Monthly Archives: November 2010

What Are We Fighting For? #MuniCon

The New York Times published an excellent article (New Jersey’s Tiniest Towns Fight Push to Merge) on the push for municipal consolidation, particularly in New Jersey, but more generally, a push that is catching on nation-wide. In New Jersey, former Governor Jon Corzine signed a law in 2007 that would allow residents of towns to petition in order to start the consolidation process for their municipality. But almost no towns have consolidated since the bill passed — and the small town of Teterboro is now fighting against this.

Richard Pérez-Peña reports:

At 1.1 square miles, this town is smaller than Central Park — smaller even than Teterboro Airport, which spills past its borders. It has no schools, no police or fire department, far more aircraft than residents, and a bone to pick with the Census Bureau.The bureau estimates Teterboro is home to 17 people, making it the smallest municipality in New Jersey. But locals say the true population is at least 50, maybe 60.

Either way, many people wonder why it is a town at all, and a bill before the State Legislature would abolish Teterboro and split the pieces among its neighbors. That bill has stalled, but the idea is not likely to go away. And many other places across the state are ripe for the same treatment.

The town’s manager Paul Busch — who, by the way, earns a salary of $130,000/year — states that claims about savings from consolidation are unsubstantiated. But it’s a little hard to figure out how Mr. Busch can make that statement without a comprehensive long-term study that examines the costs and benefits of consolidating municipalities.

All in all, the pushback on consolidation — at least in New Jersey (but who are we kidding? The pushback is strong everywhere) — seems to be mostly political. As the Times reports, “The idea of combining entities often meets fierce resistance: it can cost local officials their jobs or political power, and many residents see it as a loss of autonomy or identity.”

So what are your thoughts on municipal consolidation? Do we really need these little fiefdoms? What are we fighting for? And with a conservative estimate of 60 people in the town of Teterboro, is each resident paying over $2,000 for just Mr. Busch’s salary (assuming each of those 60 people is a taxpayer — which I doubt)?

National TOD Conference Highlights Importance of New Public- and Private-Sector Roles

Thanks to a very generous sponsorship provided by the conference organizers, last month I had the opportunity to travel to Portland, Oregon, to attend the 10th edition of Rail-Volution, a national conference that concerns (naturally) rail transportation, but is really about how transit and transportation are connected to the goals of creating vibrant, high-quality communities and regions.

With about 1,200 attendees, as well as dozens of workshops, Rail-Volution was an ideal way to learn about how communities across the United States and elsewhere are using transit to foster economic development as well as to create strong communities and increase mobility and choice. Workshops covered a diverse set of topics. Here’s a very small sample of the types of sessions offered during the four-day conference: “Private Investment in Transit-Oriented Development (TOD): A Lender’s Perspective”; “Building Community Support for TOD”; “Weaving Transit into Existing Communities”; “New Directions in Public-Private Partnerships,” and “Getting the Most Out of Station Area Planning.”

Also, Rail-Volution featured various “mobile workshops,” where attendees could tour areas of Portland that showcased the city’s transit system as well as its many, many transit-oriented neighborhoods. (I had a chance to tour a few of Portland’s “20-Minute Neighborhoods. These are areas designed to provide residents with access to all their daily services and amenities — including transit hubs — within a 20-minute walk, or about a one-quarter to one-half-mile radius.”)

The role of federal policy in promoting TOD and walkable, mixed-used communities was a common theme at the conference. One of the best plenary sessions featured senior-level staff from each of three federal agencies (HUD, EPA and DOT) that are participating in the Sustainable Communities Partnership, discussing the progress (and challenges) in getting their agencies to align their funding priorities with an eye toward advancing livable communities and regional equity.

Rail-Volution 2010 happened to take place about a week after HUD had announced the winners of $100 million in major regional planning grants (part of the Sustainable Communities Partnership).  Additionally, another round of major federal grants — the “TIGER II” grants, about $600 million in funding for 75 innovative transportation projects — were announced from D.C. during the course of the conference.  Needless to say, there was a lot of buzz around both these grant programs, and the conference provided a great setting in which to informally meet some of these awardees and talk one-on-one about their work and their approach to securing federal funding.

Another area of federal policy that figured heavily in the conference was New Starts, the Federal Transit Administration’s primary program for funding new and expanded transit systems. New Starts was a topic of much discussion (and a few different conference sessions), not only because the program is “oversubscribed” (i.e., too many applicant systems chasing far too few dollars) but also because USDOT is working to make community-building benefits of transit more of a factor in how applicants are scored. This is a significant departure from prior policy (enacted under President Bush in 2005), which had elevated cost-effectiveness above all other scoring criteria for New Starts applicants.

While the conference covered public financing for transit and TOD in-depth, the focus of the workshops and other sessions were clear on one point: In an era of constrained public budgets, states and regions are going to need to focus on funding new transit projects through mechanisms that combine public and private financing. In Pennsylvania in recent years, the term “public/private partnership” (or “P3”) has typically been taken to mean leasing the turnpike to a private operator, but regions and states represented at Rail-Volution described a variety of creative ways that government could work with the private sector to finance transit projects that foster mixed-use, mixed-income developments. As one speaker noted, “Transit is always going to involve some type of public subsidy. But public funding can never be the whole story.” Another speaker identified no less than 25 different mechanisms by which private-sector involvement could be integrated into funding transit and TOD.

Everyone knows that planning and implementing  transit projects and systems is a long-term play. But the clear (and pervasive) message from Rail-Volution was the importance of looking at what’s possible to get started on right now in your region. For example, several speakers noted the value of beginning the process of station-area planning early, even before the actual transit infrastructure (such as rail lines) is in under development. This points to the importance of work already underway in Lehigh Valley cities to channel development into central business districts and foster commercial/entertainment hubs and a mix of pedestrian uses. Similarly, LANTA is beginning to look at bus rapid transit (BRT), which can itself foster TOD while also setting the stage for higher modes of transit (such as rail) in the future.

The key is using success in these near-term opportunities to build momentum toward a long-range vision not just for transit-oriented development, but for what we want our communities to look like 5, 10 and 20 years from now.

The Importance of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities

DCStreetsBlog did an interview series(Part 1, part 2) with Maria Zimmerman the Deputy Director for Sustainable Communities at the department of Housing and Urban Development, and Brian Sullivan from the Office of Public Affairs. The series highlights not only the importance and reasoning behind the three agencies’ partnership, but also the challenges of working together. It’s a really informative series. Here’s a few choice sections, mostly on the technical issues the agencies have had to overcome:

Maria Zimmerman: In terms of messaging, we have always felt there is a strong economic need for investing more smartly, leveraging our resources. Federal coordination is just cost effectiveness.

That message is one we can be stronger on. We’ve talked about some of the environmental and quality-of-life reasons for sustainability – we can do a better job of explaining what are the costs of not investing this way and what are the savings if we do. It’s really about trying to invest more wisely.

: To set up the process to review the grants, we all had these amazing firewalls of our internet systems to prevent hacking, and literally just getting between the firewalls was an unbelievable headache. That involved countless calls, and countless IT people. And yeah, we have different budgeting codes from OMB and from Congress, so coordinating can be quite a bit of effort.

Sullivan: We didn’t even have their phone number a year ago.

MZ: For instance, for HUD CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) money, we have a preference for local hiring. And our funds can be used as a match for DOT funds, but DOT has provisions against local hiring – you have to do a competitive bid. So if you have a project and you’re trying to bring together DOT and CDBG money, you either have to create a strange artificial wall, or what most folks do is say, we’re not going to pool that money – it’s too hard. That would require a Congressional fix.

There are real improvements in quality of life to be gained from the partnership.  A concerted government effort towards achieving livability and sustainability is a pretty big step in the bureaucracy, and it’s really encouraging to see what steps the organizations are taking agency-wide in their pursuit of livable communities. What really interests me, though, is how these agencies have to work together to begin to work together — overcoming competing policy goals and regulations, making their technology compatible, and even something as simple as talking to each other. It’s a way for the agencies to reduce duplication of effort, standardize the technologies they use and achieve something close to economies of scales in their policies.

Better Prevention as Better Health Policy

This really is a surprise to no one by now, but a forthcoming article in the American Journal of Public Health states that US medical costs could drop significantly if there were a greater investment placed in public health and preventative measures. Bloomberg Business Week reports on this fiscal sense:

The study authors concluded that reducing the prevalence of diabetes and high blood pressure by 5 percent would save the nation about $9 billion a year in the near term. In addition, conditions related to those health problems would also be reduced, which would increase the savings to about $24.7 billion a year in the medium term.

It seems that a slight investment in public health upfront means big payoffs in long-term costs. Thoughts?

Check Out EPA’s Policy on Clean Water & Water Infrastructure

I’m not sure that we ever posted the new EPA sustainability policy on clean water and drinking water infrastructure, but it is something that we link to on our Regional Water Infrastructure page and tend to mention often in our presentations.

It’s noteworthy that the policy places a tremendous focus on long-term planning approaches and sustainability. This is very similar to RenewLV’s own water and wastewater policy, and we are pleased to be aligned with the EPA’s standards.

Check out the policy here. What are your thoughts on this document?

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Bloomberg proposes extending subway to NJ

With the ARC tunnel scrapped, Mayor Bloomberg of New York is proposing an extension of NYC’s subway system into New Jersey. Eliot Brown of WSJ writes:

The plan is an attempt to expand rail capacity and grab some of the $3 billion in federal money that had been set aside for a rail-tunnel project between New Jersey and Manhattan, according to multiple people familiar with discussions over the project. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie spiked the rail tunnel three weeks ago due to concerns about cost overruns…

With a preliminary price tag of $5.3 billion, the new plan calls for the no. 7 tunnel to be further extended under the Hudson River to connect with New Jersey Transit trains in Secaucus, people briefed on the concept said.

So while ARC may be dead and buried, this is plan may at least end well. That is, assuming that all parties involved can come to an agreement, and that the funds can be successfully reallocated.  I also have my doubts about how pleased Gov. Christie is that a mayor from another state is working to find a replacement for a program he canceled.

Edit: Here’s another article to contrast to Bloomberg’s announcement and the entire ARC struggle.

Eric Jaffe of Infrastructurist discusses China’s growing high speed rail program:

China has quietly finished laying the tracks for the longest bullet line in the world. Spanning more than 800 miles, the line will link the Chinese capital of Beijing with Shanghai, an economic hub on the east. Travel between the two cities will drop to four hours—down from 10—when train service begins in 2012.

As the BBC points out, five years ago China had no high-speed rail track to speak of. Today, at roughly 4,000 miles, China’s bullet train network is already the world’s most extensive. That total is set to double within two years, according to the World Bank, which would give China more high-speed mileage than the rest of the globe combined.

Granted, HSR and a subway system aren’t the same thing, but it’s worth knowing that China is trouncing the U.S(and the rest of the world) in transit infrastructure investment.

Lightning Fast Mortgage Courts

Matt Taibbi came out with another article on the economic crisis. This time, he’s looking at how implicit the court systems may have become in letting things like robosigning slide, and how some are evening doing it themselves.

“Because in America, it’s far more shameful to owe money than it is to steal it.”

Taibbi’s pieces are sometimes a bit too apocalyptic and doom and gloom, but it does ram home a very important point: the ones who live in the house tend to be blamed for the foreclosure and at times the economic crisis, rather than the banks which construct these systems that profit from absurd rates of turnover and inflated asset values.

West Ward Meeting on Master Plan

Photo courtesy of S. Feller

Easton’s West Ward Neighborhood Partnership is planning a meeting to discuss the master plan for the neighborhood and city residents are encouraged to attend. The Express Times reports:

It’s the longest block in the city and includes 57 properties, 113 apartments and about 215 residents served by six bus routes. It serves as the transition between Downtown and the West Ward.And city officials say the 600 block of Northampton Street is also one of the most challenging in Easton.

“This block for a very long time has seen change, transition, disinvestment,” said planning and codes Director Becky Bradley.

Neighbors and residents are encouraged to participate in shaping the plan. Though many city officials have been going door to door with surveys, there are many voices who have not been heard yet. Attend the meeting to discuss the proposed master plan for the 600 block of Northampton St — this Wednesday, November 17, 6pm at the Salvation Army, 1110 Northampton St. You may also fill out a survey on the plan online; visit the Easton planning website.

Down to brass tacks with gas tax

I don’t represent RenewLV’s stance on the gas tax, but here’s my take on it and some of the history behind the issue.

The federal gas tax is rapidly becoming a new political third rail, alongside certain social services. With Republicans controlling the House, it’s less likely the tax will be increased — or that the continuous tax break will be “canceled” as some see it — but the gas tax is still one of those pesky pieces of legislation that needs attention. Having not been adjusted since 1993, this per gallon tax has not kept pace with inflation or the changing per capita demand for gasoline as automobiles see higher CAFE standards. Consequently, while the price per gallon may be increasing, the fraction of this that goes to funding road infrastructure has only been decreasing.

There’s a report by Robert Pirog of the Congressional Research Service that helps to shed some light on the history of the tax, as well as what a political nightmare it is. It was first introduced in 1919 in Oregon and within 13 years was in effect in some form in every state, with the tax itself ranging from $.02 to $.07 per gallon (for comparison, $.02 and $.07 in 1932 would be worth $0.32 and $1.12, respectively, in 2010 dollars). It was permanently enacted by the federal government in the 1940s and was periodically adjusted to either pay for highways or for deficit reduction. It was most recently adjusted by Presidents George Bush Sr. and Bill Clintion.

Where we are today, however, the gas tax has not been adjusted for 17 years. Were the tax to have kept pace with inflation, it would have moved from $.184 in 1993 dollars to $.27 in 2010 dollars. Couple this decrease in real revenue with the fact that improved CAFE standards have helped to reduce individual consumption of gasoline, and you have a revenue stream that is slowing to a trickle at a time when infrastructure investment is needed more than ever. In the eyes of some, this continuous depreciation in the gas tax due to inflation is actually a tax break that occurs every year. Since tax breaks without reductions in spending add to the deficit, it’s fairly apparent what the net effect is.

As it currently stands, user fees make up a continuously decreasing portion of highway funding. Since the gas tax by and large goes towards road infrastructure (with incredibly minor portions directed towards public transit), a real decrease in revenues from the tax reduces what the federal government can invest in roadways. This is amazingly important as the focus at all levels of government on automobile use is propped up, in part, by the myth that user fees pay for highway usage. It’s used as a counter-argument against increased investment in public transit, as mass transit, in the eyes of some, can only be funded if it at least breaks even immediately.

With technological momentum behind systems of highways, and most Americans being socialized to use the car over all other modes of transportation, it would take time for a public transit system to reach enough demand to be profitable. Public transit tends to take a long time to build up, so it’s not such a bad idea to start before roadway congestion becomes even worse and public infrastructure decays even further.

There is some momentum currently in place to slowly increase the fuel tax, but not much. On the one hand, there’s Sen. Voinovich(R-Ohio) and Sen. Carper(D-Del)who suggest increasing the tax at a rate of 1 cent a month for 25 months, in order to let the economy slowly adjust to the effects of the tax. The tax increase would see 15 of the 25 cents going towards the Highway fund, and the other 10 going to deficit reduction. Increasing the gas tax is also suggested in the Debt Commission’s proposal to decrease the deficit, though admittedly this might make the adjustment even less likely of passing

Compounding the improbability of an increase in the gas tax is the rise to Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure — say that five times fast — of heir apparent Rep. John Mica(R-FL). While in the past Mica has shown himself to be a supporter of expanding transit infrastructure, he has been staunchly opposed to increasing the gas tax.

As I see it, ultimate goal of bringing the gas tax in line with contemporary needs and RenewLV’s Sustainable Transportation Initiative have a lot in common: they encourage reduced reliance on solely the automobile, increased usage of mixed use landscapes and transportation, and seek to promote infrastructure systems that are economically and environmentally sustainable.

Tax increases during a recession are barely politically palatable. The gas tax is also a regressive tax increase, due to the nature of its implementation. However, it pays for public road infrastructure while also placing the costs onto the greatest users of roads. By internalizing a portion of the costs of highway usage (the gas tax doesn’t even remotely touch the environmental or health damages accrued from automobile usage), demand for automobile usage and infrastructure would decrease, while increasing public desire for multimodal transit. Reinvesting in our existing infrastructure, establishing new systems of public transit, and shrinking the federal deficit; the gas tax is a difficult measure to support, but it is what’s needed.

Use it or Lose it, Says Sec. LaHood

CNN reported a few days ago that US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has a clear message to states who received high-speed rail funding from the stimulus — it must be used on HSR or returned. Steve Kastenbaum writes:

CNN obtained copies of letters LaHood sent to incoming Republican governors in Ohio and Wisconsin who have stated their opposition to rail projects already underway in their states. In the letters, LaHood said a rail link between Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati in Ohio, and a high-speed rail connection between Chicago, Illinois, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, are vital to economic growth in both regions.

Lahood wrote that he respects the power of governors to make decisions for their states, but, “There seems to be some confusion about how these high-speed rail dollars can be spent.”

Oooh, nice tone, Secretary. Confusion, indeed. This is the same type of confusion that supposedly went on in New Jersey over the ARC rail tunnel project, which received stimulus funding.

What should these states do???