Monthly Archives: August 2010

Think Livability is Reserved for Big Cities? Well, Check This Out.

Transportation for America is highlighting small towns across America that have embraced livability and smarter design. The goal is to show that smart growth and sustainable urban planning are not restricted only for bigger cities. Smaller communities can implement better design to benefit all of their residents. The post puts forth that “while some of these communities face formidable threats – from job losses and shrinking populations to disappearing farmland and strained resources – their leaders have forged collaborations and created plans that are growing economies, benefiting people and protecting the land and lifestyles treasured by residents and non-residents alike.”

The communities highlighed thus far are: Huron, SD; Menominee Indian Reservation, WI; Cache Valley, UT; and Laconia, NH. Has your community embraced livability?

Local Media Urges Lawmakers to Take Action on Transportation

As the special session on Pennsylvania’s transportation funding crisis continues, it is seeming more and more unlikely that anything will happen in terms of passing meaningful legislation that will fill the gap. But local media outlets are not accepting this approach; just today the Express Times published its opinion on the matter, urging legislators to take action.

And rightfully so. Businesses depend on the state of our essential infrastructure. As we continue working on reviving the economy, we must take care of our transportation network to ensure that commerce continues successfully and workers are able to travel to their jobs. According to the article, “As difficult as this economy is for everyone, waiting until roads and bridges become unusable will be a heavy, heavy anchor on any recovery, creating giant replacement costs.”

But what solution should be implemented? The Times suggests that “[a]ll ideas should be on the table; a minimal raise in fuel taxes (four cents per gallon is Rendell’s suggestion) would at least get bridge and highway rehab work going on some level.” Surprisingly, the tax-averse Pennsylvania Chamber of Commerce has even gone on record as a supporter of a gas-tax raise. Maybe it’s time to start looking into this option…

Thoughts??

Northampton County Open Space Money Deadline Sept. 30

The Morning Call reported yesterday that Northampton County has set a deadline of September 30 for municipalities to submit grant requests through the county’s Open Space Initiative. Thirteen municipalities have been promised funding, but have not used all of their open space allocation — Allen Township, Chapman, East Bangor, Glendon, Hellertown, Lower Mount Bethel, Lower Nazareth, Lower Saucon, Nazareth, Roseto, Upper Nazareth, Williams and Wind Gap. The story reports:

The funds can go toward buying land for parks or developing existing ones.”If they don’t have an application in for a project this round, they will not be able to requisition that money,” Bentzoni said. “With the open space program in such dire straits, this is last call.”

The September deadlines for open space grants have set some localities scrambling to decide on projects, find matching funds and get their applications in. Townships have to come up with 50 percent in matching funds while the cities and boroughs need only a 25 percent match.

In the midst of a poor economy many municipalities have seen general revenue drop or stay flat and for them finding matching funds could pose a problem. But on the flip side, the Great Recession has meant land prices and bids from contractors are down also so communities should get more for their dollars, [county Councilman John] Cusick said.

Some communities dug into their allocation quickly. In March 2006, Bethlehem got a $1,098,734 grant to acquire and develop the South Bethlehem Greenway. Easton spent its $559,209 to buy land and construct the Bushkill Creek Corridor Trail starting with a grant in 2006.

Kudos to the cities in Northampton County that jumped early to use the funding. Hopefully, the other municipalities are able to submit the grant requests by the deadline.

Study: Less Sprawl to Prevent Flooding

A study conducted by Purdue University has shown, through computer modeling, that decreasing urban sprawl and increasing forests could be one of the more effective ways of preventing devastating floods. How so? UPI reports:

Several variables — including forest re-growth, urbanization and buffers between development and streams — were analyzed to estimate their impact on rivers and streams.

“Changes in the land’s surface feed back to runoff. Urban sprawl and impervious surfaces are the biggest culprits,” Bryan Pijanowski, an associate professor of forestry and natural resources, said. “If you’re able to control development, it is the most effective way to save our river ecosystem.”

Urban areas in the United States would double in 20 years at the current rate, Pijanowski said, and in the model predictions, doubling the urban area in the Muskegon River watershed increased runoff by 1 1/2 times.

The findings, published in the online version of the journal Environmental Management, suggest slowing the rate of urban sprawl would be the most effective way to reduce or control runoff.

Let’s see. No complicated barriers needed. Only good old urban planning. Chalk this up to another win for smart growth.

PA Administration Continues Stressing Need to Fully Fund Transportation

John Micek at Capitol Ideas has a good write-up about today’s Rendell presser, at which the PA governor once again underscored the need to fully fund the state’s transportation needs now. His solution for finding revenue? Micek writes:

As he has before, Rendell proposed a tax on the profits of oil companies. Levied at 8 percent, he said it would raise $576 million a year. The Democratic governor, who leaves office in January, also said he wants to impose inflation-adjusted fees on motor vehicle license and registration fees, raising about $434 million.

This year, Rendell and lawmakers must find a way to fill a $472 million transportation funding gap created when the federal government shot down the state’s application to convert Interstate 80 in northern Pennsylvania into a toll road.

A transportation study commission had previously said the state needs to raise $1.7 billion a year to meet its existing transportation and mass-transit funding needs. Rendell said today that figure had been adjusted upward to more than $3 billion a year.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like the governor’s plan will have much traction in this legislative session, as the looming elections have many legislators scared to pass any revenue-increasing measures (aka ‘taxes’). Given fear of raising taxes, what will happen to our transportation network this year? Predictions?

And since we’re on the topic of taxes, I want to remind all of you that RenewLV’s next brown-bag session on the topic of municipal finance in Pennsylania is this Friday, August 27, 12pm (noon) to 1:30 pm at the Sigal Museum in Easton. Gerry Cross of the Pennsylvania Economy League, Central Division, will give a brief overview of the state’s municipal finance system as well as a briefing on the various municipal consolidation bills that are being discussed currently in Harrisburg. Click here for more information.

Municipal Consolidation Bill Stirring Discussions in State Capitol

The municipal consolidation bill, introduced by State Representative Tom Caltagirone earlier this year, has been fueling discussions recently within Harrisburg about how to best address the problems faced by fiscally-strapped municipalities. In the last few days, several legislators have considered the bill’s merits and its timeliness. After all, many of the Commonwealth’s municipalities are taking drastic measures to cut costs and avoid tax hikes. Municipal finance experts have warned us about the looming pension crisis for some time now, and the cost for maintenance and basic upkeep of our cities, boroughs and townships keeps rising.

Rep. Caltagirone’s bill (House Bill 2431) “calls for eliminating city, township and borough governments, and rolling them all into a county-run hybrid,” WFMZ reports. But the bill certainly has its critics:

Municipalities have lined up to denounce the bill, saying it would eliminate identities and create a government the likes of a big corporation. “I think local government works,” said David Sanko, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Association Of Township Supervisors.

More than a dozen municipalities in Berks, and even more in surrounding counties have already adopted resolutions against House Bill 2431. “I think the larger the community becomes, the more difficult it is to stay in touch with your residents,” Sanko said, “just because of sheer volume.”

How should struggling municipalities deal with declining tax bases? What other solutions exist for this problem? Gerry Cross of the Pennsylvania Economy League, Central Division, will cover all of this and more in his informal talk on Municipal Finance at the upcoming RenewLV brown-bag session, held on Friday, August 27, 12pm (noon ) to 1:15. Come out to the Sigal Museum, new home of the Northampton County Historical & Genealogical Society [342 Northampton Street in Easton, map] and be a part of the discussion. For more information, visit our past blog post.

Abogo Measures True Costs of Transportation

I found this interesting online tool the other day, thanks to CEOs for Cities/Carol Coletta’s Twitter account (@ccoletta). Interesting not only on a personal, eye-opening level, but also on a policy-influencing level.

The tool is called Abogo and it calculates the average total transportation costs in your area. More often than not, if we own a vehicle, we don’t pay much attention to the true cost sof our transportation. Sure, we may keep track of what we spend on gas, but we often forget about the various maintenance costs that can quickly add up. And if our home is far away from not only our work, but also stores, doctors, recreational activities — well, the costs tend to rise due to the constant reliance on our cars.

How does Abogo do this? From their website:

We estimate total transportation costs for an average household from your region living in your neighborhood, including commuting, errands, and all the other trips around town. We count money spent on car ownership and use, as well as public transit use.  For CO2 emissions, we count car use only.

It’s still in beta and going through constant revisions, but, in the near-future, they “plan to introduce more personalization in the calculation that will give a better estimate for you.”

I plugged in my address and was told that average transportation costs in my neighborhood are $941 a month — the highest in the region. Understand that these are average household costs — these are not individual costs. Still, that number is steep. What are your average costs?

Next RenewLV Brown-Bag Session: Municipal Finance in PA, Fri. 8/27 in Easton

It is my pleasure to announce that the next Renew Lehigh Valley brown-bag session will be held on Friday, August 27th from 12pm (noon) to 1:15 at the Sigal Museum, new home of the Northampton County Historical & Genealogical Society [342 Northampton Street in Easton, map].

The topic for this session is Municipal Finance. Gerald Cross, Executive Director of the  Pennsylvania Economy League, Central Division, will be discussing Pennsylvania’s current system of municipal finance and the major structural challenges that this system poses for older core communities, especially cities and boroughs. As this was a central topic of focus at the recent Building One PA Summit in Lancaster, we will make sure to provide a report from that event at this brown-bag session.

The session is FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC. There will be NO FEE to enter the museum. It will be held in the 2nd Floor Conference Room at the museum. Upon checking in at the admissions desk, you will be directed upstairs. Metered street parking is available throughout Easton. A public parking garage is located on 27 South Third St. [map]

Bring a lunch (perhaps from one of the downtown dining establishments), come check out the Sigal Museum and join us for a lively discussion on the 27th. RenewLV will be recording this session and making the podcast available to listen on our website and on iTunes. Check out past brown-bag session recordings on RenewLV’s Multimedia page.

If you would like additional information, or have any questions about the event, feel free to contact me at bbujalska@renewlv.org or 484.893.1062.

Hope to see you on the 27th.

Leaders Discuss the Future of Infrastructure at PA Event

At yesterday’s American Infrastructure at a Crossroads event, held at Central Pennsylvania College, the discussion focused not only on the kind of infrastructure we typically think of — roads and bridges, rail, water/wastewater — but also on the slightly atypical — web infrastructure. It was all with an eye toward encouraging state and federal legislators to prioritize infrastructure spending. The panel was made up of experts from various fields, including engineering, labor, and environment. And — surprise, surprise — the Director of Google Pittburgh was there representing the web infrastructure perspective.

US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood delivered his message via satellite, as he had a meeting in Washington that day also on the topic of infrastructure.  Sec. LaHood stressed that the American public’s desire to see high-speed rail lines established across the nation will be fueling the administration’s agenda to bring rail to all major cities over the next decade. When the discussion turned to the establishement of regional passenger rail networks within Pennsylvania, Sec. LaHood stressed the public to keep contacting their legislators in order to encourage them to make passenger rail a top priority.

Though a majority of the discussion centered on transportation infrastructure, some mention was made on the importance of upgrading our nation’s water and wastewater infrastructure. Dick Gephardt, speaking on the panel, acknowledged that much of our water infrastructure had not been upgraded for decades and that the systems are reaching the end of, or are exceeding, their life expectancy. This is not new information to those that have been working on this issue or following it closely in the news. It is almost on a weekly basis now that we hear about a pipe bursting or about contamination of a local stream by wastewater overflow.

Overall, the mood was hopeful, with leaders and experts encouraging the audience to continue contacting state and federal legislators and telling them that infrastructure spending should be a priority. This is especially important in Pennsylvania, as we are looking at a significant gap in our transportation funding (as part of Act 44). Governor Rendell warned that the funding gap would have a crippling effect on the Commonwealth’s essential transportation network, and that the state’s economy depended on this network.

The only disappointment I took away from the event was the insufficient coverage that sustainable design received in the discussions. Livable communities were briefly mentioned by Sec. LaHood at the beginning, but there was little or no talk of walking or bicycling infrastructure throughout the entire session. As Matt Zieger poignantly stated on his Twitter, “It’s a simple equation…if people live more closely together, infrastructure costs are lower! (less miles of road/pipe/wire/fiber).”

Make sure to follow us on Twitter @renewlv to catch up on all of our coverage of yesterday’s event.

The Public Sector and Financing Transit-Oriented Development

A few months ago, a colleague — and friend to RenewLV — forwarded a great post from Streetsblog on a transit-oriented development case study from the Portland area. The story concerns the leadership of Metro (Portland’s regional metro government) in pushing for mixed-use, high-density development in a suburban area along Portland’s light-rail line. This was a development that, before Metro intervened, was slated for low-density retail amid a huge parking lot.

The major hurdle faced by Metro in pulling off this TOD project was arranging for financing. Lenders were slow to embrace the project, Streetsblog notes, because they were unfamiliar with the TOD concept and had little or no prior experience in financing similar developments.

Why do lenders balk at development that reduces car dependence? In a word, inertia. “The lending industry appears to be very conservative, if your definition of conservative is doing the same thing this year as you did five years ago,” said David Goldstein, the co-director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s energy program and an expert on environmental real estate financing. Because banks have no institutional memory of lending to transit-oriented development, they are reluctant to do so going forward.

In addition to doing some education of lenders as to the fact that TOD can work, Metro placed a major emphasis on public/private partnerships (or so-called P3s), a concept that’s getting a lot of play in the debate on funding transportation here in Pennsylvania. For example, Metro provided upfront incentives for developers, a move that reduced lenders’ risk while also showing lenders and developers that  Metro was committed to smart growth. Metro’s advocacy and financial support for this project — the Crossings at Gresham — resulted in an award-winning development (though, as Streetsblog notes, Metro continues to face the challenge of making lenders and developers comfortable with walkable, mixed-use projects).

In part, the case of the Crossings shows how public-sector support can foster private-sector involvement in walkable development. In addressing the need to adequately — and appropriately — fund transportation, Pennsylvania should look at how state and local policies can create these types of joint-financing arrangements. Too often here in Pennsylvania, the term “P3″ is used rather narrowly, to refer to privatization or leasing of toll roads. As our communities look at ways to support transportation projects, especially innovative approaches to linking transit and walkable development, it will be critical to consider the full range of ways that public-sector leadership can encourage innovative, forward-thinking projects.

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