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.

Posted on November 29, 2010, in Events, Federal Policy, Neighborhoods, Public Infrastructure, Regions, Transportation, Trends, Urbanism. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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