so notoriously averse to change and ineffectual that it acquired the nickname NO ACTION. Agency employees once even fielded a company softball team by that name. (Full disclosure: I interned there in grad school.)

But as impossible as it seemed even a year ago, things are changing at NOACA. They’re changing fast, and for the better. Last year the agency hired a new director, Grace Gallucci, who had been the head of finance for the Chicago Transit Authority. Since the Cleveland native assumed her role at the head of the NOACA, the region agency has adopted a completely different tenor.

“We’re shifting because the times are shifting,” Gallucci recently told local website Freshwater Cleveland. “We’re about thinking about transportation holistically — not auto, bike, pedestrian or transit, but all of them. How do you give people more choices to get from A to B?”

NOACA is working on a new strategic plan that appears to be premised on the concept of “fix-it-first.” The agency’s annual summit a few weeks ago was focused on the theme of “multi-modal innovation.” Gallucci told attendees that the region needs to shift toward supporting transit, walking, and biking — and not so much on expanding the road network.

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Senate Offers a More Multi-Modal 2014 Transportation Budget Than the House

Last week, a House panel envisioned some big cuts to next year’s transportation budget. TIGER and high-speed rail would get nothing, Amtrak would get slashed, and ixnay on all that green “livability” crap. (And that’s practically a quote.)

The recent collapse of a bridge over the Skagit River in Washington state inspired the Senate to include a $500 million program for bridge repair in its 2014 budget. Photo: CNN

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted this morning on the budget its own transportation subcommittee put together, and the end product couldn’t have been more different. Where the House allowed for $44 billion in discretionary spending, the Senate wants to budget $54 billion. To hell with the Ryan budget and to hell with the sequester, too.

Many experts see all this budgeting as an exercise in futility, however. In recent years, the House and Senate have been so unable to see eye to eye on budgeting that they’ve passed a series of continuing resolutions, basically freezing current budget levels in place. That looks like a likely outcome for 2014, as well. That’s not the worst thing in the world, since the budget that’s been frozen in place since 2011 contains funding for TIGER, sustainability grants, high-speed rail and other important discretionary programs.

Still, the appropriations process is a useful time when each chamber shows its hand. And what we learned is that the Senate is still far more willing than the House to invest in transportation infrastructure, especially infrastructure that could help shepherd the country toward a less car-dependent future.

Under the Senate plan, not only would U.S. DOT award the full $474 million for the fifth round of TIGER grants (the House would take away half of that), another $550 million would be allotted for round six. (Once overhead is taken out, that would probably mean about $520 million for grants.)

The Senate’s been lukewarm on high-speed rail lately, refusing to zero out the program like the House but also not throwing its full support behind the president’s vision of giving 80 percent of Americans access to HSR within 25 years (though even Obama doesn’t mention that goal anymore). The subcommittee allocated $100 million for what it’s now calling high-performance passenger rail grants. With people like Anderson Cooper bellyaching when sound, effective rail grants still don’t bring speeds above 110 mph, it probably wasn’t a bad idea to change the rhetoric from “speed” to “performance.” Still, the Senate’s allocation pales in comparison to the president’s $40 billion budget request for high-speed rail over five years.

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Can Phoenix Reinvent Itself as a Transit City?

Perhaps no other city in the country has the reputation for sprawl that Phoenix does, and it is well deserved. This is a city built around the car — until 2008, sprawling suburban housing in Maricopa County was the driving force of the regional economy.

Phoenix has light rail, now there's the matter of having the right kind of development around it. Image: Treehugger

Phoenix got a rude awakening in 2008, when the housing crash came. That same year, however, two fateful events occurred: The city’s light rail system opened and Arizona State University started its School of Sustainability. And out of that symbiosis, Reinvent Phoenix was born.

Reinvent Phoenix is a planning process for five walkable, urban “districts” around the light rail system. Each district will have a plan oriented around form-based code and other incentives for walkable, infill development that is well served by transit.

The concept grew out of a partnership between the city of Phoenix, ASU’s School of Sustainability and St. Luke’s Medical Center Health Initiatives. In 2011, they received a $3 million grant from the federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities, via the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Curt Upton, a planner with the city of Phoenix, said the city wanted to demonstrate that urbanism was a viable option in the region. They hope these districts will help motivate additional private investment in compact development elsewhere in Phoenix.

“We already know Phoenix can provide me the big house and the swimming pool, but it can also provide me a walkable urban neighborhood,” he said.

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Sustainability Busts Out of Its Cubicle, Permeates DOT, HUD, and EPA

The Partnership for Sustainable Communities has had a rough couple of years. The program got zeroed out of the 2012 budget, and the 2013 budget is just a carbon copy of 2012. But they’re looking to make a comeback.

The Partnership's Regional Planning Grants -- before Congress de-funded them -- supported sustainability efforts like Chicago's "GO TO 2040" regional plan. Image: CMAP

The three-agency partnership celebrates its fourth anniversary in June. In those four years, the collaborative effort among U.S. DOT, HUD, and EPA has entrenched and strengthened the Obama administration’s multi-disciplinary approach to smart growth, weaving together transportation, housing, and environmental policy. The partnership’s grants and technical assistance have helped transform communities and make them more economically and environmentally resilient.

In that vein, HUD’s Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities — the mothership of the whole program — is becoming the Office of Economic Resilience, embedded within an existing HUD program called Community Planning and Development. That could help preserve the sustainability work, since it’ll now be part of a program that Congress hasn’t targeted for cuts.

Politics aside, Shelley Poticha, the director of the program, said the move is designed to comply with two requests from Congress: 1) a name that more accurately reflects what the grants are for, and 2) to embed their approach throughout the agency to leverage other formula funding.

And that may be the true significance of the move. The office is increasingly setting the tone for the way the entire agency does business, and how it spends its entire $47.6 billion budget. (That’s what it’s requested for 2014, anyway – it’s $10 billion more than the agency will spend this year.)

As we reported last year, the three agencies were already bringing sustainability into the heart of their work. The six principles of livability they’ve agreed on don’t just govern the grants given by the Office of Housing and Sustainable Communities; they’ve become the guiding philosophy behind much of the agencies’ work  – and other agencies, like NOAA and USDA, are tagging along for the ride, too.

So there are lots of good reasons to better enmesh the sustainability office in the agency. Besides, Poticha said, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan had always planned for the sustainability office to “find the most appropriate home within the agency among the core program offices.” She also said the larger staff network will allow them greater flexibility and additional capacity than the small office they have now.

The Regional Planning and Community Challenge grant programs, administered by HUD with the collaboration of the other two agencies, are being rolled into one budget item, a $75 million grant program now called Integrated Planning and Investment Grants. HUD officials are still unclear whether they’ll continue to separate that into two programs or leave it as one.

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Today in Foreign Policy: American Interests Demand Walkable Communities

If you’ve had your head stuck inside street design manuals or engineering guides – if you’ve been thinking at the level of the bulb-out or the bollard – I’ve got a present for you.

A new day rises over the Capitol. Photo: Pablo Raw/Flickr

I wouldn’t have expected to find it in Foreign Policy magazine, but last week, Patrick Doherty of the New America Foundation published in its pages a big-picture, visionary manifesto calling for America to exert global leadership and help the planet “accommodate 3 billion additional middle­class aspirants in two short decades ­­without provoking resource wars, insurgencies, and the devastation of our planet’s ecosystem.” And Doherty sees walkable communities as a key to achieving America’s strategic goals in the years ahead. (Don’t tell Glenn Beck.)

Doherty names inequality, economic depression, resource depletion, and natural disasters as “the four horsemen of the coming decades.” A big contributor to those four horsemen was the suburban experiment of the post-war period and its ongoing perpetuation. Doherty asserts that today, “the country’s economic engine is misaligned to the threats and opportunities of the 21st century.” More highways and subdivisions, in other words, aren’t going to make America prosperous and secure.

So walkable communities should be at the center of a redefinition of American economic policy, Doherty writes:

Economists from Bernanke to New York Times columnist Paul Krugman agree that the predominant factor driving long­term unemployment is weakness in aggregate demand. Fortunately, due to large-­scale demographic shifts over the past 20 years, the United States is sitting astride three vast pools of it. It is now imperative to design a new economic engine to exploit this demand while restoring America’s fiscal health.

The first pool of demand is homegrown. American tastes have changed from the splendid isolation of the suburb to what advocates are calling the “five-­minute lifestyle” ­­ work, school, transit, doctors, dining, playgrounds, entertainment all within a five­ minute walk of the front door. From 2014 to 2029, baby boomers and their children, the millennial generation, will converge in the housing marketplace ­­ seeking smaller homes in walkable, service-­rich, transit-­oriented communities. Already, 56 percent of Americans seek this lifestyle in their next housing purchase. That’s roughly three times the demand for such housing after World War II.

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What Has President Obama Done to Improve American Transportation Policy?

With the election just days away, it’s a good time to reflect on what the Obama administration has done with transportation policy – and what a Romney administration might have in store. Streetsblog does not endorse candidates. This is an overview of their respective records and a look back at what we know of these two men. We’ll start with President Obama in this post and move on to Mitt Romney in the next one.

High-speed rail could have been President Obama's signature achievement. Photo courtesy of Obama for America.

Perhaps the best thing President Obama did for transportation policy was to nominate Ray LaHood as U.S. DOT secretary. Sure, LaHood reportedly wanted to be Secretary of Agriculture, not transportation. And yes, Obama’s main motive for nominating the moderate Republican congressman was to make friends across the aisle, a goal that for the most part went woefully unmet. Nonetheless, LaHood has proven to be a genuine reformer.

We knew LaHood was a keeper when he stood on a tabletop and declared that bicycles were on an “equal footing” with cars, announcing “the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized.”

The administration’s creation of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities has created valuable new links between federal transportation, housing, and environmental policies, demonstrating how government can eliminate barriers between agencies. It’s a model that some state transportation agencies have begun to take note of, as they approach local governments to craft land use and transportation decisions that make sense in tandem.

Even the Republican House of Representatives’ ire toward the Partnership can’t destroy the essential piece of it: that agencies are breaking down siloes and communicating more effectively with each other. The smart growth ethic that infuses the Partnership has permeated the three agencies involved – and many more.

Another signature achievement of this administration has been the TIGER program. TIGER has awarded more than $3 billion to more than 200 transportation projects based on their ability to meet strategic objectives, bucking longstanding policies (which continue in the current transportation bill) that fund transportation based on formulas and a singular focus on making sure every state gets their piece of the pie. While TIGER has some geographic criteria and a set-aside for rural areas, it has rewarded cities, regions, and towns that are innovating, and the program has prioritized bike/ped infrastructure, streetcars, freight rail, maintenance of existing roads, and other measures that advance sustainable transportation and smart growth. And by the way, that rural set-aside isn’t a bad thing: It’s helped jump-start transit access in a lot of small towns and tribal areas.

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Why Congress Can’t Kill the Partnership for Sustainable Communities

Let’s say you worked for a city that was trying to revitalize a piece of land with a bunch of dilapidated buildings on it. You want to build some residences and some retail space, and you want to make better connections to the street grid. Congratulations – HUD and U.S. DOT both have money to help you get where you’re going. Except, oops: HUD is going to demand that you hire locally, to create jobs in the community, while U.S. DOT is going to demand that you get a competitive bid, showing no preference for local hires. Everyone you talk to at either agency just scratches their heads and says they don’t know anything about the other agency. They wouldn’t even know who to talk to over there.

The Partnership for Sustainable Communities is helping Charleston, WV make its transit hub a vibrant, green town square. Image: EPA

Well, you can relax, because that type of bureaucratic snafu is a thing of the past. But that was the state of affairs until about three years ago, when DOT, HUD, and the EPA got together to eliminate some of the bureaucratic hurdles that had long frustrated the communities they were trying to serve. They called it the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, and it broke down the silos of the three agencies with their naturally interconnected missions. They outlined six principles of livability to support investment in existing communities, transportation choices, affordable housing, and good stuff like that.

House Republicans sprang into action. They succeeded in de-funding the program, even trying to insert legislative language that prohibits the three agencies from working together on sustainable development. (See page 78 of this PDF.)

But this partnership is broader and deeper than its antagonists think.

With or without a name or funding, government agencies are beginning to work together around a common mission of smart growth and livability. And not just the big three: The EPA has signed a formal memorandum of agreement with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on sustainable land use in coastal areas, tackling questions like how to improve walkability when everything is built on stilts.

And other agencies are getting in on the action. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development office “wishes they’d been at the wedding,” according to Abby Hall, policy analyst with the EPA’s Smart Growth program. The USDA has worked with the Partnership on livability guidance for rural America. It runs its own infrastructure bank, which incorporates sustainability principles.

For example, while many small towns try to revitalize by chasing after big companies to build plants there, the Rural Development office encourages communities to build places where people want to live and conduct commerce. They just cut the ribbon on a new City Hall in southeastern Arkansas, consolidating four local agencies in a renovated historic building on what had been a somewhat moribund Main Street. The town’s mayor told officials that with the opening of the building, businesses and developers are suddenly interested in putting down roots there.

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A New Bill Passes, But America’s Transpo Policy Stays Stuck in 20th Century

The House of Representatives approved the transportation bill conference report this afternoon by a vote of 373 to 52. [UPDATE 4:00 PM: The Senate has also approved the bill, 74-19.] This is a bill that’s been called “a death blow to mass transit” by the Amalgamated Transit Union, “a step backwards for America’s transportation system” by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, “a retreat from the goals of sustainability and economic resiliency” by Reconnecting America, “a substantial capitulation” by Transportation for America, and “bad news for biking and walking” by America Bikes.

Remember the empty highways that symbolized the House Republicans' vision of America's transportation system? The final transpo bill might as well have the same unfortunate cover.

After more than 1,000 days of waiting since the last transportation bill expired, the nation’s new transportation policy is a grave disappointment to people seeking to reform the current highway-centric system.

The fact that the House GOP tried and, for the most part, failed to reverse the progress made under presidents Reagan and Bush the elder offers a small degree of consolation. “Some of the worst ideas pushed initially by House Republicans went nowhere – funding the highway system with new oil drilling revenues, taking transit out of the highway trust fund, de-federalizing transportation funding – to mention some of the most radical proposals that were seriously being put forward,” wrote Deron Lovaas of NRDC this morning. “But… that pretty much exhausts the good news.”

So what does the bill actually do? Overall, it doesn’t change a whole lot, and the most significant changes tend not to benefit livable streets or sustainable transportation. Here’s a breakdown.

Length and funding. The bill lasts a year longer than the Senate bill would have, expiring at the end of September 2014. That gives states, cities, and the construction industry substantially more stability and allows them to move forward on projects that have been delayed for years because of the uncertainty surrounding federal funding. It maintains funding levels at around $54 billion a year, as did the Senate bill, which is roughly current levels plus inflation.

While some have criticized the complex funding mechanisms that prop it up and its departure from a user-pays model, the Congressional Budget Office reported this morning that the bill actually reduces the deficit by $16.3 billion.

Everyone seems to understand that Congress won’t be able to pull this kind of magic for long and will soon have to deal with the long-term insufficiency of current Highway Trust Fund revenues to cover the nation’s transportation needs. However, the gas tax was not raised, and at the same time the House passed this bill, it also approved an appropriations bill that prohibits even studying the possibility of moving toward a VMT fee.

Non-transportation-related items. The Keystone XL pipeline and the EPA’s ability to regulate coal ash as a hazardous substance, introduced into the transportation negotiations by the House Republicans, were stripped out of the bill. The RESTORE Act to spend BP oil spill fines on Gulf Coast restoration is included.

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House Appropriators Leave TIGER, HSR Out of Next Year’s Budget

It’s always confusing when, in the middle of endless bicameral hand-wringing about transportation spending, the House Appropriations Committee puts out a budget for transportation without much ado.

The White House vision for high-speed rail -- still a fantasy under the 112th Congress. Source: White House

That’s what they did today. The Transportation and HUD Subcommittee will vote tomorrow on its draft budget, released today, in preparation to send it to the full Appropriations Committee.

The bill flatlines highway spending at $39.1 billion and transit spending at $8 billion, as did the Senate appropriations proposal, but allows those levels to change, depending on what happens with the reauthorization. It cuts $69 million from last year’s U.S. DOT budget, with an even bigger bite — $181 million — out of the Federal Transit Administration budget. It cuts $138 million from the transit New Starts program, or “Capital Investment Grants,” in the language of the bill, including Small Starts.

So, while Americans continue to struggle with high gas prices and few transportation options, the House wants to make it harder to expand access to transit.

High-speed rail? Zero.

Oh, and TIGER, the ever-popular, oversubscribed grant program for innovative transportation projects? Zilch.

Don’t even ask about the groundbreaking Partnership for Sustainable Communities, which has the EPA, HUD, and U.S. DOT working in cooperation to foster more efficient — and fiscally prudent — development and growth.

The Senate, seeing which way the wind is blowing, allocated just $100 million for high-speed rail in FY2013, a sort of placeholder that keeps the program on life support until it can get back to making real, transformational grants. Not even that paltry amount made it into the final House budget this year.

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