Friday, April 23, 2010

St. Louis Transit Tax Victory - How Consent Was Achieved

St. Louis citizens have historically had a strained relationship with their public transportation system, the Metro.  Allegations of gross mismanagement and fiscal irresponsibility have long plagued the agency. The allegations called into question the organization's credibility, especially by citizens of suburban St. Louis County whose taxes were supporting the system but whose residents rarely utilized it. As is typical, a disproportionate share of public transportation users were living within city limits.  Per a study by the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, nearly 30% of downtown St. Louis residents do not have access to a car, compared to 6% in the county.

When Metro lost federal operating aid in the late 90's, the agency proposed to make up the difference by instituting a one-quarter cent increase for city dwellers and a one-half cent increase for county residents. Passage was contingent upon approval in both the city and county. County residents were up in arms.  Needless to say, the proposition passed in the city, but failed miserably in the county and thus progress remained at a standstill for eleven years.

In 2008, after the Cross-County Blue Line light rail expansion project had gone $128 million over budget and incurred an additional $23.6 million loss in legal fees and a breach of contract judgment against the agency, Metro's very serious money problems forced it to put a resurrected proposition on the ballot. At the time, the nation was fixated on the presidential election, to which the proposition took a back seat and thus failed to pass yet again.  Ensuing cuts to service were drastic; almost one-third of all service stopped overnight and over 500 Metro employees lost their jobs. When all public transportation outside the city's interbelt was discontinued, County residents started feeling the effects.  St. Louisans realized, “Some of us ride it. All of us need it.” Thus began their rallying cry. 

What took place next was an unprecedented grassroots effort, armed with the technology of 2010.  John Nations, the mayor of an affluent County suburb, undertook a primary role advocating for restoring metro service.  Major campaigns were launched by the Greater St. Louis Transit Alliance, Facebook groups coalesced, Twitter feeds ran rampant, the blogosphere commenced into overdrive, alliances were formed and before too long over a half million dollars was raised to support the tax increase measure. An extensive public outreach program was instituted, educating citizens on the importance of public transportation.  Armed with their slogan "Great cities have great transit systems", the alliance took to the streets in a door-to-door campaign to spread the word.  The alliance met with neighborhood associations, religious organizations and others. Over 140 major local businesses pledged their support. A volunteer-staffed phone bank was operated for over two months. It was even reported that local pastors incorporated Proposition A support into their Easter Sunday sermons. 

Don't think the movement didn't have its detractors.  John Burns, described by the Conservative Blog Watch as a "young conservative kid," led the fight against Proposition A.  In the weeks leading up to the April vote, the local public radio station discussed the topic almost nightly and held live debates between John Nations and John Burns.  Burns had the support of the growing Tea Party, and despite his lack of financial backing, went toe to toe with the venerable John Nations during a televised debate on the issue.  Ultimately, on April 6th, 2010 the proposition passed with a final vote of 63% in favor and 37% opposed. Metro President and CEO Bob Baer put it best when he said, "Nothing's impossible when we work together... I'm proud of the community coming together on an issue of this importance."

With the passing of Proposition A, Metro estimates the tax increase will provide an additional $75 million annually. The first order of business is restoring the service cuts of 2008.  Less than 48 hours after passage of Proposition A, Metro employees began removing covers obscuring the bus stop signs on discontinued routes. Among the projects to benefit from Prop A funding, Metro is looking into instituting a bus rapid transit pilot project. Long-term plans include further expansion of the light rail system.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Preliminary National Rail Plan – A Work In Progress?

Spurred by the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009 (ARRA), the Federal Railroad Administration issued a Preliminary Rail Plan in October of 2009.  The plan was an attempt at laying the groundwork for future policies regarding our nation's rail transportation network.  The plan's lofty goals included improving safety, fostering livable communities, increasing the economic competitiveness of the United States and promoting more sustainable modes of transportation.  What the plan didn’t offer were specifics as to how to achieve these goals.  With the ARRA allocating $48 billion towards transportation funding, and $8 billion designated specifically for high-speed rail4, why does it appear that little action has been taken thus far? 

The Preliminary Rail Plan identified transportation corridors to target for improvement, and multiple states put their names in the running for a portion of the stimulus money.  To date, funding has been distributed to thirty-one states, with the largest grants going to California ($2.3 billion) and Florida ($1.25 billion).  A major drawback right now seems to be that states must raise additional funds, through tax increases or budget cuts, as the federal funding alone isn’t enough to subsidize their projects.  And given the current state of the economy, that drawback alone could be enough to kill transportation plans in some areas.

Another concern is the apparent lack of prioritization in identifying projects worthy of funding. The Florida project for example, would serve the Orlando-Tampa corridor, one not considered particularly viable for high speed rail due to the relatively short distance between the cities, the high number of intermediate stops along the route, and the lack of effective transit connections at either end.

Notwithstanding basic concerns about planning and financing, opinions differ substantially on how to best bring our nation's rail system up to twenty-first century standards.  Is it more economical to upgrade existing rail lines, or should we build brand new high-speed lines dedicated solely to passenger travel?  Our current rail network was largely in place by the end of the 19th Century. The system we now have was built in favor of freight rail and it’s slower speeds, and even with extensive retrofits, experts estimate that high-speed passenger trains on retrofitted tracks would run on average between 80 and 120 miles per hour, with speeds topping out in some locations around 160 miles per hour.  In Europe and Asia, high-speed rail lines have their own dedicated tracks and with improved construction techniques, the trains are easily capable of running over 200 miles per hour.

Additionally, infrastructure is typically shared between freight and passenger rail lines.  Freight railroads have historically been privately owned, and since their deregulation in 1980 have proven to be profitable businesses.  Passenger railroads on the other hand, provide a public service and are publicly subsidized by taxpayers.  Currently, most passenger service utilizes rail infrastructure owned and operated by the freight railroads.  So should those private companies benefit from infrastructure improvements paid for by tax dollars, or should they share in the cost?  Or does our current shared infrastructure reinforce the idea that passenger service should be provided on dedicated lines, removed from freight service?  One possible model is Chicago’s CREATE program, a partnership of public agencies and private railroads with the stated mission of solving the problems of both passenger (primarily commuter) and freight congestion in the nation’s rail hub, through investment of targeted improvements including grade separations, line section and signal improvements, etc.

The fact remains that even a sum of money to the tune of $48 billion falls short of upgrading our entire existing rail infrastructure and woefully short of providing gleaming brand-new high speed lines throughout the country.  Thus, the government has allowed individual states to strategize how to best use available funding.  California aims to spend $2.25 of their appropriated $2.3 billion on a new dedicated high speed line connecting northern and southern portions of the state.  Meanwhile, Midwestern states such as Missouri and Illinois prefer to upgrade their existing lines with hopes of incrementally improving service.  Only time will tell which tactic does the better job of fostering sustainable, livable communities and making rail travel more economically viable for the majority of Americans.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Sunday Streets, San Francisco-style

Initially founded in Bogota, Columbia over thirty years ago, citywide events that temporarily close streets to automobiles and allow bikers, joggers, and skaters free reign have spread across the globe.  These events encourage healthy, active lifestyles while promoting social and culture activities that build a sense of community.  The first "Ciclovia", literally translated as "bike path" was held in 1976 after Enrique Penalosa, the former mayor of Bogota, declared that "A quality city is not one that has great roads but one where a child can safely go anywhere on a bicycle."  In Bogota, the Ciclovia now covers 70% of the city and entices over 1.5 million of its citizens to walk, bike, and play in the streets every week.  Cities around the world have been so inspired by its resounding success, that they have created similar programs.

Tokyo, Winnipeg, Melbourne, and just about everywhere in between have seen some form of Ciclovia.  In the United States events like these have been held since the early 1980's; Portland has it's Sunday Parkways, Atlanta started Streets Alive, and Walk + Roll Cleveland spurred a national organization to help other cities institute similar plans.  So far, most of these programs have been successful enough to ensure their continuation.

The lure of the Ciclovia is hard to resist.  Where obesity continues to rise to epidemic proportions, for urban neighborhoods that lack open space for children to play, and as we maintain our dependence upon automobiles; the Ciclovia offers a small slice of respite.  It offers community-sponsored recreation, encourages healthy behaviors, and provides a chance to reconnect with our neighbors face to face.  In Bogota, the events are even having an impact on the environment.  Auto emissions are reduced by over 40% on Ciclovia days.

San Francisco is one such city with a successful Ciclovia program, dubbed "Sunday Streets".  The program recently kicked off its third year and is ever expanding with 9 such events planned for 2010.  One aspect of the San Francisco program that has made it so successful is its alternation of locations throughout the city, including inner city districts such as the Bayview, which are not often visited by outsiders.  The original Ciclovias in Bogota were careful to select routes that link existing neighborhoods together.  This strategy, as opposed to closing down sections of major thoroughfares or bridges, is what really connects people and supports surrounding businesses.  During San Francisco's first Sunday Streets of 2010 near the Embarcadero, retailers reported a surge in business from locals who typically avoid the area due to traffic.

Sunday Streets also boasts extensive community events.  Not only are free bicycle rentals provided, but you can find free dance and yoga classes, free bicycle maintenance, a free roller rink complete with ongoing performances of Michael Jackson's Thriller, martial arts demonstrations and classes, kids’ activities, and even games for your pet.

San Francisco seems to be getting little push back from the community for these events.  In general, businesses appreciate the additional foot traffic and citizens haven’t reported major traffic inconveniences.  While the streets are momentarily closed to automobiles, Sunday Streets ensures that its events don't conflict with professional sporting events or concerts and the streets do allow cross traffic to pass through at specific checkpoints.  With over 20,000 people attending events last year, San Francisco expects to see their numbers continue to rise this year.

Does your locale or region sponsor similar programs? How successful have they been? What have been the main “barriers to entry” in getting these programs established and/or maintained? We’d love to get your input.