Sunday, December 19, 2004

Transportation Dialog

Let's talk.

As President Bush establishes national policy for the next four years, at least, the 110 Congress will be responsible for establishing national transportation policy with the surface transportation reauthorization bill.

Clearly, federal spending for non-security related items will be locked into a 1% budget increase. In an era of eminent inflation, this means an over-all budget cut for most departments. Transportation will be no exception. And with the ever-increasing cost of crude oil, combined with the current Administration's distaste for increasing taxes, it will be highly unlikely that we will see a hike in gas tax. Therefore, how will federal and state authorities propose to pay for maintenance and construction of the Country's road infrastructure?

PLANETIZEN recently posted an article written by four members of the Bush-Cheney transportation policy team. Their article briefs the reader about these fiscal dilemmas, and then commits 4 methods that the US Department of Transportation should focus on:Diversifying revenue sources, encouraging bus rapid transit, expanding the definition of new rail starts to include HOV lanes (don't get me ranting on this one), and focusing on congestion management. They conclude with a vision of how an ideal transportation department (Texas, of course) will function in the future.

But for now, I want to focus on their paragraph about diversification of revenue sources, i.e. tolls. I am intrigued by the implications that a federal policy condoning state-imposed tolls on inter-state and national highways would have on our road network. I looked around and found this article by the University of California Transportation Center The Lessons from SR 91 which briefs the history of this private road project within the public right-of-way in California. The article summarizes lessons that should be learned and applied to any future public-private partnerships for toll roads.

I would love to get a little dialog started about the positive and negative effects of a federally condoned toll-road policy. Here are some that I can think of off the top of my head. Post if you have any more that I missed:

Positive:

  • risks for road construction and maintenance are shared between public and private orgs.
  • faster road construction due to revenue backed bonds verses pay-as-you-go will respond to market shifts quickly and more efficiently
  • force single-occupancy vehicle drivers to consider carpooling/vanpooling if congestion pricing is used and is not based on number of passengers.
  • higher tolls on heavier freight vehicles could mitigate the structural impact these have on the infrastructure
  • potential "subsidies" for public transit vehicles would encourage increased ridership.
  • congestion pricing would instigate triple convergence effects even quicker.
Negative:
  • if public transit is not represented at the negotiation table when toll revenues are distributed, most of the positive impacts will be negated. Those who use public transit should not be "double taxed" through the fare and the toll.
  • try to convince the trucking industry, who is already struggling with the increase in gas prices, that they should not object to a further and potentially dramatic increase in costs.
  • local roads will experience heavier traffic as people avoid paying tolls.
  • if tolls are only allowed on corridors in which they are collected, we may result in coffers overloaded with funds and a reverse inefficiency. In addition, if tolls are transferred to the general fund, we will see a boom of pork projects that have no relation to their funding source. Overall, donor and donee relationships should be very carefully regulated and monitored.
That was just a few I shot off the top of my head. The reauthorization of the surface transportation act will have lasting consequences, beyond the four years of its lifetime. So, Let's continue this dialog locally and nationally. And most importantly, we must not forget the Equity concerns that are central to any transportation bill.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Mixed Messages

OK- I know I've not been keeping up with the site for the last week or so. As some of you know, things at work have been a little hectic, to say the least. But I still skim the lines and I came across these two on Monday.

One is written by Michael Chriton (you know- the action-adventure-DNA-research-is-going-to-create-dinosaurs-who-will-
eat-us-alive author). Funny, but his is a rosy-glass walk in the park article about lowering the national blood pressure.

The other one is a hilarious (I think so, at least) article by James Kuntsler (author of Home from Nowhere) about the housing market bubble burst that will put us back in the dark ages.

Anyway, enjoy the articles. And do what I did- drink a 7up and giggle. God bless this world- and everyone's version of it!

Friday, December 03, 2004

Suburbs and the City of God

I recently stumbled onto different articles, one about the architecture of The World Trade Center and one about New Urbanism and God. The latter reminded me of the first article in that they both touch on the issues of spiritual belief and architecture/built environment. A majority of people, when asked about architecture, will immediately conjure up images of cathedrals and skyscrapers. While it is easy to derive that cathedrals were built to inspire awe in the sacred, it may come as a surprise that many skyscrapers also draw inspiration from the sacred to enkindle us in our profane worlds.

And yet, where is the City of God in the suburbs?

Our society's collective icons and literary images of the empyrean built in our shining city on the hill are so firmly engraved into the American culture- and yet look at our cities now. Our society has seen a cultural paradigm shift from the Great city in which society works as a collective for the holy pursuits of God, to the city as the center of filth and perversion. When did this happen? Where did the City err so egregiously as to be flung from the firmament, past the earth, and into the pits of hell?

I would say that no such thing has happened. I do not believe that God, or any other higher being has cursed the City in any way. Although not a religious person myself, I am thirsty for spiritual stimulation, and find it in the everyday moments of life. (yes, I sit at home and cry over Emily Dickinson). To survive, I winnow the golden snapshots from the chaff of crappy bosses and burgers. But I am finding it harder and harder to persevere without the additional daily inspiration I divine from the city. No, I do not believe God would ever throw away the city like our society has.

Instead, I postulate that the City verses the suburbs is just a metaphor we have created to explain the paradigm shift from collective to self that Americans have experienced over the last century or more. We see it in economics, our politics, and our built environments. (It may come as no surprise then that urban cores voted overwhelmingly for the party most associated with collectivism, and rural areas leaned towards the party that ennobles the self.)

There is Hope. Smart Growth is becoming a household word, and with it, the ideas of alternative transportation, green space, and the all important mixture of land uses and higher density housing. (Higher density than the average 1 acre lot- and not necessarily Le Corbusier towers.) Many baby boomers (in this case, thank God for rule by majority) are realizing that they no longer want all that time consuming yard work and commuting. The market demands for Smart Growth developments are steadily increasing, and many of these are built close to where baby boomers raised their children- in the suburbs.

Not that these mixed-use developments will bring the City of God to the suburbs, but for many of us, they will provide more lifestyle choices. Once again we may have the opportunity to draw ourselves out of our social isolation and derive joy from the most important aspect of our lives- each other.


Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Daily Update

As a new planner, I am constantly amazed by the things I learn everyday. So I thought I would regurgitate a normal Wednesday. I will do this on a regular schedule so that you (and I!) can see the progress I'm making. This is really an exercise in self-indulgence. We planners have few opportunities in our careers to actually see the results of our efforts. So at least in this small way, I will hopefully witness my own personal growth, while I'm managing the growth of 100,000.

So, today: I got in at 8, and started preparing for our weekly Planning Review Staff meeting. At today's meeting, we discussed the zonings and subdivisions that will be presented to the Planning Commission in the next month. (I got railed about my maps. But in actuality, the developer gave me wrong information and out mapping expert did a half-ass job. I didn't say anything because the responsibility is ultimately mine; and even though I'm overwhelmed with responsibilities, that is no excuse for not paying close attention to the details.)

We also discussed addressing issues and the repercussions of planning methods used in 1976. Now we have to fix it, and it's never easy taking something away from someone who has had it for 28 years.

We did not have time to discuss the upcoming Growth Management Plan update, so we scheduled another meeting for later on in the day. Immediately following our staff meeting, my director and I held a meeting with a developer about his upcoming PUD rezoning.

Unfortunately, he may be too little too late. This has really been a learning experience. See my other blog, dated November 18 for the details about the planning meeting. Anyway, he came in with a completely different plan, hoot and hollered about how much he has already given us in concessions, and in the end, will probably not have his plan approved.

Then I tried to finish calling all the GMP Steering Committee members to set up an organizational meeting, reserved the room, and drafted an email for Jeff to look over. Discussed the PUD with the developer over the phone while eating lunch and answered some Timber Harvesting questions. (I need to re-organize how this is handled, it's really confusing. Especially for these guys who drive 30 miles out of the back woods. I have it online, but half these guys don't have computers in their offices.) At 2, we had our little GMP meeting discussing the state mandated minimums and deadlines, items that need to be addressed at the first two meetings, how to organize the public hearings, and general administrative questions.

I returned some phone calls afterwards, answered mobile home questions and some concerns about the upcoming grave relocating procedures for the cemetery found on the Marshall Square Lifestyle Center site. (Look ma- I'm in the paper!) One woman was concerned that the unmarked graves, if they are in fact slaves, should be DNA tested in order to contact descendents. I completely agree with the philosophy, but it is not required by the State Code, and money doesn't grow on trees.

I reviewed the DCA suggested technical amendments to GMP planning standards and noticed a huge potential change in format of the document as well as timeline implications. Called and left a message with Dan asking if these changes would effect us if they are approved months after we've already started our planning process. Can't wait to hear back from him, we may need to rethink our whole plan of attack on this thing.

I re-did the rezoning maps from earlier this morning, drafted our Greenspace Coordinator a letter about tree density requirements for donated land from the local Wal-Mart, and updated our planning commission agendas for the next few months. Then a developer came in with yet another plan for cracker box town homes. I strongly urged him to consider 2 car garages- and didn't give him any false hopes about getting the property rezoned because it is still contrary to the existing Growth Management Plan. I explained to him the political climate we're in and used the earlier PUD as an example of a developer who fought us over every little concessions and in the end will probably fail. I also explained that the commissioners are feeling a lot of heat about these type of developments because they are a lower dollar figure, pack children into our already over-packed schools, and are poorly designed for adequate parking. As much as I would love to get rid of extra parking, in this County, resistance to the automobile is futile- especially in residential areas. People are going to have cars, and they're going to park them wherever they can find space.

tomorrow I have to make my phone call rounds because the deadline for advertising the GMP meeting is tomorrow. Then hopefully I can find some time to work on the Corridor Overlay District! But now, I have to go get my weekly fix of West Wing.


Tuesday, November 30, 2004

New OMB Statistical Areas

The Brookings Institution released a handbook describing the new OMB statistical areas. Check it out! (PDF). This is great stuff for us planner geeks- and so many intuitive changes in hierarchy- I love it.

  • Atlanta is spreading faster than any Metropolitan in the nation! It's official- Atlanta is now leaching into Alabama.
  • New York CSA now includes the newly created MetroDivision, adding another hierarchy or places. This is exactly how this works- while the entire NY CSA is economically linked, these individual divisions account for commuting patterns that are more realistic. For example, a person living in Shelter Island may commute daily to Suffolk County, but it is highly unlikely (but not impossible) that she would commute to Edison New Jersey every day.

The other big addition is MicroSAs. These are the little communities that don't meet the 50,000 population requirement, but are still economically identifiable areas. Many of the Micros are at the edge of Metros, but are statistically separate- except when lumped into the CSA. (mostly for regional and national trend evaluations. Not very useful for local planners) However, this means a larger portion of the US population is no longer considered "rural". OK, OK, I know that this not really correct- there is only a loose correlation between urban/rural and metropolitan. Anyone who has driven through Bartow County would hardly define this Metro county as "urban". But what is really important about these MicroSAs is that it confirms what people living in them already know- these places are physically very different than a non-core based county.

This new hierarchy of places could have a rippling affect on how us Urban Designers think about the details of design, but on a national level. Just the idea of creating design guidelines for places, as they relate to the new OMB designations, sends chills up my arms! But then again, I'm a category loving, ex-librarian, organizational geek.

A rose by any other name... There will also be some name changes in the MetroSAs, putting the most populated area's name at the front. This will have dramatic economic development effects on declining areas, or even areas that are not growing as fast as their fellow neighbors in the MetroSAs. (Kinda like adding salt to a wound). The addition of names to a MetroSA will also add prestige to a place that didn't have the name recognition before. Scottsdale Arizona is one such place that is already using the new category to market itself.

There will be many more resounding policy implications, especially in the budgeting arena. Two examples given in the report are potential Medicare and Home Mortgage Loan implications. It will be very interesting to watch these changes in the future. I will also look forward to the 2010 Census result changes that will occur when they go to this new system.


Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Recent Media Clip (1)

Here is an item that I find interesting:

A recent Baltimore Sun Article highlights some potential housing policy windfalls from the Bush re-election including mortgage loan settlement reform, and a potential oversite agency for Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.

As a recent homebuyer, I can appreciate any practice reforms that will require loan agencies to stand by their "good faith estimates" and disclose more of the legal fees upfront. This seems to be a realistic update of some practice regulations that have not kept up with the introduction and continued growth of on-line mortgage companies.

The creation of an oversite agency for Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae strikes me as odd, though. Not that I disagree with the premise- these heavily subsidized mortgage brokers should fulfill their mission of expanding opportunities for home ownership and affordable rentals. And clearly the commitment of company resources to assist high income families with re-financing their homes does not support their founding charter. And I understand that the focus on the Congressionally chartered agencies by the Bush administration is in keeping with the Ownership Society that is the central tenant of his second administration.

However, what I find so interesting is that this man came into office with the promise to reduce "big government"; and yet his second term seems to be advocating the opposite. So what does this mean? Why would he be spending his political capital on policies that call for an expansion of the federal government? What is going on here?

Let me propose a different motivation. But a little background information is needed. According to the updated 1992 FHEFSSA act, The Mac and Mae are under loose jurisdiction of a department in HUD. So in effect, they already have an oversite agency- HUD. So why isn't this good enough? Not to bore you with history, it basically boils down to this: HUD is entrenched politically, has African-American leadership, and represents a majority of urban agendas.
Actually, those three above mentioned characterizations are just political perceptions. Well, except for the African-American leadership, which it has. But with that comes the heavy history and deep racism of having black leadership.

Nonetheless, the White House is proposing political agendas that will continue the history of severing HUD from it's mission by relocating the oversite of Mac and Mae into a new agency. This hobbling of HUD is not unprecedented, but is certainly suspicious. It's circumventing the open dialog of issues that we as a nation need to have- how will Mr. Bush's Ownership Society policies effect those that have been marginalized by society? And for city planners, how will the creation of a new federal oversite agency effect the redevelopment of inner cities and the inclusion of affordable housing in the suburbs?

Monday, November 22, 2004

Affordable housing

Maria Saporta did another nice job in the Horizon section of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution today. This column is about affordable housing and breaks it down on both an elementary level and intermediate level. I have some statistical questions that I sense she was wondering herself, but didn't have the time or the capital to invest in a little deeper research, especially about the percentage of "higher-income" housing being built in the city, and how she defines this. But overall, this was a nice article about the many complexities encompassed in the affordable housing problem.

There are some really nice quotables, too:

One reason affordable housing is gaining in acceptance is because it's no longer us vs. them. It affects all of us. When a teacher in our children's school can't afford to live in our community, it detracts from our quality of life. The same is true for our police officers and firefighters and nurses and service workers.
When our children are in college or starting their careers, but can't afford to live near us, it distances our family ties. And when our parents, living on fixed ncomes, have to leave the communities where they raised their children, it disrupts our sense of community.

What I respect about Saporta's writing is that she doesn't underestimate the intelligence of her readers, and isn't afraid of strategically placing statistics to support her case, and potentially loose some readers. What touched home for me in this article was not the magnitude of this housing problem. As a society, we are just now imagining what a housing crisis could be like, especially as the baby boomers age and the rein of oil comes to an end sometime in Generation Y's lifespan. Simply by putting her knowledge about the issue in written form has probably helped many people articulate what they are already experiencing. What I am now fascinated with is the task of creating a grass-roots dialog in communities all across the country about how each of us are going to take responsibility for our housing needs.

How do the suburbs allow for density bonuses when density is such a bad word out here? Developers are not even willing to take the time and risk of planning a smart growth development because they know they can just build the status quo, make their money, and not have to fight public perception. There is not the high land costs, squeezing developers and thereby giving the local authority leverage to exact affordable housing units with the promise of density bonuses. Instead, we have a dirth of residents even willing to listen to a dialog about affordable housing, politicians who heed the fear and demands in both their constituents and the development community, and a silent (but growing) portion who is left underserved by affordable housing. Oh- and us planners who must plan on the growth of this portion and struggle to establish some semblance of policy addressing the need before the sh*t hits the fan. OK, OK, that was just plain whining. Anyway...

But I do know that we need an open and continuing dialog about the need for affordable housing not just in the cities, but in the suburbs as well. This conversation should include not just the media, but also the local coffee houses, bridge games, political rallies, church meetings, and advocacy groups across the board. And what I am so impressed by Saporta is her ability to translate through the figures and statistics is that everyone is involved, everyone is responsible, and everyone will be affected. So listen up and start talking!!