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The Fiscal Insanity of Highway Building

Dallas. Photo: David Herrara via Flicker (CC)

Highways crisscross highways in Dallas, yet transportation officials never seem to think there are enough. Photo: David Herrera/Flicker (CC)

To peer inside the minds of highway builders, take a look at what’s happening in Dallas.

Patrick Kennedy at Network blog Walkable Dallas Fort Worth has been poring over a 2007 document produced by regional planners at the North Central Texas Council of Governments. Interestingly, this seven-year-old document proclaimed an urgent need for the as-yet-unbuilt Trinity Toll Road, which highway builders are still trying to push through today.

Kennedy points out that without the Trinity Toll Road, Dallas has somehow avoided collapsing into chaos in the past seven years. He proceeds to attack the arguments for highway building, starting with the notion that Dallas needs a multi-billion dollar highway to reduce $66 million in congestion costs:

You’re telling me we need to spend $5 billion in order to save $66 million? And that’s just to build the roads, let alone the life cycle costs. This math and logic is why TxDOT is $35 billion in the hole right now. Congestion can’t be fought with more highway capacity. It can only be diminished by getting people out of cars and building more walkable communities. DFW is tied with Detroit for most car-dependent major city in the country…

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UPDATED: Missouri Pols Launch Sneak Attack on Bike Funding

UPDATE (April 8, 2014 at 1:37 p.m.): The Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Federation reports that the amendment featured below has failed. Yay!

The state of Missouri is aiming to bridge its transportation funding shortfall with a 1 percent sales tax that will generate $8 billion over 10 years. Rather than raising the gas tax, this regressive tax will force people who don’t drive to subsidize roads — and for good measure it will also forbid tolling on two major highways.

Missouri State Represenative Paul Curtman wants to make cycling ineligible for new transportation funding. Photo: Missouri House of Represenatives

Missouri State Representative Paul Curtman wants to make bike projects ineligible for new transportation funding. Photo: Missouri House of Representatives

The upside of the bill is that it’s also supposed to provide new funds for critically needed walking, biking, and transit projects. But even though everyone will be paying this new sales tax, a few state legislators think none of the revenue should go toward bike projects, reports Brent Hugh at the Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Federation:

Rep. [Paul] Curtman’s amendment is to remove the word “bicycle” from HJR 68. HJR 68 allows MoDOT, cities, and counties to spend the state transportation funds on “transportation system purposes and uses.”  Those are defined in HJR 68 and Curman’s amendment simply removes the word “bicycle” from that definition.

That leaves every other major type of transportation identified by Missourians in over a year’s worth of outreach by MoDOT to every county in Missouri represented in the text of HJR 68 — except for bicycling. This is very clearly intended to send a message to MoDOT and to bicyclists in Missouri, that we are not welcome and that state funds should not be spent on our behalf.

This was truly a sneak attack by a few House members on Missouri’s bicycling community. They waited until the last minute to introduce their language, made it nearly impossible to understand, and tagged it onto an innocuous amendment that bill supporters had already approved.

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How Long Will Detroit Residents Have to Wait for More Effective Transit?

Protesters attended the last Detroit RTA meeting, where the board decided to put off seeking additional funding for transit until 2016. Photo: We Are Mode Shift

In no major city in the country are transit riders suffering like they are in Detroit. Motor City residents who rely on transit are losing jobs to buses that never show, or waits that last for hours.

There was hopeful news late in 2012, when, under pressure from the Federal Transit Administration, local and state leaders came together to form the area’s first regional transit agency. The system was to replace the fractured city and suburban bus systems, bringing a more coordinated, efficient era of transit service to Detroit.

A little over a year later, David Sands at We Are Mode Shift reports that many transit riders in the region are losing patience with the new RTA:

A palpable feeling of frustration has been hanging over southeast Michigan’s Regional Transit Authority in recent weeks, something clearly on display at the RTA’s board meeting in Detroit late last month.

Transit advocates expecting the postponement of a planned ballot funding measure held a “We Can’t Wait” march from the Rosa Parks Transit Center to the board’s meeting place at 1001 Woodward to encourage board members to take immediate action to improve transit in the region.

During a lengthy public comment session, some stakeholders also expressed dismay over a recommendation by the RTA’s Executive and Policy Committee to push back by two years the ballot campaign that many had hoped would take place this November. Others voiced concern about a lack of visible progress by the regional transit authority as it approaches the end of its first year.

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The Decline of the Suburban Office Park

Not the future. Photo via @compujeramey

Is the suburban office park going the way of the shopping mall?

That’s what Erik Calloway of Bay Area planning firm Freedman Tung + Sasaki told an audience in the heart of the Silicon Valley recently, making the case that the inwardly-focused, fortress model of the workplace is an industrial-era relic.

Adina Levin at Peninsula Transportation Alternatives caught the presentation and relays some of the highlights:

The business parks that emerged in the mid-20th century were designed to be standalone centers for industrial manufacturing, far from homes and stores. They have plenty of landscaping, but no public space — the activity is inside the complex.

Today the largest companies can still be self-contained — companies including Apple, Facebook, and Google are building internally focused headquarters — see Facebook HQ below. But a greater proportion of the economy is taking place among networks of collaborating business partners.

Increasingly, people prefer public spaces to interact and collaborate. So there is demand for workplaces that have public space, and that have access to restaurants and services that people like to have nearby.

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The Split Between Pragmatic Conservatism and Anti-Transit Extremism

In the final installment of a three-part series on Wisconsin’s sputtering tech sector, Bruce Thompson at Urban Milwaukee notes that his home state ranks near the bottom of Democratic-leaning states on the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation’s “New Economy Index.” If a strong start-up economy is linked to Democratic voting patterns, as ITI’s data shows, then what’s gone wrong in Wisconsin?

States voting Democratic tend to score higher on the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation’s New Economy Index, but Utah is an outlier. Image: Information Technology and Innovation Foundation

Thompson looks to Utah, the GOP-dominated state that’s nevertheless managed to grow a strong tech sector, for answers. He says the different strains of conservatism in each state explain a lot:

In recent years, a unifying theme among Wisconsin conservatives has been opposition to any public transportation that uses rails. This opposition has been very effective, killing light rail proposals for the Milwaukee area, killing the proposed commuter line between Milwaukee and Kenosha which would have connected to Chicago, and giving up a federal grant of more than $800 million for a rail line from Milwaukee and Madison. Now conservatives seem intent upon placing obstacles before Milwaukee’s streetcar proposal.

On most any conservative website in Wisconsin you can find articles attacking rail transportation. Often these are reworked versions of articles used to oppose light rail or streetcar proposals in other states. Two particularly prolific authors are Randal O’Toole of the Cato Institute and Wendell Cox of the Heartland Institute, who have made a cottage industry of opposing such proposals wherever they arise. The details of the arguments are not always consistent but the conclusions are: rail transport is a bad idea. For example one article argues that Milwaukee lacks the conditions that made the Portland streetcar a success while another argues that Portland’s streetcar was a fiasco.

Given the almost universal opposition to rail transportation from this array of conservative organizations, amplified by Milwaukee talk radio, Wisconsinites might expect that Utah’s conservatism would be the last place where rail transportation could take hold. Yet that perception would be wrong.

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Smart Growth America: Sprawl Shaves Years Off Your Life

Want to live a long, healthy, prosperous life? Don’t live in sprawlsville.

These cul-de-sacs will kill you! Photo: ##http://indiemusicfilter.com/tag/sprawl-ii##Indie Music Filter##

These cul-de-sacs can kill you! Photo: Indie Music Filter

Atlanta, I’m looking at you. Nashville, you too. Southern California’s Inland Empire: ouch. Meanwhile, break out the bubbly if you live in Atlantic City, Urbana/Champaign, or Santa Cruz — which all rank close to giants like New York and San Francisco as some of the most compact and connected metro areas in the U.S. That compact development brings a bounty of benefits you might not associate with those places.

That’s the lesson from Smart Growth America’s new report, “Measuring Sprawl 2014,” an update of their 2002 report, “Measuring Sprawl and Its Impact.”

A team of researchers gave a development index score to each of 221 metropolitan areas and 994 counties in the United States based on four main factors: residential and employment density; neighborhood mix of homes, jobs, and services; strength of activity centers and downtowns; and accessibility of the street network. These are the essential buildings blocks of smart growth.

Based on those factors, the most compact and connected metro areas are:

Most compact, connected metro areas, nationally. Image: SGA

Most compact, connected metro areas, nationally. Image: SGA

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HUD Expected to Loosen Restrictions on Mixed-Use Financing Soon

As Smart Growth America showed us earlier today, the costs of sprawl are high. So it’s a bitter irony that federal rules have made it more expensive to build compact, mixed-use development by tightly limiting the share of commercial space in projects that receive financing from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Federal rules make it harder to build low- and mid-rise mixed-use projects. Photo: La Citta Vita/Flickr via creative commons license

Fortunately, those rules have started to loosen in recent years, and today on the Streetsblog Network, Rob Steuteville at Better Cities and Towns reports that HUD is expected to make more progress on this front:

The financing of low-to-mid-rise mixed-use buildings, restricted by federal rules since the 1930s, will likely become easier this year, the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) reports.

The Federal Housing Authority (FHA) raised its nonresidential loan limits to 35 percent from 20 percent in 2012 — now it looks like the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is moving forward with reforms in other programs.

Officials from HUD’s multifamily unit recently told CNU president and CEO John Norquist, New York Regional Plan Association executive director Thomas Wright and Richard Oram of the Oram Foundation that further reforms are expected in HUD’s Sections 221d4 and 220 multifamily financing programs, due for release in September 2014.

“What is likely to happen is that HUD 220 and 221d4 caps will be raised up to 35 percent,” Norquist says. “This could vary by project characteristics and location, but allowing up to 35 percent non residential is a big deal.” The higher FHA mortgage nonresidential caps have worked, Norquist says.

Old mixed-use restrictions remain in place at mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, however. Reforming Fannie and Freddie is tougher than adjusting internal rules at HUD, says Norquist:

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Are Sidewalks Really Necessary?

A lot of big, surprising revelations are happening in the livable streets movement around the country today. Here’s a sample of what Streetsblog Network members are reporting.

Sidewalks: Are they worth it? Photo: Transportation for America

Miami Adopts Vision Zero Policy: Street safety advocates are elated after Miami officials suddenly announced the city would adopt a Vision Zero policy aimed a reducing the number of traffic fatalities to zero, Transit Miami reports. Similar policies have been adopted in New York City and Chicago, but nobody expected this notoriously hostile city for pedestrians to adopt such a progressive policy.

“My fellow commissioners and I have finally come to recognize that Miami is about two decades behind other so-called ‘world class cities’ when it comes to pedestrian and cycling infrastructure,” said Mayor Carlos Gimenez. “We have a public safety crisis unfolding on our streets and we need to make our streets safer for everyone; we need to design our streets for people, not cars.”

The policy will necessarily result in a total overhaul of the way Miami designs streets.

The Case Against Sidewalks: People for Bikes announced today the organization views sidewalks as a “terrible idea” and is lobbying for their abolishment nationwide. The place for pedestrians is in the road, along with cyclists and cars, writes Michael Andersen. Oregon physician Joseph Eisenberg sum up why dedicated walking paths are death traps:

When I walk, I always practice vehicular pedestrianism. I run in the middle of the street, wearing hi-viz clothing and a helmet with multiple flashing head and tail lights. I always merge into the left lane to turn left, and never run in the door zone. Sidewalks are separate and unequal, and they are death traps with the risk of right and left hooks! Pedestrians just need more education about the proper way to walk. Then they would be perfectly safe, and respected by motorists.

Wise words, indeed.

More Stroads for Minneapolis: Drawing inspiration from nearby Bloomington, the city of Minneapolis has proposed a bold vision for the future of its streets, reports Streets.mn today:

“Ever since the opening of the Hiawatha Line, we’ve watched scores of Minneapolitans drive to their nearest park-and-ride and take the train down to East Bloomington’s distinctive urban center, just to experience the sublime pedestrian experience of 8-lane, 40+ mph roadways,” mayor Betsy Hodges said in a press conference Tuesday. “It’s time to bring that kind of distinctiveness to Minneapolis.”

By the way, happy April 1st, everyone.

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Walkable or Easily Drivable? Communities Can’t be Both

There’s a contentious debate happening in greater Portland about a highway expansion. Suburbanites are in favor, writes Scott Johnson at Portland Transport, and Portland residents are just as adamantly opposed.

Places that are easy to park are necessarily uncomfortable and bad places for walking and transit. Photo: Wikipedia

Places where it’s easy to park are necessarily bad places for walking and transit. Photo: Wikipedia

The conflict, Johnson says, is inherent: Infrastructure that is conducive to driving is necessarily bad for walkable, transit-friendly places like many parts of Portland.

Johnson explains:

In a large human settlement (i.e a city and its surrounding suburbs), you can have parts that are optimized for a low-car lifestyle, and you can have parts that are optimized to be convenient for automobile usage (by persons of average income). But you can’t have places that are both.

If a place is optimized for automobiles — and virtually all of Clark County is — you will have low density: cramming lots of cars into a small space will instantly cause congestion; spreading them out across a more expansive road network will reduce the number of conflicts for space that lead to cars needing to stop and wait for other cars. And you will have plenty of parking: Large parking lots at major attractions, driveways and garages in residences, and lots of street space allocated for vehicle storage. (And all of it free for users). Drivers in such environments will want to drive fast (if nothing else, to traverse the longer distances more quickly), and road topologies will be optimized for speed.

The large distances needed to get from A to B will make walking and biking impractical (and the high traffic speeds will make them unsafe). And the spread-out nature of everything will make efficient transit impossible. Thus, if a place is optimized for cars, they will become necessary.

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A Hard-Fought Legislative Victory for Indianapolis Transit

Indianapolis might not be known as a transit city — yet — but a legislative breakthrough at the statehouse this week opens the door for dramatic improvements to its transit system.

After three years of advocacy, state officials approved a bill that will allow the six-county Indianapolis region to vote on whether to tax themselves to pay for a plan called “Indy Connect,” which would establish a network of high-quality bus routes.

Shayla Williamson at Urban Indy says the legislation isn’t perfect — one drawback is that it specifically forbids spending the money on light rail — but it removes a major obstacle to significantly improving the region’s transit:

[T]he Indiana General Assembly closed the 2014 session by passing SB176, otherwise known as the central Indiana mass transit bill. After being scaled back, stripped, and amended here and there, an effort three years in the making now heads to Governor Pence for final approval before being placed on the ballot this fall for local voter approval. Voters will finally have the option of approving an income tax increase, of anywhere between 0.1 and 0.25 percent, to help cover the operating costs of expanded transit in their counties.

Pence has now signed the bill, which Transportation for America calls a great example of pragmatic political compromise:

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