Author Archives: Alex Corgan

Budget Update: Lehigh Valley to house “Fortune 100″ company?

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post regarding the budget, I wanted to add an article from today’s edition of the Morning Call. The article “Money for Mystery Company,” discusses some of the state budget implications for the Lehigh Valley– specifically those related to the Governor’s $300 million handpicked projects fund. Drawing the most attention is the anticipation of an unnamed “Fortune 100″ company that may be calling the Valley home if Governor Rendell and other officials can succeed in “luring” them in.

As the outlines of the $600 million economic development bill that will give Rendell the ability to handpick $300 million in projects emerged this week, one key detail remained frustratingly elusive: the identity of the Fortune 100 company.

The bill doesn’t name the company, and development officials would say only that it’s a large company they are trying to lure to the Valley, but can’t name because no deals have been signed.

As stated in the article, $10 Million of the $300 Million that Governor Rendell can use for handpicked projects around the state, is apparently being used to attract this “mystery company” to the Lehigh Valley.

While some seem excited at the prospect of a large company moving in, others worry about the implications for other projects in the Valley considering an additional $10 Million from the pot that is no longer in play.  

In Bethlehem for example, a $1.5 million project at Third and Polk Street for an office building included on Rendell’s list is no longer on the local drawing board.

Find the full article at the Morning Call’s Website.

Again, we’ll do our best to provide updates as budget news unfolds.

2010-2011 PA Budget: What’s being said?

Yesterday, Governor Rendell signed the $28 Billion 2010-2011 state budget. With all sorts of media coverage on the budget process and implications, it can be challenging to keep it all straight. Here is a brief overview of some of the information that is out there. If you have additional links, feel free to post them below.

KDKA- The local ‘CBS 2’ news station out of Pittsburgh provides a short and to-the-point overview of the budget.

• About 1% increase over last year’s budget
• No income or sales tax increase
• No increase in cigarette tax
• No new tax on cigars and smokeless tobacco
• New severance tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling
• Government operating costs 14% lower than in Rendell’s first year in office
• Basic education subsidy to school districts will increase 4.5% ($250M)

Morning Call- The Morning Call briefly discusses the budget’s increase in education support and the cut funding to libraries, state parks/forests, and environmental protection efforts. Mostly, the MC focuses on the two construction projects approved for honoring Senators Spector and Murtha. Critics argue that now is a bad time to spend state funds on such projects while the Governor contends that the money is “bond money” (which cannot be used for operating expenses) and will generate jobs.

Philadelphia Inquirer- The Inquirer outlines the discussion that has broken out following the signed budget. The article focuses on the $20 million allotted for new construction honoring Senators Murtha and Spector, and $141 million for projects in Philadelphia and surrounding areas. All $161 million of this money comes from the $600 million pot of bond money, of which the Governor decides how to spend half. All $161 million of budgeted spending has also been criticized by those who feel that construction of such projects is untimely or not appropriately detailed. The article also provides a succinct overview of some of the key budget details:

The $28 billion state budget that Rendell signed Tuesday holds the line on spending, adds no new taxes, makes cuts across most state agencies, and anticipates layoffs of about 1,000 state workers. It also relies on $850 million in additional federal Medicaid funding that has not yet been approved by Congress and faces an uphill battle when members return to work later this month.

Patriot News- In this article, the Patriot-News Editorial Board lays out some next steps for PA legislators following the completion of the budget. Included in the discussion are transportation concerns, juvenile justice, and texting bans.

PR Newswire- “Governor Rendell Signs Jobs Bill to Spur $1.2 Billion Investment in PA’s Economy, Create 18,000 Jobs” PR Newswire details a bill signed as a part of the 2010-2011 budget package authorizing funding through the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program. The Governor claims that this program will have a positive impact on every region of the commonwealth.

This only covers some of what is being said. If you have seen other coverage that does a great job of articulating the details of the budget or highlights the implications of certain content, please post it as a comment below.

To access the actual 2010-2011 budget signed on July 6, 2010, it is available on the Governor’s Budget Office Website.

Comments?

Federal comprehensive transportation legislation still on back-burner

As the regional lead for Transportation for America (T4A), we want to make sure that we keep you all up-to-date on the current situation of national legislation efforts around transportation policy.

As you may know, every six years, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure must pass a transportation bill laying the groundwork for transportation spending for the following six years. Last year, Committee Chair Oberstar, advocated for The Surface Transportation Authorization Act: “A Blueprint for Investment and Reform,” a bill which would invest $500 billion in road and rail. For more on the specifics of the bill check out the executive summary.

Despite Oberstar’s efforts, the bill was tabled as a  result of other national efforts: health care reform, anti-tax sentiments, and more recently the oil spill in the Gulf. Whatever the reason, efforts to create a comprehensive transportation bill that will promote investment in transportation projects which are both economically and environmentally sustainable, have been pushed to the back-burner. A Politico article from May better outlines the details of the delay and the tension between Oberstar and the administration.

The most recent development, in an otherwise slow moving process, is the proposal of the Emergency Transit Funding bill, as discussed on T4A’s blog. This bill represents one of the piecemeal efforts attempting to keep transportation legislation on the mind of legislators. The bill would authorize $2 Billion intended to close the funding gap in areas dealing with transit crises (T4A transit crisis map).

While the current situation of the comprehensive transportation bill is rather stagnant, it is never a bad time to write to your legislators to remind them of the importance of passing a comprehensive transportation bill which addresses the breadth of transportation needs that our country faces– including both transit and roads. Here is a list of our legislators contact information (Contact Info LV Legislators).

Also check out T4A’s website to view The Route to Reform: Blueprint for a 21st Century Federal Transportation Program, T4A’s recommended transportation reforms.

We will continue to update you on the happenings in Washington around transportation reform. If you hear anything comment below and we’ll do our best to follow-up. Thanks!

Upcoming Events: Energy-saving in Allentown 6/17 and 6/22!

Here is a great opportunity (Event Poster) to learn about how you can save energy! Saving energy means saving money and there are a number of organizations in the Lehigh Valley who want to help you do just that.

Learn how to get funding and other assistance for energy-saving building improvements in the city of Allentown.  Save money by saving energy.  Learn about low-interest loans, rebates, energy audits, weatherization programs, and more.

The City of Allentown’s Sustainability Office is teaming with the Sustainable Energy Fund, AFC First Financial Corporation/Keystone HELP, PPL Electric Utility’s E-POWER Program, and the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley (CACLV) to provide considerable help to city residents, commercial property and small business owners, and small not-for-profit organizations.

Each of these partners is offering programs that can help property owners make energy-saving (which means money-saving) building improvements.  No reservations needed.

Event information:

Thursday June 17th-Trumbower Building at Muhlenberg College (#4 on map)
7:30am- Session for contractors
10:00am- Session for commercial property owners
7:00pm- Session for city residents

Tuesday June 22nd- Dieruff High School’s Freshman Auditorium
7:00pm- Session for residential property owners but everyone is invited to attend

Refreshments will be served at all events.

KRC study on economic development aid distribution.

An article in the Morning Call yesterday discussed the disparity between development aid to outlying areas and the urban core in the Lehigh Valley. The article focuses on the recent study released by the Keystone Research Center which focused on the distribution of funds between 2003 and 2008 provided by various economic development programs in Pennsylvania.

On a per-capita basis, for every $1 in aid received by outlying townships in the Lehigh Valley, older urbanized areas received just 56 cents, the report said. In Erie, the top-ranked region, older urbanized areas received $1.38 on the dollar.

The significance here–as evidenced by many of the people quoted in the article– is that the areas within the Valley that are most in need of funds for redevelopment, are receiving the fewest dollars. Meanwhile, the additional aid given to the outlying areas perpetuates the problems that created the disparity in the first place. As those areas develop, there are all sorts of infrastructure costs and environmental costs that go into keeping up with that development. Water and wastewater systems, new roads, and land consumption are just some of these issues.

The study did find, however, that Pennsylvania, outside the Lehigh Valley, has done a much better job of directing aid money to the areas most in need.

As a whole, Pennsylvania fared better in the study. Urban areas received $1.25 for every dollar directed to outer areas statewide, an improvement over the results of a study of the same programs between 1998-2003, which was cited in a Brookings Institution report.

It is important to add that although they do not dismiss the study, the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation made clear that there are several other economic development programs– which do a better job of targeting funds to the urban core– that the study does not account for.

Check out the full study on the Keystone Research Center’s website and let us know your thoughts!

Transportation Funding: Regional Infrastructure Improvement Zones (RIIZ)

Since the transportation crisis began in Pennsylvania (for our purposes, I’m referring to the denied application to toll I-80) there has been a lot of discussion about ways the state legislature can fill the funding gap. In response to a recent Crossroads post, Lanta Lehigh Valley (Facebook name), commented on the importance of thinking regionally about the issue rather than waiting for the state.

Referring to the possibility of a local taxing authority, they also suggested that, “…local communities may not want either the authority or the burden of deciding between modal investments.” For more on Lanta’s position, read their testimony to the joint meeting of the state’s Transportation and Policy Committees.

The points made by Lanta, started me thinking about other methods that may serve a similar function. I began to look into a joint-effort between the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI) and the National Association of Regional Councils (NARC). These two entities have been pushing for legislation that would adjust the current tax code to allow private stakeholders to benefit from contributions made towards transportation infrastructure costs.

From what I understand, the legislation, with Specter (D-PA) committed to sponsorship on the Senate side, is currently on hold, waiting to be scored by the Congressional Budget Office. Still, it is a proposed model that should be explored as a means of funding transportation needs across the country.

Referred to as Regional Infrastructure Improvement Zones (RIIZ), the idea is that stakeholders within a given region– could be a town, county, or multi-county region– can apply to the local planning authority to qualify for a RIIZ for transportation infrastructure projects. Although the current proposed legislation’s language deals specifically with transportation, the hope is for it to extend to water/waste water infrastructure in the future.

When an application is submitted for a particular project, the planning authority would be responsible for ensuring that there is local support for the project and that the project aligned with the local planning code. Assuming the project meets these criteria, the region would be approved as a RIIZ and stakeholders within that region could make contributions. These donations would be tax-deductible contributions.

OKI and NARC offer this as an example of RIIZs in action:

On one corner is a local bank, another is a department store while the third and fourth corners house an office building and a gas station. Each of these corporations, in concert with their local government, can apply to their [Municipal Planning Organization] for RIIZ status in order to add a turn lane, sidewalk, or bus stop that will enhance business and job opportunities. Membership in these Zones are not limited to businesses, individuals may also join. As with any donation to a charitable cause the RIIZ will issue individuals a receipt indicating the amount of their contribution as well as the date received. The contributing business or individual could then deduct the amount of their donation from the income taxes.

If you interested in the specific proposed changes to the IRS tax code, you can find the existing IRS code here and a draft of proposed adjustments here. For more information on RIIZs, check out this FAQ sheet, and this fact sheet. One of the things that a RIIZ can accomplish is giving ‘teeth’ to the municipal planning codes in a region.

Especially at a time when we are in desperate need of alternative means of transportation funding, RIIZ has the potential to give power to the municipal planning codes as the local planning authority must base their decision on the proposal’s adherence to the code.

The Lehigh Valley is fortunate to have a regional planning commission and a well-written comprehensive plan. However, there is no better illustration of the advisory nature of the commission, the Comprehensive Plan, and Pennsylvania Municipal Planning Codes in general, than this morning’s story in the Morning Call  regarding Lower Macungie and their zoning revisions. Jon Geeting of Lehigh Valley Independent explains this specific issue in his latest post.

The existence of RIIZ legislation would make LVPC’s objections worthy of more than a “We appreciate their comments,” as stated by Lower Macungie Manager, Bruce Fosselman.

For two great related article, visit:

Citiwire, where Mark Muro and Rob Puentes highlight the importance of NOT waiting for federal or state help in “critical priorities”;

The Atlantic, an article by Christopher Leinberger about the importance of financing multimodal transit in urban areas and its relationship to housing and economic sustainability.

What do our cities mean to the Lehigh Valley? — PA House Transportation Meeting tomorrow

As mentioned by Beata on our blog last week, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives Transportation and Policy Committees will hold a public hearing tomorrow, June 3 at 2 p.m. in the Commonwealth Room at DeSales University (University Center, 2755 Station Ave, Center Valley.)

This hearing – announced on May 11th by House Transportation Committee Chairman Joseph Markosek and Republican Chairman Rick Geist– is the third of seven hearings scheduled across the state. The purpose of these meetings is to allow community members the opportunity to weigh in on the transportation budget crisis facing the state and their regions.

Please come out and share your thoughts!

Something to think about in anticipation of the meeting tomorrow afternoon: Steven sent me an article yesterday about an initiative in Atlanta, Georgia, that allows the city, and regions throughout the state, to generate additional revenue for transportation needs.

In the article, Georgia’s Metro Breakthrough: Self-Tax Power, Region by Region, author Neil Pierce, outlines the troubles facing Atlanta:

With its spectacular economic growth of recent decades, the area has been convulsed by world-class traffic gridlock. The region’s roadway and anemic public transportation systems lag so seriously that Metropolitan Atlanta is becoming three or four “truncated” labor markets, very difficult to commute in or among. The situation threatens to trigger some corporate move-outs and represents a red flag for potential new employers.

And the solution?

With strong bipartisan support from a conservative Republican governor and a liberal Democratic mayor, and with a determined chamber of commerce president leading the campaign, the Georgia Legislature has finally agreed to let the Atlanta region — and in the process others around the state — to vote on whether they want to add a penny sales tax for transportation improvements.

This means that each region will have the opportunity to vote– by referendum– to implement a penny sales tax designated for local transportation improvements.

Pierce discusses the importance of acting diplomatically and working for a bi-partisan solution, and the strengths that go along with regional thinking. Pierce also mentioned the struggle Atlanta faced and it is one that is all too familiar in the Lehigh Valley.

The story’s not totally unique: there’s perennial suspicion, especially in rural and small town areas, of America’s top cities and metropolitan regions — even as these “citistates” become the engines of creative activity that drive entire statewide and U.S. economies.

Pierce refers to this as the “Atlanta vs. the rest of the state issue.” He also discusses the government’s former inaction as “a reflection, it seems, of its rural, anti-Atlanta prejudices.”

This recognition of the struggle between cities and rural/small town areas seems to be the main obstacle for regionalism here in the Lehigh Valley. Too often we are confronted with the sentiment that it is an ‘us vs. them’ situation. If the cities benefit, the rural areas lose and visa-versa. Atlanta seems to have found a way to solve this problem.

In the Atlanta model, a regional referendum is required to approve the sales tax increase. This referendum will make people within Atlanta, and those in the metropolitan region, decide whether or not the city’s transportation struggles are also their struggles. It will place individuals face-to-face with the question: Do Atlanta’s problems actually affect me and if so, am I willing to be a part of the solution?

Whether in Atlanta or the Lehigh Valley, regional cooperation is necessary because it forces us to rethink the real question of where we live. Without the regional component, those who live outside of city lines but within the metropolitan region, are naturally going to do whatever they can to keep the city’s problems from affecting their wallets. With regional decision making, there are two options– we’re either all fixing this together or it’s not going to be fixed. This situation should make everyone within the region ask the question– So what do the cities do for me?

How many of my neighbors, despite where I live in the valley, work in the cities? How many people, including myself, travel into one of the cities for dinner, sporting events, nightlife, or business? How many businesses in the rural areas benefit from close proximity to the cities?

How much of my municipality’s tax-base goes to infrastructure costs necessary to accommodate new housing developments and department stores located in the middle of nowhere? What is the current and future cost of the land consumption associated with it all?

When we start to answer these questions, the justification for regional cooperation become much more clear. Atlanta, and the state of Georgia, have found a way to allow individuals to decide what drives their region’s successes and failures without a forced tax-increase.

Thoughts?

Rome to Sicily: talk about transportation convenience and accommodation!

My friend, P.J., and I climbed on the train in Rome bound for Sicily. We must have boarded around eight o’clock at night. We knew that Sicily was an island (See map) and we knew that it would take us 12 hours to get from Rome to our destination, Palermo. What we didn’t know was how we would cross the water. We tried to ask but because of the language barrier, all we got back was “we’ll wake you when we get there.” We just assumed we would board a ferry to cross. So, trusting that we would be awake when we needed to be, we climbed in our night car and tried to get some sleep.

Several hours later, I woke up. I remember being startled for a few reasons. First, the train was not moving. I assumed that was what had jarred me awake. Second, as I looked out the window, it appeared as though we were in some sort of tunnel, or maybe inside of some sort of train station. I couldn’t see anyone outside, just a wall with steel beams along it not two feet from the side of the train car. Third, the other people in my compartment, other than my friend P.J., were no longer there.

You can imagine the thoughts that went through my head. They’d forgotten us. No one woke us up and somehow they missed us before they parked the train in some train yard. I decided to explore a little before waking P.J. I moved towards the hallway and was relieved to hear voices. As I moved towards the voices, I noticed that several of the doors to the outside were opened. As I walked off the train and into this strange enclosure, I found myself face to face with other train cars. I would have been sure that we were in a train yard warehouse or something except that at that point I realized something else– we were moving. I was standing still, the trains were standing still, but EVERYTHING was moving.

Still dazed from sleep, I followed a sign that appeared to point to an exit. I climbed the stairs and rounded the corner. I saw the night sky ahead and suddenly, everything started to make sense. As I walked out the door and into the open air, I was awestruck by the view. Lights in the distance, a warm breeze, and the smell of the sea met me. We certainly did board a ferry–just not the way I assumed. I was on the deck looking out at the water, on a massive ferry. The TRAIN boarded the ferry. I hurried back down to the train, nearly getting lost in all of the compartments, woke P.J. and the two of us returned to the deck.

You can imagine my uncertainty exiting the train into a compartment like this in the middle of the night.

We laughed and joked about this surprise. Later we learned that the train gets separated into three parts and is loaded onto the ferry. What this means is that you never have to leave your compartment. You can take a train to an island that is not accessible by bridge or underwater tunnel. This idea was SO foreign to us. We spent some time considering the cost that must have been associated with developing the Eurail system (I use that term to refer to all of the rail systems that are available to travelers purchasing a Eurail pass).

I suppose that if we lived in that part of the world–where trains are so much a part of travel– that this would not have surprised us as much. However, living here in Pennsylvania, it is hard to imagine places in the world that go to great lengths–like putting a train in a boat in a matter of minutes– to accommodate transportation that serves the public and is economically and environmentally sustainable.

I was reminded of this experience several times this Memorial Day weekend. I was reminded of it when I was driving back from the Jersey shore where I met my brother and some friends. As I left for home on Sunday heading North on the parkway, I measured the backed-up traffic heading South. 15 Miles of stopped traffic and another 20 miles of slow moving, bumper to bumper traffic.

I was again reminded of this when I was checking my wallet to see if I should spend the gas money to travel to my Fiancées house near Lansdale for a family cookout yesterday. Of course, I would love to be able to hop on a train to Lansdale or Norristown, but that is not an option.

I couldn’t help thinking about some of the critics’ arguments against rail service and other investment in multi-modal transportation in the Lehigh Valley. It’s too expensive at a time like this. We should just widen Route 22. Cars are more convenient and accommodating to my needs. As far as I’m concerned, we can widen roads all we want, we can put off investment in mass transit in the name of road repair demands and new road construction, and we can shout about the convenience of cars and the horrors of mass transit. But when done correctly, mass transit is an incredible luxury.

Map from Eurail Website: Click link to the right to view larger image

My experience in Europe and the ease and convenience of the rail systems there, far outweigh the seldom convenience that I get from my car. I’d rather sleep/read/work on a train than sit in my car staring at break lights, stop lights and digital billboards…ANY DAY

New Study: “The Hidden Health Costs of Transportation”

A picture from our most recent brown-bag event in Allentown. The topic was "Bicycling in the Lehigh Valley."

I recently finished a class at Lehigh taught by State Representative Bob Freeman. The class, called Land Use Management and the Politics of Sprawl, really started me thinking about the interconnectedness of our transportation planning, the health of the public, and our land use patterns. One thing that is very clear to me after taking the class is our incredible dependence on cars. As someone who loves to drive and has always had a car, I found this realization rather humbling. The fact is, we have created a world in which we live on one island, work on a different island, and ‘play’ on various other islands. Meanwhile, the car–our boat– is the only way to get from one island to the next.

To travel to a store within one mile often requires a car trip. Of course we could hastily blame this on laziness, but it is more and more common for roads to be built without any consideration to pedestrian traffic. In class we discussed the effects of these trends and our discussions often brought us to issues of public health, wasted land, and economic distress. A recent study conducted by the American Public Health Association provides evidence of these effects and proposes that we look at transportation funding and planning through a very different lens.

The study, “The Hidden Health Costs of Transportation,” highlights the lack of consideration that is given to health costs in transportation planning. In other words, when decision-makers decide which transportation projects are priorities, they rarely take into account the health costs associated with the various options. As a result, we miss out on opportunities to fund transportation projects that are actually most efficient.

The current process by which transportation funding decisions are made generally does little to consider the long-term costs and benefits to health, safety and equity.Our systemof transportation investment has resulted in many benefits for the U.S. and its residents, but today’s growing, aging and urbanizing population has different needs and expectations for a transportation system.

The study outlines some of the health costs associated with transportation. They estimate the health costs of traffic crashes at $180 billion/year, the health costs of traffic pollution at $50-80 billion/year, and the health costs of obesity/overweight at $142 billion/year. Included in these estimates are various factors including direct health care costs, lost wages due to illness, injury, and disability, legal/administrative costs, quality of life, and premature death.

The study also includes three case studies: Traffic Safety Case Study, Air Pollution Case Study, and Physical Activity Case Study.

This study helps to frame the issue of transportation in the larger context of economic and environmental sustainability as the effects on public health. After Ray LaHood announced a change in transportation funding strategy this past January, this study should come as another nudge in the right direction.

What do you think of the study? Is there anything in particular that interests you? Any thoughts on how this type of information may help to reshape the debates around local transportation issues?

Pennsylvania Transportation: Higher gas tax could save you money?

Is there some way that raising the gas tax could actually save drivers money? According to this article in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette and the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Pittsburgh Section, the answer is ‘yes’.

Consider this math from Karl P. Sieg, vice president of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Pittsburgh section:

Various studies have placed the cost of damage to vehicles from rough roads at $300 to $400 per year. He has heard estimates as high as $750.

A 25-cent-per-gallon increase in the state gasoline tax (or “user fee” as Mr. Sieg calls it) would raise more than $1.5 billion. For a driver who goes 15,000 miles a year at 25 miles per gallon, the annual cost would be $150.

“In other words, for less than half what we pay each year to repair the damage to our cars caused by worn-out roads, we could fix the roads,” he said. “Kind of a no-brainer, isn’t it?”

It makes sense that if the roads are smoother and safer, there will be less wear-and-tear and accidents to cars. According to WFMZ coverage of the Pennsylvania’s infrastructure progress report,– prepared by the American Society of Civil Engineers– the state’s roads received a D-, bridges received a C, and transit received a D-.  And what’s more, PennDOT says that the state has more structurally deficient bridges than ANY STATE in the country. Our number is 5,646.

While 25 cents per-gallon may seem like a drastic increase, consider the $1.5 Billion in new revenue, and the relatively low cost of $150 to drivers who spend about 15,000 miles  in a car each year. There are two clear benefits:

1. Closing the transportation funding gap
This revenue would provide enough money to cover the $450 million dollar transportation funding gap AND leave plenty of money to enhance our transit systems and get the state back on track in all of its infrastructure demands.

2. Save taxpayers money
Taxpayers are currently driving on damaged roads which causes unnecessary damage to vehicles over the course of a year. By repairing the roads, there would be less damage to the cars that travel on them. In other words, a tax at the pump actually saves a driver from annual repair costs.

The state is in the middle of a serious transportation crisis. In fact, the state has launched this website to explain the seriousness of the crisis. After seeing the extent of the state’s needs, consider whether or not raising the gas tax may be a relatively simple and inexpensive (for the taxpayers) way to create a sustainable funding source.

Is this line of thinking flawed? Is there anything that the American Society of Civil Engineers is missing?

Feel free to comment below.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 183 other followers