Monthly Archives: October 2010

NJ: Only Car Drivers Benefit?

The Tri-State Transportation Campaign makes a very interesting observation today in light of the cancellation of the ARC Tunnel project. Though Governor Christie killed the tunnel project because of high costs, for some reason, that same logic just doesn’t seem to apply to road widening. Kate Slevin writes:

But a quick look at the rising costs of the Parkway and Turnpike expansion projects suggests his interest in saving money only applies to transit projects. As MTR wrote earlier this year, these widening projects steadily increased in cost even before ground was broken on them during the Corzine administration.

A few weeks before canceling the ARC Tunnel, Christie administration officials borrowed an additional $2 billion to continue paying for the road widenings. Only time will tell what their eventual cost will be.

I hope some of you gasped a bit at reading that last part. Yes, borrowed $2 billion.

I guess spending is alright as long as it only benefits car drivers. Sorry to say this, Gov. Christie, but, as the popular phrase says, “widening roads to deal with congestion is like loosening one’s belt to cure obesity.”

Transportation Sec. LaHood on Livability

The Grist has an excellent piece on US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. The article describes the doubt that many sustainable transportation advocates had regarding the ability of Sec. LaHood to be a partner in pushing for smarter transportation networks. Well, not only has LaHood proven himself, he has exceeded any expectations one could have for a US Transportation Secretary. Sarah Goodyear writes:

He’s been an outspoken and articulate proponent of high-speed rail. He’s mounted an aggressive campaign against distracted driving. He’s jumped up on a table to address the National Bike Summit, saying that, “I really came here just to say thank you to all of you for hanging in there with us. You all have made a big difference.”And perhaps most significantly, he has emerged as a defender of the “livable communities” concept, advocating for the construction of a transportation infrastructure that would make walking, biking, and modern public transit available — and attractive — options for every American.

The article features a great interview with Sec. LaHood that includes his thoughts on the meaning of ‘livability.’ I suggest checking it out.

For more on the fight for more sustainable transportation in the Lehigh Valley, visit RenewLV’s Sustainable Transportation Initiative page.

Nutrient Abatement Credits

ARC’s dead. Moving on.

So here’s a cool thing. PA farmers have generated a pretty solid amount of nutrient abatement credits by taking means to combat different sources of non-point pollution. These steps are being taken to help prevent nutrient pollution in watersheds, primarily the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

David Thompson of the Sun Gazette writes:

Farmers install riparian forest buffers to filter out nutrients before they enter the waterway, fencing to keep livestock out of streams, no-till planting and cover crops to reduce soil erosion and other conservation practices to generate the credits.

The credits are generated by farmers through abatement methods like those discussed above, and then sold to industries that tend to add nutrients to water, like wastewater treatment facilities.

There are some regulations in place to help guide what does and doesn’t qualify for an abatement credit, though it’s still worth wondering how many pounds of nutrients have actually been abated, and how effective the credit trading scheme has been across different types of pollutants.

Provided the abatement program is properly monitored and regulated, it seems more or less like a win-win. Farmers get money for continued abatement, industry is encouraged to get in line in a way that is not overly economically damaging to them.

The individual counties earn some revenue from the auction of excess credits, but since this revenue is supposed to be directed towards “mak[ing] multiple trips to each farm, creat[ing] detailed spread sheets that calculate the credits, submit[ting] documentation to the DEP and respond[ing] to any questions the agency may have” to certify credits, it doesn’t sound likely that the counties make out with much of a net revenue gain.

I just hope that the program is adaquately enforced, and the threshhold for nutrient emissions is set low enough that treatment plants have an economic incentive to participate in the trading scheme, rather than emit anyway and pay any fines that would occur.

Tremendous Need to Update Our Water Infrastructure

Bob Herbert in the New York Times laments about the blissful ignorance we have exercised in regard to our water infrastructure. We’ve all read the stories (sadly, many of them Lehigh Valley stories) about pipes bursting, stormwater overflows, and many, many other issues (most notably concerning drinking water contamination). Herbert writes:

There is, of course, no reason for this to be the case. If this were a first-class society we would rebuild our water systems to the point where they would be the envy of the world, and that would bolster the economy in the bargain. But that would take maturity and vision and effort and sacrifice, all of which are in dismayingly short supply right now.

We can’t even build a railroad tunnel beneath the Hudson River from New Jersey to New York.

Oooh, nice jab there, Bob. He, of course, is referring to the now-cancelled ARC project in New Jersey.

Where is the political will for infrastructure improvements? And how can the public take a greater interest in our infrastructure — especially our water infrastructure?

To learn more about RenewLV’s work on water resource management, visit our Regional Water Initiative page.

New Allentown Park Now Open

Good news, everyone (but especially Lehigh Valley kids) — Allentown’s Cedar Creek Park playground is now open! Deemed as a destination playground, the Morning Call writes:

The 19,000-square-foot site is one of the largest, if not the largest, handicap-accessible playground in the region. It features equipment for all children and has a rubberized floor that helps soften trips and falls as well as accommodate wheelchairs.

“This is a great day for Allentown,” said Greg Weitzel, head of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. “We built this playground so all of our youth can be challenged and play outdoors in a safe and comfortable atmosphere.”

This is an exciting development and a great new place to visit in the region!

More Walkable & Livable ‘Edge Cities’

The case for walkability seems to be easy to make — more walkable neighborhoods lead to less time spent in cars and that’s rarely something that is cause for complaints. The Wall Street Journal covers the story of how ‘edge cities’ — which, confusingly, they deem as part of suburbia — are turning their outdated strip malls and abandoned office parks into more walkable communities, with green space or mixed use developments.

For WSJ, Richard Florida writes:

Walkable suburbs are some of America’s best places to live, and they provide their sprawling, spread-out siblings with a model for renewal. Relatively dense commercial districts, with shops, restaurants and movie theaters, as well as a wide variety of housing types, have always been a feature of the older suburbs that grew up along the streetcar lines of big metro areas.

Some of the edge cities mentioned by Florida include Hoboken, NJ and Brookline, MA, two places that I am very familiar with (and that I would never consider to be suburbs). What is notable about both of these is their tremendous push to disincentivize driving into the neighborhoods. I almost always avoid driving into Hoboken, as the public transportation is so excellent and parking (at least low-cost parking) is scarce.

While we presumably do not have any edge cities here in the Lehigh Valley (not in the sense described in the WSJ story), I think that many of these projects could pop up in Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton — and the residents of the Valley would wholly embrace a more walkable environment.

To learn about RenewLV’s Sustainable Transportation Initiative, visit our webpage.

ARC decision deferred

The results are in from the working group that was assembled in response to Governor Christie’s initial decision to scrap the ARC Tunnel project — and the answer is “wait”, writes Karen Rouse of NorthJersey.com.

Governor Christie has apparently decided to take the weekend to think about which way to go with the ARC tunnel. Admittedly, a weekend isn’t exactly a long time, especially in light how long the ARC will take to complete, but it still adds to the suspense. Gov. Christie taking the weekend to think over the project does suggest he might not have made up his mind already, though the question of whether or not he has been purposefully inflating the cost overruns for the ARC doesn’t inspire much confidence.

Regardless, however, spending on public transit is still a smart bet, even (or maybe especially) in tough economic times. For instance, the American Public Transit Association has researched the impact of spending on transit and found over and over again that, for each billion spent roughly 36,000 jobs are made for a year. These jobs grow out of spending construct the infrastructure as well as operating it, and job growth may even occur in sectors that aren’t directly benefitting from the government spending.

New Environmental Education Center Coming to Lehigh Valley

Saucon Valley School District will soon be home to a new environmental education center. Well, not soon-soon, but plans are underway by the Saucon Valley Foundation for Education Innovation. The Express Times reports:

The nonprofit foundation, organized by parents, community and business leaders, plans to hire the LandConcepts Group to create a $8,950 master plan for the center along the creek adjacent to Polk Valley Road.

Initial lower-cost ideas being floated for the site include student-built birdhouses, tree identification markers, a garden or a weather station with a rain gauge that could be used in the school.

Exciting project and a great new addition to the Lehigh Valley.

Planning in Maryland: A Forerunner in Smart Growth

Partly because it is our neighbor to the south, partly because it is often held up as a national model, Maryland is often viewed by planners, public officials, and advocates in Pennsylvania as an example of forward-thinking state policy on smart growth. In this blog post, we look at what Pennsylvania can learn from the successes—and even the shortcomings—of the Maryland model.

Former Maryland Gov Parris Glendening’s crusade for smart growth culminated with the Smart Growth and Neighborhood Conservation Act in 1997. The crown jewel of this legislation was the Smart Growth Priority Funding Areas Act, which was greeted with critical acclaim as a breakthrough in state led development strategy. So the question is, in a state that had previously demonstrated it was adamantly opposed to land use reform (not to mention growth in general), how did Parris do it?

Carrots, not sticks
Unlike Oregon’s Urban Growth Boundaries which limit sprawl with strict regulations on where one can build and where one can not, Priority Funding Areas (PFA’s), provide state funded incentives (loans, tax credits, etc.) to encourage growth within older developed areas with pre-existing infrastructure. The previous attempts at land use reform under Glendening’s predecessor had been shot down with strong opposition by the local (county and municipal) governments in response to their perceived diminished authority.

How Law becomes Policy
Recent analysis has demonstrated the difficulty translating this significant legislation into statewide practice. A 2009 University of Maryland study on PFA’s highlights this failure: “PFA’s are not required in elements in local comprehensive plans, and in some existing comprehensive plans, PFA’s are not even mentioned.” While the tools had been put in place by the state, it did not mean everyone instantly understood how to use them. Therefore, the state has recently implemented a required a smart growth heavy education program for all members of local planning commissions/boards.

A significant, but incomplete victory
Maryland’s Smart Growth is touted as one of the nation’s “gold standards” of regional planning initiatives. However it has so far remained inadequate in completing the goals envisioned by Glendening over ten years ago. As with most examples of innovative legislation, politics interfered. The passage of the acts required compromise, limiting the role of the state to solely an advisor as well as loosening the criteria determining eligible PFAs. Finally, much of the development in Maryland is privately funded and therefore goes on outside the boundaries unabated.

Lessons for the Valley

Help from Above: Maryland’s Smart Growth Initiative rises and falls with the office of the Governor. This is clearly evidenced by the relative successes under Glendening and current governor Martin O’Malley, and the stagnation under the state’s former governor Robert Ehrlich.

Incentive over regulation: Pennsylvania municipalities don’t like being told what to do any more than do those in Maryland. The incentive approach was innovative in the way that it proposed to motivate municipalities to comply with a comprehensive plan without infringing upon their traditional powers.

Maryland’s experience brings to light why one of the main tenets of RenewLV’s mission is an emphasis on community and policymaker education. Despite headway made by Glendening’s governor’s office, the success of the smart growth initiative in Maryland and elsewhere is contingent upon the understanding and cooperation of role players in the local governments and communities.

In the Lehigh Valley, you can become part of the success by becoming more educated on these issues locally. The best way to do this is by visiting RenewLV’s website www.renewlv.org and to sign up for our e-mail list at our Join Us page.

SteelStacks Project Receives Major National Grant

The SteelStacks project is a step closer to reaching its goal for its capital campaign as it just received a prestigious grant from the national Kresge Foundation. But the grant comes with one catch: the funding must be matched.

The Morning Call reports:

The Kresge Challenge Grant is an “all-or-nothing” challenge that gives ArtsQuest the $900,000 so long as it raises the other $900,000 from private donors by Dec. 31.

“This historic award is a national endorsement of ArtsQuest and its work to revitalize and stimulate communities with arts, culture and educational experiences,” said Diane Dalto, chair of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.

“Imagine coming up with $26 million in this economy,” ArtsQuest President Jeff Parks said in a prepared statement thanking the foundation for the grant. “It’s nothing short of miraculous.”

While Jeff Parks considers it close to a miracle, for me, it’s fairly clear why this project has had so much success in raising the needed funds — it’s going to further reinvigorate the entire Lehigh Valley community (new music venues, new gathering place) as well as effectively redevelop a brownfield site. Can’t wait to read more about this success story.

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