Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Colorado Promotes Two-Line, $21 Billion High-Speed Connections Across State

Colorado Promotes Two-Line, $21 Billion High-Speed Connections Across State

Monday, March 29, 2010

LA’s Ambitious 30-in-10 Plan

For at least the past two decades, no public official has been more up front with his agenda for transit-starved Los Angeles than that city’s Mayor Antonio Villaraigrosa. Largely through his unrelenting vision of how his city could benefit from tens of billions of dollars in mass transit investment, combined with his considerable political clout at the national level, Villaraigrosa has been a front-and-center advocate for heavy and light rail “dream projects” including the Subway to the Sea, Regional Connector, Crenshaw Corridor and service to Los Angeles International Airport, as well as busway extensions. Once in place, this network expansion would largely fill out the bare-bones high-capacity transit system currently making do in this megalopolis.

And in today’s environment, bringing dollars to the table may be just the ticket to make this dream into a reality. By borrowing federal stimulus money against proceeds from a 30-year local sales tax dedicated to transit and now in place, Villaraigrosa has convinced California lawmakers, federal officials and even mayors of other major cities that not only can Los Angeles deliver 30 years’ worth of major transit investments within 10 years, but also could jump-start an economic recovery by putting thousands to work designing and building the system.

We’ve discussed in a recent blog posting our view that stimulus spending might as well go into concrete-and-steel projects that will leave a legacy of lasting value. We acknowledge that our economy is in a dire predicament, the solution to which has befuddled even top government officials. While not perfect, Villaraigrosa’s out-of-the-box thinking is in our view exactly what is needed to get worthwhile projects built, put people to work, and rebuild a sense of national and civic self-esteem that has all but evaporated in the current financial crisis. Imagine a Los Angeles woven together by a series of high-capacity rail and bus guideways separated from the hellish traffic, dotted with high-density, mixed use centers of activity that complement the surrounding communities while maintaining lower densities where appropriate.

As far as projects, we’d like to offer one not on the table so far: an upgrade of key Metrolink commuter rail lines to more frequent mid-day and reverse-commute service, and better integration of that service with MTA at key stations. New diesel-multiple unit rail vehicles could be purchased and operated over Metrolink tracks in shorter consists and with smaller crew sizes than current push-pull equipment, to more cost-effectively accommodate mid-day service. This regime of service would be targeted to corridor segments with the greatest off-peak ridership potential. Metrolink already operates over a staggering 500+ route miles of rail corridors in the LA region, and the introduction of such service over current routes would almost guarantee increased development potential in nodes currently served by Metrolink.

We strongly support the LA mayor’s proposed solution and encourage other metropolitan areas to follow suit. Obviously not all regions with substantial transit needs have a dedicated funding source to borrow against, and in these cases even more out-of-the-box thinking is needed to create a national model for transit investment. And of course, we welcome your ideas and suggestions.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Yield on Stop for Bicycles

To promote a balanced and environmentally sound transportation system, one of our societal goals should be to accommodate more sustainable modes of transport, right? The proposed Yield on Stop law for bicyclists does just that. Already in effect in Idaho and proposed for vehicle codes in several other states, this bicycle-related provision allows cyclists to continue through stop-controlled intersections (at a slow speed) if the coast is clear. It recognizes the inherent differences in mechanics and perception of the bicyclist versus the automobile, and would undoubtedly promote cycling as a more attractive mode.

This video does a good job of illustrating the dynamics of the proposed law. Naysayers will point to perceived safety issues, the potential for increased liability for local governments, or the possibility of abuse by aggressive cyclists. But what about the system currently in place, where cyclists are subservient to an incompatible motor vehicle code? What does the current code do for promoting sustainable modes of transport, such as the ultra-efficient bicycle? An article in Oregon Cycling Magazine offers some excellent insights on the Idaho law and how it’s working, as does this article, which takes the position of the bicycle commuter. Making biking easier for the regular commuter could do a great deal for both congestion and the environment.

I’ll offer some personal insight. Cycling in Marin County, California a few years ago, I rolled through a four-way stop sign at an unoccupied intersection. Sure enough, a tailing police officer pulled me over and issued me a ticket, same as if I was driving a 6,000-lb. SUV. Later that same day at a coffee shop, I engaged in casual conversation with a resident and brought up the fresh ticket. She said something to the effect that “that’s unfortunate, but you had it coming.”

This attitude is not uncommon but is also quite understandable. It indicates the need not only for institutional change (i.e. the vehicle code itself), but for focused outreach geared to address these attitudes. Because our public thoroughfares have, over the majority of the past century been largely taken over by motor vehicles, scarce resources are left over for pedestrians and cyclists. These latter user groups are then pitted against each other to fight over the “scraps”, causing friction and mistrust. Granted, just like drivers there are over-aggressive cyclists who will abuse their status, and by making the laws reflect the reality of cycling, these few can be more easily singled out and prosecuted.

What do you think?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Public Works Infrastructure and Recessionary Finance

The Depression-era WPA building program left many iconic and enduring projects in place , even while putting people to work during the job-starved 1930s. Landmarks and structures such as public buildings, post offices, major bridges, dams, zoos and many others went up in a relatively brief period, and are still utilized and enjoyed by tens of millions today.

President Barack Obama’s multi-billion dollar federal stimulus package has not yet proposed a similar visionary program, instead focusing on “shovel-ready” projects, which typically translate into short-term fixes such as road repaving projects. This is even though taxpayers would be getting as much as 30% more for their money due to the favorable bidding environment (compared to pre-recessionary times).

Of course the type of planning needed requires a long-term vision which, in the arena of national politics and partisan bickering, is not necessarily the expedient route. Some cities such as San Diego have recognized this and are focusing on longer horizon projects entailing major transit/highway expansion or rehabilitation, with life spans of 50-year or longer. Schenectady, New York Mayor Brian Stratton, echoing the position of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, has been pushing a re-creation of the FDR-era WPA program, though his focus has been on funneling federal stimulus funds directly to local governments.

Despite the difference in these emergent approaches, there seems to be a general recognition that the first round of stimulus funding was not very effective. Aligning the true needs of our nation’s infrastructure to the Obama Administration’s vision for creating jobs seems the greatest challenge to overcome.

In our mind, the real question is this: if we’re spending money we don’t have anyways, why not spend it on projects with long-term value? And on a “touchier” note, at what level of government is “value” determined, when it comes to apportionment of federal tax dollars? Is it time to appoint a new “infrastructure czar” to work the interstices of federal/local politics, perhaps backed up by a nationwide cabinet of transit and public works officials? This panel could be given the authority needed to short-circuit the evaluation of projects, as well as to distribute stimulus funds, cutting through the red tape now hampering the process. This would be for the greater good of our nation in the short term, as well as our long-term economic prospects.

My fingers are limber. Who do we email??

As always, thoughts and comments are appreciated!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The ‘Adaptive Integrator’ and Efficient Project Delivery

We read and enjoyed the excellent book Designing Greenways: Sustainable Landscapes for Nature and People and came across the notion of the “adaptive integrator”. For a large-scale public works design project, this key individual can function both inside and outside the traditional “collaboratory” environment surrounding the project. The integrator straddles the boundary between those project personnel performing the planning and engineering, and the regulatory agencies who work in a more compartmentalized and process-oriented fashion, and interfaces with a range of stakeholders as well. Using a new greenway design project as an example, and quoting from pg. 22:

“Although collaboration is useful and important, also needed are broad integrators (our emphasis) who see connections and relationships and who can envision futures that combine the best aspects of a range of issues. Because greenways combine social and natural objectives and because they frequently sit within highly disturbed settings, visions for their future need to be integrative or creative.”
The individual who can best work with the various stakeholders to bring the project to fruition may actually be a non-specialist without previous ties to the project, one who can be seen as an objective party by others close to the project, whether advocates, opponents or project-neutral. What is crucial, we believe, is that the individual should have a strong background in project as well as process management, and be given responsibility to develop and adhere to a schedule-tempered project management plan that allows regular assessments of a project’s progress in light of its goals and objectives.

Most if not all municipal or special purpose public agencies have (perhaps infrequent) experience managing larger, more controversial projects that test the limits of in-house staff. We’d be interested to hear from agency staff, as to what kinds of challenges these projects bring in terms of finding the right match between project and key personnel. Does your agency handle large-scale project management in-house? At what point does the agency bring in outside consulting help, versus recruiting from within the department? If looking outside of the agency, what qualities are sought?

As always, your opinions are appreciated.