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Growing Transit and Expanding Infrastructure

By Brett Rosenberg
November 19, 2007

Through The U.S. Conference of Mayor Climate Protection Agreement, over 700 mayors have committed to undertake efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from city sources. Among these sources, existing transportation and its necessary infrastructure offer plenty of opportunity to envision cities in which climate pollution no longer exists. As the breakout session’s title, “Growing Transit and Expanding Infrastructure” suggests, cities stand to make major strides toward their climate protection goals by providing and improving transit options and developing the appropriate transit infrastructure.

Todd Litman, the Executive Director of the Victoria Transportation Policy Institute, began the session with a philosophical presentation on mobility options and easing congestions in cities. Litman began by stating that in the old days, it was priests and shamans who preserved order in their societies, then asked the crowd who’s in charge now of maintaining balance and paradise. After somebody shouted, “staff” Litman explained that it’s the people in the room who “are the ones who actually deal with the day-to-day decisions that determine whether a community is going to be wonderful or terrible, both in the short term and long term.”

In this context, Litman suggested there exist two visions of paradise, one as a commodity whereby a place is judged by a set of predetermined criteria, such as popular top ten lists of the best places to raise a family or retire, and the other we create where we happen to be. According to Litman, one’s view of mobility depends on which of these perspectives one is coming from, and carries certain implications as far as transportation planning is concerned.

Litman suggested that if one views paradise as a commodity, that is, a place to which one goes, it is all about travelling; if paradise is something we create where we are, it’s about mobility. Therefore, in the old view of paradise as a commodity, mobility trumps place but as attitudes toward a place change, place trumps mobility. Countless little decisions that all levels of government make, according to Litman, reflect the relative value we put on each of these perspectives.

Fundamental Transportation Shift

There is a fundamental shift in transportation occurring, according to Litman, following nearly a century of the “ascendency of the automobile”. The future of travel demands Litman said, will be fundamentally different from the past for several reasons, including an aging population, rising fuel prices, increasing congestion that can’t simply be addressed by increasing roadway capacity, increasing urbanization, changing consumer preferences, health and fitness concerns and a range of other issues. All of these trends, Litman said, indicate that the overall incremental value for automobile use is shrinking while demand for diversified forms of mobility and efficient transportation systems suitable for an updated perspective of place continue to rise.

The future transportation system, as envisioned in the 1960s was about travelling faster and farther and involved increasing mechanization. In reality, the fundamental nature of driving has not changed drastically since automatic transmissions and radios became standard equipment in cars, according to Litman. He then posited that although we fed on the promise of more sophisticated mechanized modes of personal transportation, the most innovative change in the past decade is actually an incremental improvement in walking, that is, wheeled luggage. This, Litman said, is a clear indicator in the shift in how we engineer our transportation systems.

While perhaps symbolic, increased use of wheeled luggage shows a new desire for and willingness to take advantage of compact, walkable communities. Even though universal design standards often call for certain widths and curb cuts for sidewalks for the sake of a small segment of the population, such as people in wheelchairs or who push strollers, Litman said as demand increases, so too has the justification for investments in walkability.

Mayors Cite Problems

Litman then launched into a discussion about the interface of transportation problems and planning objectives. From a list of potential problems, such as safety, cost, congestion and the like, Litman called on Mayors Steve Mullet of Tukwila (WA) and Peter Lewis of Auburn (WA) to name the biggest transportation problems in their cities. Mullet cited the high cost of infrastructure, and Lewis said congestion is his city’s biggest challenge.

In response, Litman said that those issues are clearly major issues, but without consideration in a broader transportation policy planning context, there is no way to solve one problem at a time without potentially causing trouble in other areas. For instance, Litman mentioned that climate change concerns often call for increasing the use of more fuel efficient vehicles. This, Litman said, is great for reducing emissions from individual vehicles, but with better fuel efficiency, we’re facing more drivers on the road simultaneously, which in turn brings more attention to the congestion problem, sprawl , and the safety issues associated with more cars on the road. “A gallon of gas saved by reducing driving,” Litman said, “is worth an order of magnitude more in terms of consumer savings…savings to your business, in terms of economic development than that same gallon of gasoline used to get someone to drive a more fuel efficient car.”

Litman wrapped up his discussion by reframing some of the benefits of comprehensive mobility planning. He cited a study he conducted in which he determined that more multi-modal U.S. cities experience congestions costs far below more automobile-dependent cities; for instance, per capita congestion costs in New York City, in terms of time spent in traffic and money spent on fuel and car maintenance, are half of those in Los Angeles. Furthermore, Litman stated that most congestion index studies focus on the waste associated with driving rather than the benefits of not driving. This, he said, can be reconciled by other indicators: updating mobility options and smart growth reduces traffic injuries and fatalities beyond the rate of violent crimes, leading to a net benefit in public safety; it creates economic development; and increases equity through transportation options. With regard to climate change, Litman said we must consider shifting taxes to address emissions. On a parting note, Litman suggested that ridership would sharply increase if public buses resembled the comfort, design and ease of use of an airliner’s first class section.

imate change, Litman said we must consider shifting taxes to address emissions. On a parting note, Litman suggested that ridership would sharply increase if public buses resembled the comfort, design and ease of use of an airliner’s first class section.

Historic Train Station Redeveloped

With his own perspective of paradise, Meridian (MS) Mayor John Robert Smith followed Litman’s presentation with a discussion about his city’s major restoration of its historic downtown, which was destroyed by General Sherman’s troops in 1864. Since then, Meridian has grown into a major regional transportation hub, with several state and interstate highways converging, major freight and passenger rail lines, and one of the longest airport runways in the country. The city is also home to several regional hospitals, growing high tech and steel industries, and a naval air training facility.

The latest downtown revitalization effort in this city of 40,000 began with the redevelopment of Meridian’s historic Union Station. A $7.2 million project, of which the city provided $1.3 million, the project has leveraged an additional $125 million in private sector investment in a three block radius. The station not only serves Amtrak rail service, but also Greyhound bus service, city transit, and cabs to the airport. It is the most publicly used space in Meridian, with meeting rooms available, and it houses the city’s economic development entity and Chamber of Commerce.

As a former Amtrak commissioner, Smith proudly cited the fact that in terms of moving each passenger, rail service is 17 percent more efficient than air travel per mile and 21 percent more efficient than travelling by car. Meanwhile, train travel produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and Amtrak has been experiencing better fuel efficiency per person as regional ridership has grown.

To facilitate even more economic development based on the growing use of Union Station’s services the city recognized the need to address certain parking management challenges. Through a series of studies and updated parking management plans, the city built a new parking structure downtown with retail and some commercial space available at the ground level. More importantly, according to Mayor Smith, the new structure enabled the redevelopment of a department store built in 1890 and an opera house built in 1889 as the Riley Education and Conferencing Center. The opera center, which once welcomed the likes of Sarah Bernhardt and Will Rogers, now welcomes celebrities such as Trisha Yearwood, Aaron Neville, Winton Marsalis, and the Kennedy Center Orchestra, adding to Meridian’s strong reputation as a major arts center. With the success of the conferencing center came a hotel, in a refurbished 1929 Art Deco office building. This $35 million project was brought about in part by New Market Tax Credits and state and federal tax credits.

ed 1929 Art Deco office building. This $35 million project was brought about in part by New Market Tax Credits and state and federal tax credits.

Neighborhoods Important

Smith tied the downtown redevelopment efforts to the city’s citizens, stating, “I don’t want you to think that Meridian is all about arts and commercial activities; our residential neighborhoods are very important, especially for those that are low to moderate income citizens.” As one of the last Hope VI project communities approved in the U.S., according to Smith, leveraging federal funds with city and county funds has brought a $50 million investment to take out the old “projects” to “reestablish neighborhoods and a sense of belonging,” as Smith put it.

It was transportation connectivity that enabled so much to happen in Meridian, Smith said, and then described an ideal whereby it would be possible to travel seamlessly from, say, Hickory (MS) via bus to Meridian, then switch to a train for a ride to Atlanta, and then fly to Paris all with a single ticket. Smith concluded that the U.S. needs a similar comprehensive transportation policy but until that happens, “Mayors must see to it that all the transportation systems in their home towns are connected, that they connect not only bus and rail and air and transit, and people to work and shop, but most importantly that we connect our people to each other.”

Pulido introduced Mayor Chris Koos of Normal (IL), a community of about 50,000 people known as the “Little Los Angeles of the Prairie.” Due to the nature of the way Normal developed, it is a very automobile-dependent city. Koos, who has owned a bicycle shop since 1979, expressed concern the city is slow to change, but “there is hope on the horizon.”

Currently, according to local census data, 90 percent of the people who work in Normal get to their jobs via a car or truck; of those, 90 percent drive alone. As the fastest growing city in Illinois, outside the Chicago, Koos cited the challenges of growing infrastructure needs related to development and the burden that so many single occupancy vehicles place on city resources. Furthermore, the historic sprawling development style has not been pedestrian or bicycle friendly.

While recognizing that there is still much work to do, Mayor Koos described two projects the city is undertaking to expand transportation options to allow people to take fewer car trips. Through over $70 million dollars in local, state and federal money, along with $250 million dollars in private investment, Normal is working to update its image through new land use planning strategies and smart growth projects, including the new Uptown mixed use retail/commercial/residential development and a 400,000 square foot hotel.

Transit Center Key

A key part of the Uptown development is a multimodal transit center, which will center on an Amtrak line with eight trains per day — the busiest in Illinois outside the Chicago area. Koos sympathized with Mayor Smith because of the shared dilemma of a shortage of passenger rolling stock given an increase in ridership demand. The facility will also serve as a hub for local and regional bus transit, and as a drop-off point for shuttles to and from Chicago area airports. The building, Koos said, “is designed to reduce car trips to and from the community and within the community.”

Normal is also in the process of redesigning its seven mile Main Street corridor to better accommodate a city-wide bicycle transportation plan while also taking into consideration the area’s development needs and aesthetic values. Through a series of stakeholder meetings and “image preference” sessions, it became clear to city officials that based on community input, amenities such as dedicated bike lanes and textured crosswalks for pedestrians would vastly improve the corridor.

In preparing plans for the corridor, Koos asked whether aspects of its redevelopment would be appropriate for other parts of the city, to which the overwhelming response was very positive. Accordingly, he said he established an ad-hoc committee composed of citizens and public officials such as city planners, civil engineers and police to come up with a comprehensive bicycle and pedestrian transit plan for both Normal and its adjoining sister city, Bloomington. So far, Koos said, “the group has coalesced much faster than I would have thought…the takeaway for you is that there are people in the community who want this type of thing — probably more than you might think.”

Pulido concluded the session with a few remarks about his city, Santa Ana (CA). Due to the large population, a great deal of cars, geography and prevailing weather patterns, Santa Ana often has very poor air quality. According to Pulido, 24 percent of all the people facing the health effects of ground level ozone in the U.S. live in Orange County, home to Santa Ana. Similarly, 57 percent of the people facing dangerous effects of particulate matter pollution, which often results from burning diesel fuel, reside in the same air basin.

To address these issues, the associated economic and quality of life concerns, as well as greenhouse gas emissions, Pulido and other mayors in the region along with the state and federal governments are working together to develop appropriate solutions. While he agreed with notion of comprehensive planning, Pulido stated that in this case, the sole step of improving the types of vehicles available is crucial: “If we can get people out of bad cars and into good cars, it makes a very big difference” in terms of pollutants emitted and the associated health effects. Much like other partnerships such as Austin Mayor Will Wynn’s Plug-In Partners, Santa Ana, is calling on U.S. automakers to manufacture plug-in hybrid vehicles that would get upwards of 80 miles per gallon of fuel.

“One of the things we can do as mayors is to use money as wisely as we can,” Pulido said, in reference the decision of what kind of fuel to use in its new transit vehicles — whether it is natural gas or some other type. With 163 compressed natural gas fleet vehicles in Santa Ana and a future push toward hybrid and then plug-in hybrid technology, Pulido said that it is clear that as a mayor, “You have tremendous impacts on markets.” Pulido closed by noting the interrelationships between an area’s carbon footprint, toxicity of the air, and how “it is essential that we do things in such a fashion that it’s clean.”