Monthly Archives: July 2009

Community Outcomes in Transportation Policy

National transportation has received significant media coverage over the last month, primarily because of the debate over the authorization of a new surface transportation bill. Unfortunately, given the hot topic of the national health care legislation, the transportation bill did not come up for vote. In order to ensure that federal transportation funding would not run out in September, both the House and the Senate passed a $7 billion patch yesterday. Now, the federal transportation conversation will have to be put on hold for a month, while Congressional leaders are back in their respective districts in August.

While the debate over the federal transportation bill has been fraught with tension between the White House administration and Representative Jim Oberstar, Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, it now seems that there is some agreement from both sides about the vision for the future of national transportation. Rep. Oberstar has expressed his hope for a completely restructured policy that favors transit choices and reduces dependence on cars, and, at a recent conference of the National Association of Counties, US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood echoed a similar point, stating “for too long, federal policy has encouraged sprawl and congestion and pollution, rather than quality public transportation and smart, sustainable development.” Furthermore, in his remarks, Secretary LaHood astutely pointed out that decisions made at the county level have a direct effect on achieving livable communities and neighborhoods that are appealing to businesses and new residents. The recognition of this very important role of county government was the impetus for the creation of the TIGER grant program within the stimulus package. The program encourages local county governments to submit transportation outcomes and goals, which will then be matched with an appropriate infrastructure proposal. The result: direct relations between the department of transportation and local governments, with the hope of effectively meeting the transportation needs of each community.  Here’s to better planning initiatives.

Check out Secretary LaHood’s complete report from the National Association of Counties conference, and keep checking this blog for more news about sustainable development and smart growth.

Great Source for Transportation and Sustainability Information

Transportation for Pennsylvania, which I mentioned in a previous post,  launched a blog earlier this month that will serve as a platform for up to date information on the expected – transportation infrastructure in Pennsylvania – and also the unexpected – public health, social inequality, and climate change, among others.

The Transportation for Pennsylvania coalition is composed of organizations with varying interests, but a common goal: a more sustainable Pennsylvania. Few topics can solidly bond such a plethora of issues as well as transportation. For example, walkable communities often experience lower obesity rates and better public health, while the amount of cars on the road directly affects carbon emissions, a major climate concern. The Transportation for Pennsylvania blog highlights these connections, making it one of the most comprehensive forums for policy discussion.

Make sure to visit the T4PA blog and subscribe to their RSS feed to receive statewide transportation information.

Local Health Department Standards

As many of you know, the Lehigh Valley Board of Health will be developing a staffing plan and operating budget over the next few months, one that will effectively address public health concerns in both Lehigh and Northampton Counties. Currently, the cities of Allentown and Bethlehem have fully-staffed public health bureaus, which provide high-quality services. Unfortunately, health risks cut across city boundaries and jurisdictions, and many parts of the Valley are not receiving the same quality of services.  This reason is just one of many for why a regional health department is needed in the Lehigh Valley.

But some may wonder about the standards of a health department. The National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) has provided a guideline for public health departments in their Operational Definition Brochure:

  • Monitor Health Status and Understand Health Issues Facing the Community
  • Protect People from Health Problems and Health Hazards
  • Give People Information They Need to Make Healthy Choices
  • Engage the Community to Identify and Solve Health Problems
  • Develop Public Health Policies and Plans
  • Enforce Public Health Laws and Regulations
  • Help People Receive Health Services
  • Maintain a Competent Public Health Workforce
  • Evaluate and Improve Programs and Interventions
  • Contribute To and Apply the Evidence Base of Public Health

The above standards are directly related to NACCHO’s Ten Essential Public Services, an outline of the needs that every community should address.

When the regional health department was in its early planning stages, representatives from NACCHO came out to the Lehigh Valley to explain the role of a public health department. Moreover, the presentation included estimates for cost-savings, as well as the specific benefits of a regional public health department. *Check out the NACCHO PowerPoint here.*

Once the Board of Health determines a a budget and staffing plan, it will need the approval of the Pennsylvania Department of Health as well as the Lehigh Valley Health Commission, composed of county council members from both Lehigh and Northampton counties. I urge you to visit our Join Us page, and fill out the supporter form – making sure to check the “Health” box – to receive updates on the Lehigh Valley Public Health Department. Additionally, visit RenewLV’s Health Initiative page to read the Board of Health’s latest Meeting Minutes.

On the Lighter Side – Colbert Report Segment Discusses Library Crime and Municipal Boundaries

On Monday night, the Colbert Report ran a segment entitled “Nailed ‘Em – Library Crime.” The segment, available below, is about a young boy whose Nazareth Public Library card was confiscated when a newspaper article revealed that he was a resident of Tatamy Borough, which apparently doesn’t pay a per capita tax that would permit its residents to use the Nazareth library.

At “minute 3″ of the clip, Colbert shows a visual of Northampton County that highlights the overlapping and often confusing boundaries of school districts, municipalities, and mailing addresses in the Lehigh Valley, and PA generally.

Economist’s Perspective on High-Speed Rail

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The New York Times blog Economix is running a three-to-four part blog narrative by Edward Glaeser, professor of economics at Harvard University, that provides a cost-benefit analysis of the administration’s high-speed rail vision. Some of the costs that will be analyzed will include the initial construction and operating costs. Currently, Glaeser reports that the up-front costs are ranging from $22 million a mile to $132 million a mile. In his upcoming posts, more will be said about the operating costs, and the benefits for riders (and, perhaps, the benefits for a region served by high-speed transportation).

While it is important to calculate the start-up costs, another crucial part of the high-speed rail initiative is the investment return, a much more difficult figure to determine. Yes, a significant amount of money must be spent initially in order to establish rail service, but this spending is an investment, one that will reap benefits beyond finance.  The potential to increase economic development and vitality has been shown already, but, additionally, rail can revitalize communities and create vibrant neighborhoods. The result is a prosperous and thriving region.

Follow Professor Glaeser’s analysis all week at Economix, and, to receive more transportation updates, visit our Join Us page and fill out the form.

Funding Challenges for Pennsylvania’s Transportation Needs

Over the weekend, The Morning Call ran a story that examined the funding issues hovering over Pennsylvania’s transportation system. Since the Federal Highway Administration denied a request to add tolls to Interstate 80 in 2008, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission has been reviewing options for generating revenue, as mandated by Act 44, a transportation funding law approved by the state Legislature in 2007. Under Act 44, an estimated $930 million was supposed to be paid yearly to PennDOT by the Turnpike Commission. Unfortunately, given the Federal denial, this number will be whittled down to just $450 million. But the Commission is not giving up yet.

Latest reports state that turnpike officials are reapplying for federal approval after meeting with representatives from the state Department of Transportation and the Highway Administration. The application was denied approval because it did not ensure that the money collected on I-80 would be used to directly improve that highway – a necessary requirement for tolling. The Commission will address these issues before resubmitting the application for approval.

While a new application might pass approval, it will not be the last hurdle for turnpike officials. The tolling plan has been opposed by most residents living along I-80, which has pushed some members of the state legislature to rally against the proposal. Furthermore, the plan never gained the full approval of the Governor, who preferred a public-private partnership (P3) that would lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike – an option that was rejected by the state legislators, mainly on the House side. But the P3 plan is not dead yet. Recently, a bill was introduced into the State Senate that would authorize public-private partnerships to pay for road and bridge work. It is unclear what the future holds for this legislation, but it is important to point out that the only aspect of transportation under consideration here is bridge and road funding.

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The other side of the coin involves the funding shortfalls for public transportation, an issue that is rarely addressed. As shown in the above chart, the Turnpike payment in Act 44 allocates over 40% of the money to public transportation, and short of hiking fares, it remains to be seen how public transit will weather the financial shortfalls.

The Pennsylvania House Transportation Committee has put together an informative presentation about Act 44 on its website, and I invite you to flip through it. As always, keep checking this blog for more information about transportation on the national and state levels.

Save the Date: Lehigh Valley Housing Summit, Sept 24

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The Second Annual Lehigh Valley Housing Summit will take place on Thursday, September 24, from 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Holiday Inn in downtown Allentown.  The keynote speaker will be the Brookings Institution’s Anthony Downs, speaking on smart growth and affordable housing. Kamran Afshar, one of the leading observers of the economic and market trends shaping the Lehigh Valley, will be guest speaker.  The summit also will feature a panel of for-profit housing developers discussing the barriers to creating affordable housing.

Put together as a joint effort of Lehigh County, Northampton County, and Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley, the annual Housing Summit provides an in-depth look at the needs and opportunities related to affordable housing in the Lehigh Valley.  Be sure to mark September 24th on your calendar now.

Educational Tools for the Commuter

While recently exploring some of the related partner sites on the Transportation for Pennsylvania blog, I came across the Commuter Services of Pennsylvania, an organization working to reduce traffic congestion and helping commuters find alternatives to the daily lonely drive. Since, at times, it is difficult to grasp the actual cost of a daily commute, Commuter Services provides a tool on their website that calculates monthly and yearly commuting expenses, based on average miles driven daily and other key factors. The results can sometimes be (painfully) shocking.

Given my average round trip mileage of a measly 20 miles with a fuel-efficient car, the Commuter Calculator estimated that I spend over $350 a month on the drive to and from work. Of course, this cost includes insurance and depreciation, as well as the cost of maintenance, but these costs are often overlooked in the calculations – yet should be acknowledged. I suggest every reader who drives alone to work try out this tool.

The website has plenty of information on car-sharing programs, public transportation in Pennsylvania, and tips on walking to work (for those lucky few who live by work). It’s encouraging to have Commuter Services of Pennsylvania provide all of these educational tools for the state’s residents. The program encourages walkable communities in municipal planning decisions and promotes a variety of transportation choices. Overall, it serves as an invaluable resource for the residents of Pennsylvania.

Visit the T4PA blog to see a list of all the partners, and keep checking this blog for more information on smarter transportation options.

New Period of Transit

In April, the PBS program Blueprint America interviewed Representative Jim Oberstar (D-MN), Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, allowing him to discuss the new transportation plan that his committee was drafting at the time. Of course, the Surface Transportation Authorization Act 2009 was released early this summer, but these early comments indicate his vision for a new transportation plan in America.

Rep. Oberstar states that he sees this time as “the beginning of a new period of transit.” While he acknowledges that the entire Department of Transportation will need to be transformed in order to update the current national system, Oberstar remains optimistic about the transformation. One of the first steps on his agenda will be an overhaul of the current policy that disproportionally favors highway investments over a transit system upgrade. Currently, highway projects can receive close to 80% of funding from the federal government, with the state providing the remaining 20% of the full budget. In contrast, transit system projects tend to receive about 50% of federal money, giving the states less incentive to invest in public transportation.

How will fundamental change occur in the policies? For Rep. Oberstar, it is a matter of changing mind-sets. He states, “We have to now transform our thinking — to link land use and development to transportation. And not require transportation to go where the land use went.” It is important to connect issues related to smart growth to the transportation debate, because the two are interconnected. Transportaton for America and 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania are two organizations that have been advocates for this approach, and have been vocal in their support of a transportation agenda that focuses on land development issues. Oberstar is hopeful that the Surface Transportation Authorization Act will serve, in part, as a tool for viewing transportation in a new light.

For more updates on national transportation, visit Streetsblog.

And the Pennsylvania rail candidates are…

Of the 278 state applications submitted for the rail stimulus funding, Pennsylvania proposed four projects: 1) Keystone East Corridor Philadelphia-Harrisburg upgrades, 2) Keystone West Corridor Harrisburg-Pittsburgh expansion study, 3) Scranton to New York Passenger Rail restoration, and 4) the Pittsburgh High-Speed MagLev Rail.

The East Corridor is an established line, currently handling an average of fourteen round-trips between the two cities, and the stimulus funds would focus on station improvements and speed increases. The West Corridor, on the other hand, would need a significantly larger overhaul for passenger rail, since the current Norfolk Southern operated line mostly handles freight transport, with one passenger round-trip between Pittsburgh and New York. Funding for the Scranton project would implement the first phase of the rail line’s restoration, providing a connection to Hoboken, NJ. The service was shut down in the 1970s, but local residents rallied around bringing the line back into the area. Finally, construction of the Pittsburgh magnetic levitation rail would provide a high-speed transit option between the airport and downtown region.

These projects were submitted for the pre-application, and the next stage will involve discussions over the eligibility of the projects. All together, the cost to fund all of the projects will be $6.8 billion. Seeing as how the pool of available money equals $8 billion for all of the projects (proposed by all of the states), it is unlikely that the entirety of the Pennsylvania request will be be honored. It is unclear what sort of stipulations will be placed on funding eligibility at this time and which projects will take priority. What is known is that three funding tracks exist, as outlined in the administration’s Vision for High Speed Rail In America: so-called “shovel ready” projects, corridor programs, and planning. Since each Pennsylvania proposal can fall into a different category, it is likely that more than one of these projects will receive partial, if not full, funding.

For more information on transportation and rail, visit our Join Us page and become a supporter by clicking the box next to Transportation.

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