Blog Archives

Transit Disoriented in the Lehigh Valley

Transit oriented development (TOD) promotes building, developing and redeveloping community resources and employment centers around transit centers, whether those are bus or train. We don’t have that here in the Lehigh Valley.

Here’s the official definition:

“Development concentrated around and oriented to transit stations in a manner
that promotes transit riding or passenger rail use. The term does not refer to a
single real estate project, but represents a collection of projects, usually mixed use,
at a neighborhood scale that are oriented to a transit node.”

TOD doesn’t mean the construction of a bus stop near an office park, but a holistic approach to making communities accessible for those who don’t have or choose not to use a personal vehicle. This promotes equitable access to resources and employment, but also has positive environmental consequences. If fewer individuals are taking personal cars and opting to take the bus or train, carbon emissions will decrease.

In their 2012 report, the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission outlines the requirements for TODs:

TOD charts

The Planning Commission even produced a map of potential TODs in the Lehigh Valley:

TOD map

Making it easier for people to get where they want to go is an idea that’s hard to argue with, but new development and providing the infrastructure and support for public transit can become expensive. DC Streets Blog examines this problem and offers suggestions for convincing developers to invest in TOD. These recommendations include:

  • Public subsidies, like transit oriented development promotional grants or tax incentives
  • Educating developers about the costs to them in automobile dominated communities
  • Reform land use policies, for example loosening or eliminating single-use designations
  • Educate and engage employers
  • A new approach to looking at costs. While a building in a TOD community may cost more, it may also provide more affordable housing and increase the efficiency of workers.
  • Walkability is also TOD. Land use policies that encourage walkability are also likely to improve TOD in communities.
  • Connect the suburbs to TOD. This increases the size of the potential workforce for any given company, which increases the value of TOD to them.

It takes Lehigh Valley residents an average of 25 minutes to get to work and The Lehigh Valley Transportation Study (LVTS) long range plan estimates a $1.7 billion shortfall for funding needed through 2030. As part of the Envision Lehigh Valley project, LANta is producing a study on Transit Oriented Development and Bus Rapid Transit. Stay tuned for more information on that report as it is expected to be unveiled very soon!

Amtrak to Rescue ARC Tunnel Project?

Even though NJ Governor Chris Christie put the kibosh on the ARC tunnel project that would have provided a much-needed transit connection between New Jersey and New York, reports are rumbling that Amtrak is ready to come in and revive the project. Gothamist picked up the story that was reported by Fox NY

Amtrak Vice President Al Engel says they’re talking to NJ Transit about teaming up and finishing the tunnel themselves, and using it for a high-speed rail. However, they stress there is nothing set in stone, so there’s still plenty of time for the abandoned construction space to get turned into an elite street art collection.

There’s that Gothamist humor!

But in all seriousness, is Amtrak trying to establish itself as the transit savior of our time? I also heard rumors (that may or may not be substantiated) that the company is interested in bringing HSR through the Lehigh Valley. Intriguing indeed.

What are your thoughts on Amtrak’s interest in the ARC project?

For more on RenewLV’s work on transportation, visit our Sustainable Transportation Initiative page.

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.

Rob Puentes on HSR Funding

New York Times spotlights high-speed rail (HSR) in their most recent Room for Debate section — and Rob Puentes gives a very thoughtful answer in his response. (Some of you may remember that Puentes was the keynote speaker at RenewLV’s Regional Rail forum back in 2007. That’s right — we get all the rock stars to our events.)

Puentes stresses that federal funds should go to specific transportation investments —

What is different is that this is not a legacy program that has languished in the bureaucratic halls of the federal transportation department or one that is earmarked to death by Congress. Rather these funds are awarded on a competitive basis. With the support of their governors, states send in requests for the grants and those applications are evaluated based on quantitative metrics including economic, social, and sustainability benefits.

Projects also have to be far enough along in their development, take advantage of innovative technology, and promote a range of public and private partnerships. This is nothing short of a sea change for how Washington thinks about infrastructure investments.

This has been an important part of actually getting many of these projects up and running and spending the funds as quickly as possible. Efficiency is the key, especially for the stimulus funds.

Now it will be important to see if the federal government could dedicate some funding toward planning for new transportation projects. Say for the third largest metro area in PA? Yes.

For more information on RenewLV’s work on transportation and rail, visit our Sustainable Transportation Initiative page.

ARC Tunnel – Justified Cut?

So, the blogs have been  covering New Jersey Governor’s Christie goal to shut down the ARC tunnel project. As many of you know — and as has been covered before on this blog — the ARC tunnel would have provided another much needed connection between New Jersey and New York .

I think we can all understand the stressful situation that states are in regarding fiscal affairs. But is this a cut that is worth making? Andrew Samwick doesn’t think so:

There are plenty of ways to waste money through public investment.  This just doesn’t happen to be one of those instances.  It was to avoid the temptation to waste money in the name of a perceived need to stimulate the economy that I wrote this and followed it up with this.  In the latter, I suggested that we establish a prioritized list of capital projects, so that we were ready to implement them as slack appeared in the economy.  Careful planning is the defense against waste, regardless of what you buy with the money.

I strongly suggest on reading the full article, as it links to a great Economist piece and other blogs.

So, is this a justified cut?

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.

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?

TOD and Community Investment

The new issue of Community Investments focuses on transit-oriented development (TOD) and the impact such development has on communities. The article that caught my eye? The Role of Transportation Planning and Policy in Shaping Communities. Naomi Cytron describes the ways in which transportation policies over the past decades have led to socioeconomic (and, in turn, racial) segregation — even exacerbating the problem.

But the suburban migration that ensued left behind minority households in particular, who were unable to leave central cities for the suburbs due to discrimination in housing and mortgage markets. For example, exclusionary zoning practices and racially restrictive covenants barred minorities from living or purchasing property in newly developing suburban neighborhoods. And as late as the mid-1960s, minorities were largely unable to qualify for federally guaranteed mortgages, greatly limiting their ability to purchase new homes being built in the suburbs.

Cytron writes that much of that is now changing, as the long commutes have led to a severe deterioration in quality of life (who wants to be in a car 3 hours a day?) and increased unaffordability. TOD is providing more families with choice and moving us toward a more equitable society. Of course, as Cytron rightly points out, “TODs are not a panacea.” But they certainly are moving us in a direction that feels a bit better.

Abogo Measures True Costs of Transportation

I found this interesting online tool the other day, thanks to CEOs for Cities/Carol Coletta’s Twitter account (@ccoletta). Interesting not only on a personal, eye-opening level, but also on a policy-influencing level.

The tool is called Abogo and it calculates the average total transportation costs in your area. More often than not, if we own a vehicle, we don’t pay much attention to the true cost sof our transportation. Sure, we may keep track of what we spend on gas, but we often forget about the various maintenance costs that can quickly add up. And if our home is far away from not only our work, but also stores, doctors, recreational activities — well, the costs tend to rise due to the constant reliance on our cars.

How does Abogo do this? From their website:

We estimate total transportation costs for an average household from your region living in your neighborhood, including commuting, errands, and all the other trips around town. We count money spent on car ownership and use, as well as public transit use.  For CO2 emissions, we count car use only.

It’s still in beta and going through constant revisions, but, in the near-future, they “plan to introduce more personalization in the calculation that will give a better estimate for you.”

I plugged in my address and was told that average transportation costs in my neighborhood are $941 a month — the highest in the region. Understand that these are average household costs — these are not individual costs. Still, that number is steep. What are your average costs?

Transportation Funding — Where Do We Go?

Update: Change in location for the Governor’s bus tour visit. The new location is now the Tilghman St. bridge in Allentown.

To move the discussion forward on why we need to fully fund our state’s transportation needs, Governor Rendell has planned a state-wide bus tour that will kick off in the Lehigh Valley. The event will be on Tuesday, August 3 at 10AM at the Tilghman St bridge in Allentown [approx. address: 688 N. Brick St.]. Come out to hear the Governor talk about the state’s transportation crisis and what needs to be done.

Related to the funding crisis, StreetsBlog linked to an excellent post on the East Subway Blog last week. The post considered the possibility of halting all transportation funding — both transit and road/highway. (This was meant to point out that halting public transit funding would only be fair if road funding was also stopped.) Local government would be tasked with maintaining local roads and bridges — and many of these governments would likely turn to private companies.

What if all roads in PA were like Colorado’s E-470, which is maintained  by a private company? Here’s how the tolling scenario works out:

As of 2009 the average toll is 31 cents per mile for a two axle vehicle. The toll is higher if it is a tandem axle vehicle.  The road was built and financed through private bonds and cost approx. $ 1.23 Billion dollars or about $25,751,072.96 per mile ($1.2 billion/46.6 miles).

If we take that $.31 per mile and say we drive five miles back and forth (a total of 10) each day to work.  The total per day would be $3.10.  Driving the route 5 times a week would cost us $ 15.50.  Driving 50 weeks out of the year would cost $775.

The blogger points out that taking non-tolled, side roads might be a way around paying this cost — but it wouldn’t be so if ALL of the roads in Pennsylvania were tolled. Now that’s expensive.