Dan Besse on transportation policy

Our friends at NC Policy Watch have the good fortune of featuring this excellent post by Dan Besse.

The economic stimulus package approved last month contains nearly $30 billion for surface transportation projects. That will help kick-start spending for a short-term economic stimulus, as intended, but it will put hardly a measurable dent in the backlog of project demands.

In the Piedmont Triad region, for example, one of the largest uses of the transportation stimulus funds will be a multi-million dollar pavement rehabilitation project on a potholed stretch of I-40. That will smooth millions of rides for the next few years, but it won't touch the issue of how to deal with rising travel needs in the long-term.

If we're going to take on this challenge, we're finally going to have to grasp the reality that we can't afford to build all the streets, highways, and bridges projected as needed under our current approach to transportation (much less maintain them too). Increasing numbers of thoughtful citizens see that we've covered our eyes for decades while our road maintenance debt has dammed up and overflowed.

More importantly, the public is beginning to understand that solving these problems will require more than patching the potholes. Already, three out of four Americans favor improving intercity rail and transit, and over half believe that the federal government should do more to improve trains and light rail systems.

I wish I were as optimistic as Dan is about this. Or maybe it's fair to say the public is beginning to understand ... if what you mean by beginning is "barely."

I sure hope someone besides me is paying attention to this column. You've read it, right Bev?


Shove it ready

Much has been written about the need for "shovel ready" projects to make the stimulus package work. Why couldn't we have focused on "brain ready" projects like building out fiber networks or re-engineering water systems or hiring a boatload of teachers?

Disclosure: I'm a full-time telecommuter. Roads are not on my personal list of important things at all.

actually, james...

...the stimulus package's "shovel ready" projects include every item on your wish list.

matter of fact, you might find this quote from the asheville "urban news" to be of interest:

"The stimulus package includes tax cuts as well as funding for “shovel-ready” projects, including both physical infrastructure development — highways, bridges, and high-speed rail, schools, and other traditional building projects — as well as for service programs employing people in education, health, research, etc."


--there's $4 billion for sewer projects in the package.

--cave spring, georgia, is getting funding to upgrade their water system.

--new york city has 14,000 more teachers on the payroll than they would have had without the stimulus package.

--there's also $7.2 billion for broadband.

broadband, water and sewer systems, and not just teachers...but entire schools.
there's even high-speed rail.

it's almost as if he listened to you, and then went out and did the kind of things you would want him to do.

pretty cool, eh?

(one other quick point: i suspect there will be more "long-term capital" funding in budgets for the next few fiscal years...but the emphasis on "shovel-ready" is because the goal was to get as much money out as possible this year and next--it is stimulus, after all--and road projects were the predominant category of work that falls under the "shovel-ready" definition.

a road resurfacing can begin within 90 days, as soon as bids can be processed--or even sooner if the state dot or local municipality does the work "in-house". that is about as rapid as stimulative projects get, which is why economists love this kind of spending.

it is suggested that there about $150 billion in "shovel-ready" projects nationwide, but the stimulus package is apparently only funding about $30 billion for roads and bridges.)

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965


It appears I have been brainwashed by the road, roads, and more roads mentality in North Carolina. I appreciate you setting me straight.

happy to do it...

...and should you find yourself looking for a good story one day, you can track the stimulus spending, state by state (except for north dakota, for some reason...), at the recovery.gov website.

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965

Before anyone in government decides to spend money on new roads

they ought to read "the Long Emergency" by James Kunstler. I'm not certain I agree with Kunstler's time frames, but I think he's on the mark about the coming death of our petroleum based society and the need to create alternative modes of transport and routes that focus on serving local rather than national or even state-wide needs.

Stan Bozarth

i'm all for...

...extensive mass transit, and i'm all for the "urban village" concept...but for this stuff to really work we have to find some way to do "costco" type errands that involve both shopping and transit...(or even more challenging, parents and the kids and after-school and transit.)

if you have to drive to work because you need to do these sorts of errands after work, it's a problem.

we may have to consider expanding retail delivery options, reconfiguring a city's recreation assets, or develop some new sort of transit service, in the end, if we really want to get the majority of americans out of their cars and on the trains.

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965

In Charlotte, NC I know at least one transit line

was built along a business/retail corridor. I'm not sure where the stations are, but I know either a new Lowe's or Home Depot went in on the rail line and retail development and apartment construction has been encouraged.

Those of us who live in the country would love to park and ride. Union County could easily put a train corridor down I74. We could access almost every retail establishment in the county that way - malls, big box stores, restaurants and local businesses. Our problem - we don't even have buses yet. It would be nice to bypass buses and go straight to rail, wouldn't it? Even if it is to connect to a future Charlotte/Mecklenburg line.

Vote Democratic! The ass you save may be your own.

here's the good news...

...buses can be more efficient, dollar for dollar, than trains.

a good way to start: dedicated right-of-ways on the freeway system, but instead of laying track, roll express busses on the new lanes.

in seattle we have a "bus tunnel" that is being converted after several years of service to a "train tunel" because we are rolling out trains this year from downtown to the airport, which will allow the busses that currently run those routes to be used elsewhere, presumably as "feeder busses" to the new train stations.

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965

Yes, they can. You can't help

Yes, they can. You can't help but to have heard a bus advocate telling you this.

Bus lines do nothing to discourage sprawl though, which is the enemy of bus lines. Train stops encourage smart construction and zoning - increasing density and assuring that the stops are used efficiently.

Most importantly, train stops don't get rerouted or removed completely. You have to look no further than the current crisis to see bus lines all over the country cutting service, removing stops and stranding their riders.

In the end, city planning and zoning is the most important issue in my mind. Our leaders continue to zone sprawl, requiring infrastructure that we cannot afford, and assuring that mass transit will never reach these people. Every 2000 home subdivision built on the edge of town is 4000 voters who will NEVER vote for mass transit because it doesn't serve them - it simply can't.

the point here...

...is that one can "morph" into the other as money becomes available (it's possible to lay track on a "busway" later...), and the busses you free up when the rail is laid can be used to feed riders to the stations, which become the hubs of hub and spoke community bus service.

whether you build heavy rail, light rail, or busway, it's station placement, zoning, and zoning density that will direct sprawl--and "transit stations" with colocated park and rides tend to not be "rerouted" as well.

here's an example of what i'm talking about in a station. today it serves as a bus station, but it's located close to i-90, and if the money ever became available, running rail to the site from i-90 at some future time would be fairly easy.

the auburn station, and others, are already served by commuter rail.

if we can get the money to run track from downtown to the university of washington just north of downtown it will radically change bus routing in the affected areas, as they will "hub and spoke", rather than having to run downtown and back--which will create shorter wait times along the way.

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965

No, you're not all for...

I'm not sure you really understand urban village afterall.

If it were in place, and you embraced it, you wouldn't need to drive to a big-box store in the first place - you wouldn't need to drive to work, and you most certainly wouldn't have to transport your kids to/from school.

Sadly, the best suggestion for a North Carolinian wanting to live this way is to leave the state. This certainly isn't the place you want to be when the oil really starts to run low.

I live out in farm country

We're sprawled, but most of the inhabitants are cows and chickens. The people are on their way. I would love to see this area require a minimum lot size that is mulitple acreage and not allow retail/commercial construction beyond what is needed for educating our children and providing for the real farmers. I plan my outings and usually only travel out one day. I may need to haul things home from Lowe's, but most of my other errands could be done by train if the retail/commercial construction along the routes and at stations/stops is as you describe. I could then head back to my car/truck with my goodies and stop by Lowe's, the local feed store, Farmer's Supply or Secrest (our local seed store) on the way home.

I love traveling to cities with trains/subways, etc. My husband travels in his work, so it doesn't really matter where we live. I wanted a "farm." We compromised. I have enough land to work and we're close enough to a major highway that he can be where he needs to in a very short period of time. Even though we choose to live in the country with the cows doesn't mean we can't benefit from a well planned pubic transportation system like you've described above. There is so much traffic on our main stretch of road (where all the retail is anyway) it would be a relief to be able to park and ride the train from one end to the other.

While I can envision it, I have no expertise or knowledge that can tell me if what I envision is actually realistic, feasible, etc.

Vote Democratic! The ass you save may be your own.

the probability...

...that every worker will find the place they want to live and the place they want to work in the same location is fairly low...especially if that worker is an aircraft mechanic or a machinist or a worker at a steel mill or a chemical plant.

in theory, walking to transit is nice, but many of these concepts use park and ride to aggregate transit customers to save money on "hub and spoke" busses and routes...and as far as not driving to big box stores, we get right back to the problem of "how you get the sheets of plywood or the 50 lb. bags of dog food back to the house without a car?"

the kids? parents shuttle kids after school, and what happens when the kids' soccer team is playing at the other urban village on the same day as the music recital?

one other thought: geography seems to play a role in all of this.

seattle, where there is virtually no empty, buildable, land, is enthusiastically adopting the concept...but it's not as easy to convince the suburbs to adopt higher density--and because there's more land available in the suburbs, the demand to "dense up" is much less.

my suspicion: if you spoke to residents of las vegas and manhattan a similar divergence of attitude might exist.

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965

Check this out, Fake

I'm not sure if you caught my diary from last year where I journeyed via public transit from my sister's house to visit a former BlueNCer who lived a few towns away, but their bus system is awesome. It connects townships and (relatively) small cities to each other with various-sized buses, most of them running on an hourly basis. You can also (which I've done several times) walk a block or two from your house, make a few bus transfers, hop on a ferry, and bam. You're in Seattle.

My point is, regardless of how poorly a city or town was planned, you can adopt/adapt public transit to the layout. And as far as the sheets of plywood or 50 lb. bags of dog food, most of these folks have a vehicle, they just don't use them every day. When they need to drive, they drive.

i'm with this all the way...

...but for a city that is just now reaching the decision that they need to expand transit, the "busway", transit center, and express bus concept is a good way to get started. it's also a good way for a region to convert from "all routes going downtown" to "hub and spoke".

the use of park and ride changes the driving pattern so that cars travel 10 miles or less to a lot, the express busses use the same route system that a train will when that amount of money comes through...and in the end, we're really talking about ending up at the same place. it's just that i'm describing the "incermentalist" approach, which is what a lot of locales face because of limited available funds.

this is actually playing out in both seatle and portland, oregon.

as portland's tri-met trains have built out the bus routes have evolved to match the change. the same will happen in seattle as the "link" light-rail goes online, and it has happened as the heavy-rail "sounder" trains have come into service.

along the i-405 corridor (seattle's eastern suburbs) there are express lanes and transit stations with park and ride at most freeway exits, and eventually a future train will be able to use the same right-of-way and station infrastructure.

why not do all the trains all at once?

because it's estimated it will cost about $40 billion (in year 2000 or so money) to build a circle that connects seattle with the i-405 corridor.

the first leg of the buildout is almost done...but 3/4 of the "loop" remains, and we do not have the money.

thus, the more incremental approach.

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965