Monthly Archives: September 2010

Hello Sprawl Crawl (Care of CEOs for Cities)

CEOs for Cities put out report findings that suggest that sprawl is the direct cause of the long amount of time that we spend in our cars. Read their report, Driven Apart.

I think I see the Lehigh Valley included in that circle surrounding the greater Philadelphia region.

LA’s Regional Approach to Transportation Funding is Winning Fans

Blueprint America reports on Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s plan to pay for 30 years worth of infrastructure and transportation projects in 10 years. The Mayor is doing this through a half-cent increase of the sales tax that was passed by a two-thirds majority in the greater Los Angeles area. How did Mayor Villaraigosa convince the public to vote in favor of this? Well, by making it a regional, county-wide proposal –

The vote showed that Angelenos, tired of bottlenecks, recognize the need for transportation improvements and are willing to tax themselves for transit, not roads, to get there – no small feat in the region known as the car capital of the world.

Among the dozen projects that would be on the fast track include light rail extensions to Los Angeles International Airport; a long-envisioned subway extension to the city’s Westside providing a high-capacity, high-speed alternative for the 300,000 people who travel to the L.A.’s “second downtown” every day from throughout the county; the Crenshaw Corridor light rail line; a Metro Green Line extension in the South Bay; an Eastside extension of the Metro Gold Line from East Los Angeles; and transit projects serving the San Gabriel and San Fernando Valley.

Seems like LA is making strides in improving its public transportation system. Who knew it would come to this? Maybe the Lehigh Valley is next. Perhaps a half-cent sales tax increase for new regional public transit projects is the key.

Lehigh Valley Vying for PCTI Funds Once More

PennDOT’s Pennsylvania Community Transportation Initiative is in full swing once again, though the pot of money is much smaller this time around. As some of you may recall (especially if you attended RenewLV’s brown-bag session last year on the topic), PCTI is the effort to fund community-oriented transportation projects throughout the Commonwealth. PCTI is part of PennDOT’s Smart Transportation campaign that aims to link land-use planning with innovative and sustainable transportation solutions. Last year, four Lehigh Valley communities received funding: Allentown, Bethlehem, Easton, and Hellertown (listen to RenewLV’s podcast of the Community and Transportation brown-bag session and see the Governor’s press release for more information).

This year, 16 Lehigh Valley applications were submitted, reports the Express-Times. Easton is once again applying, this time with the project of updating Centre Square. Sarah Cassi writes:

Mayor Sal Panto Jr. said the beautification project will include new signs, traffic signals and handicap-accessible sidewalk ramps. It will continue work slated for South Third Street, Panto said.

Panto said the goal is to make traffic “smoother and calmer,” according to information from the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission revealed at its meeting Monday in Hanover Township, Lehigh County.

The city has applied for a $1.5 million grant from the Pennsylvania Community Transportation Initiative program to help with the work.

The PCTI fund totals only $24 million this time around, less than half of what it was last time around ($60 million). Other local projects that are vying for money are Allentown’s Hamilton Street project and the continued work on the Bethlehem Greenway (this time connecting it to Hellertown).

Lehigh Valley residents: cross your fingers that we see a large chunk of that money come our way. Given our success last time around, I have good feelings for this year.

Once again, listen to our Community and Transportation podcast on this topic. It includes comments from last year’s project representatives, as well as an intro to Smart Transportation by PennDOT spokesman Ron Young.

Municipal Bankruptcy Filings a Murky Prospect

With how the recession seems to affect every aspect of life, it seems almost trite to talk about economic stresses. But hey, one more time can’t hurt.

The WSJ published an article yesterday on the dilemmas faced by municipalities when considering bankruptcy. While deciding whether or not to file is already a complicated process for individuals or businesses, for local governments the outcome is almost entirely unknown. David Wessel writes:

There is no obvious mechanism for state and local governments to resolve the coming collision between competing claims of taxpayers, retirees (both current and future) and bondholders.

A bit of history: Amid collapsing municipal finances in the Depression—in Detroit, 36% of the taxes were delinquent in 1932 and 76% of tax revenue that arrived went to debt service—Congress allowed cities and towns, municipal utilities and the like (though not states) to go into bankruptcy.

Several Supreme Court decisions and congressional amendments later, the threshold for a municipal filing is much higher than for companies, judges’ role more limited and the process largely untested. Bridgeport, Conn., was blocked from filing under Chapter 9 in 1991 because a federal court said it wasn’t truly “insolvent,” a test companies don’t have to meet.

The author concedes that there are few instances of local governments filing for bankruptcy, and that most experts do not expect to see an increase. But this does raise the question of what options cash-strapped local governments have to effectively manage their debt while still continuing to provide services to their constituents.

Certainly bankruptcy isn’t a preferable option, but when a municipality has to pay off its debt burden for, say, a construction project that is years behind schedule and far over budget, what services can it afford to cut? How can it increase revenue without placing a massive tax burden on residents? Regional consolidation would be one step to help make local governments more financially secure and cut their expenditures.

Transit Begets Transit

Or so is the hope of some in Charlotte, NC. Apparently, Charlotte’s light-rail network has been so effective at bringing on a development boom that some are now worried that the skyrocketing property prices are discouraging small businesses from opening up. Streetsblog covers the story today, picking up on a posting on the Overhead Wire. Here’s an excerpt:

You want to know why that property becomes so valuable? Because it is scarce! Contrary to popular belief, there is not enough supply of urban housing to meet the demand, so the speculators come in and jack up the prices…So if regions are feeling for local businesses and the skyrocket land values around transit, the escape valve that creates greater opportunities in places that want to change is to build greater transit networks. More escape valves means greater distribution of different development and less pressure and speculation.

This makes me wonder how the housing market is doing in Charlotte right now. Anyone have any good resources/links on this?

The Link Between Poverty and Urban Policy

Willy Staley of Next American City comments on (Slate writer) Timothy Noah’s articles on the topic of income inequality in America, specifically focusing on the the connection between income patterns and urban policy throughout the last century. This connection was discussed at the Building One PA summit in Lancaster and was integral to Myron Orfield’s framework of a policy agenda.

Staley writes:

When people think of redistributive wealth policies in the Postwar years, they likely think of Great Society programs, but it was actually the subsidization of suburbia that coincided with the Great Compression of the 50’s and 60’s, and redistributed wealth more effectively, actually helping whole classes of people attain prosperity considered previously unattainable.

Though his post has many controversial points, I can’t help but wholeheartedly agree with many of his claims. He states:

Look to where union labor and manufacturing used to exist: Detroit, Youngstown, Cleveland, etc. These cities, instead of tearing down old buildings to put up condominiums, are tearing down old buildings to prevent blight, and to relieve city services of their duties in the face of a constantly declining tax base. Is Detroit’s abandonment the inverse of Williamsburg’s gentrification?

Staley correctly points out that, at its core, this problem is structural. This is an issue that is dependent on the policies that are in place that are either encouraging disinvestment in our older communities or providing incentives for rebuilding and renewing.

I encourage you to read the full article and post your comments below.

What Is Your Vision for Allentown’s Hamilton Street?

As part of the new Main Street Program for Allentown’s Hamilton District — which hired its first manager this past spring — an expert national design team will be in town next week to help develop a vision for the Hamilton Street area and the broader downtown. Assembled by the American Institute of Architects (AIA), this Sustainable Design Assessment Team will meet with local officials and the public, and provide recommendations across a variety of planning topics.

This design team’s visit will include two evening sessions intended to foster public participation. A public input session will be held the evening of Monday, September 27, from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. at Allentown BrewWorks, 3rd Floor. The design team will present its findings — based on a three-day visit — on Wednesday, September 29, from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. at the Baum School of Art.

Additional details can be found on this program flier or on the City’s website. For more information, contact Lauren Giguere, Allentown’s Deputy Director of Community & Economic Development, at 610-439-5965 or giguere@allentowncity.org.

Local Opinions on Marcellus Shale

Did you get a chance to open the Opinion section of the Morning Call today? If so, then you know that it was dominated by thoughts on the drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale and other areas of the Delaware River and Lehigh River watersheds.

On the Sounding Board, today’s question was: “Should regulations come down on the side of “gas rush” economic progress, or should the moratorium be continued until the state has new laws and regulations to make drilling environmentally sound?” Surprisingly, all of the responses came down on the side of waiting longer to draft better regulations — but that’s where the agreements ended. Read the full answers at the Morning Call online.

The issue of Marcellus Shale is sure to be brought up over the next year and during the upcoming election cycle. What are your thoughts on this?

Important: Transportation Funding Plan Introduced in PA Legislature — Needs Support

A crucial piece of legislation was introduced in the PA legislature yesterday. Special Session House Bill 8 is a comprehensive transportation funding plan that, if passed, would raise $1.3 billion for transportation in Pennsylvania. I was on a conference call today led by House Appropriations Chairman Dwight Evans.

HB8 has three main components:

1.       8 key reforms aimed at public transit agencies
2.       P3 language, specifically on the make-up of the P3 Board that I touched on in yesterday’s post
3.       Revenue proposal with three parts:

  • An 8 percent tax on the gross profits of oil companies in lieu of the Corporate Net Income Tax
  • A 52 mill (or 6.5 cents) per gallon increase in the Oil Company Franchise Tax (paid at the wholesale level
  • An increase in fees, some of which haven’t been raised since 1977.

During the call, Chairman Evans stressed that the need to take action is now, as the first few months of 2011 will be a transition time for the General Assembly (with new elected officials just being sworn into office). Rep. Evans also stated that prompt action is needed since the PennDOT bidding process takes approximately 5 months and not moving on a funding package would mean that 38,000 jobs could be lost and the risk to public safety would continue increasing.

Rep. Evans is planning to have the bill come out of committee by the end of the month and have it on the House floor by the start of October. Given the urgency of this issue, we are urging all advocates and supporters to contact their PA House Representatives and let them know that you support Special Session House Bil 8.

For additional background on this bill, I am attaching:

Need to know how to contact your House Rep? Our contact sheet should help you out with that: Contact Info for Lehigh Valley Legislators.

Update on Transportation Proposals and Funding in PA

While things keep moving along on federal transportation legislation (though, admittedly, more theoretically than actually), several transportation funding bills are currently under construction in the Pennsylvania House. The bills all aim at creating funding sources for transportation projects and mass transit and are expected to be unveiled soon by the House Transportation Committee chairmen, Rep. Joe Markosek (D-Allegheny) and Rick Geist (R-Blair).

So what should we expect? One of the bills expected to be introduced increases the cap on the oil franchise tax. Other proposals call for fee increases for driver licenses, vehicle registrations and inspection stickers. And another proposal would allow for public-private partnerships (P3s) in state transportation projects. I received an early draft of this proposal last week and gave it a quick read-through. The legislation would allow for the establishment of a Public-Private Transportation Partnership Board which would review and approve proposed P3 projects. Though I wasn’t able to read this proposal thoroughly, I did notice that there was a section dedicated solely to environmental impacts. It’s favorable to see such language in the bill, though, of course, it remains to be seen what the real impact will be should this legislation pass. (Also, some of my colleagues have told me that they aren’t overly impressed with the bill and I agree with them — but give it a read to form your own opinion: PA P3 Proposal 2010)

On that note, it’s well known now that several members of the General Assembly do not have high hopes for a transportation bill passing this year. Senate Transportation Committee Chairman John Rafferty (R-Montgomery) stated that a comprehensive transportation funding package would be approved next year at the earliest. But will it be too late by then? Thoughts?

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