More TIGER news

“MnDOT recognizes the impact Hwy. 3 has on the divide between the two halves of the city. They want to see this project happen”

Public Works Director Joe Stapf was quoted as saying in the Northfield News.  MNDoT has demonstrated their recognition by agreeing to fund 80% of the cost of the TIGER trail over the original estimate currently estimated at about $600,000.

Wow.  The money is very helpful, of course, but I’m really more impressed with the rationale which is the clearest statement of a change of philosophy at MNDoT I could imagine.

But back to the money.  Grant funding has its problems, certainly, and is probably worth a blog post itself.  Biggest problem is the risk evaluation – my sense is that projects are chosen for grant applications not because they are considered essential and would be funded by the local government anyway, but because if we win the grant lottery we’ll get free money for a one-off special project.  But grants, like tax breaks and statutes, are also tools to carry out policy by awarding grants to particular projects, the Federal government picks what it wants to encourage (but that’s the ideal – see another TIGER criticism at Strong Towns of the Feds not applying their own policy rationally).

The TIGER grant project, according to the grant guidelines,

“is multi-modal, multi-jurisdictional or otherwise challenging to fund through existing programs. The TIGER program enables DOT to use a rigorous process to select projects with exceptional benefits, explore ways to deliver projects faster and save on construction costs, and make investments in our Nation’s infrastructure that make communities more livable and sustainable.”

Northfield’s trail is multi-modal (bike/pedestrian – and “multi-modal” really just means “not cars), multi-jurisdictional (city, state and railroad) and it is challenging to fund given MNDoT’s previous planning and construction of TH3 and by adding value to the core of the city and connecting the two sides of town, I believe it does make Northfield more liveable and sustainable with a very small bit of actual infrastructure construction.  The faster, cheaper requirement seems to have been negated by the multi-jurisdictional component, but it’s still moving pretty quickly for a complicated project.

I fully accept the Strong Towns criticism of the teeny tiny amount of funding for Safe Routes to School or Complete Streets or multi-modal TIGER projects – yes, the grants and special programs (can) miss the larger point that Federal funding of massive highway expansion and car-only planning (along with mortgage interest deductions and more policies) has massively contributed to the problem we are now trying to solve (or at least mitigate).

However, Federal transportation funding will not be revised or rescinded quickly nor will attitudes be changed overnight (and however much I like the Hatch/Baucus proposal to start tax reform with a blank slate, I cannot believe it will happen that way).  So, for the short term, I’m in favor of these programs to help raise consciousness, publicize noteworthy projects, and gradually change the state of transportation in the US.  I’m in favor of this project in particular because it is so well grounded in city policy and earlier projects (read the history in the grant application) and not just plucked out of the air.  MNDoT’s decision to help with funding underwrites this gradual shift in design and planning and gives Northfield a little boost in the right direction.  Not perfect, but a good step forward.

Now we wait for the bids and the Council must act to move forward, but in the meantime:

Thanks, MNDoT!

 

Changing the terms of the debate: fix car-centric language

42 Bromptons (folded) to one minivan

One of my guiding principles is to make “transportation” when used in city and other planning and projects include ALL the ways people get around urban areas rather than transportation signifying only cars and trucks and then struggling to include other sorts of mobility with special terms: public transportation/transit (buses mostly), non-motorized transportation (bike/ped), etc. You know, just like “astronaut” should be gender-neutral. The Complete Streets model is, of course, one strategy encompassing both a planning philosophy and a shift in language for describing streets and their functions.

In pursuit of better ways to talk about transportation and land use which might help get to better ways to design and build the infrastructure, I’ve stumbled upon a new favorite blogger – in addition to considerable expertise on transit and transportation planning, Jarrett Walker also provides thoughtful commentary on the finer points of language and rhetoric on his blog Human Transit.

Like this post: Avoiding car-centered language which is a tidy analysis of a City Transportation Language Policy memo from West Pam Beach, Florida.  The memo is refreshingly direct in identifying car-centered vs objective language:

Biased: The problem is speeding traffic. The traffic queued back for one mile.
Objective: The problem is speeding motor vehicles. The motor vehicles queued back for one mile.

 

Or, more simply If you mean “car,” say “car.”

 

Development hubris revisited

The Elk Run Biobusiness Park is a project which keeps me shaking my head at the hubris of the Pine Island officials who have supported this “if you build it, they will come” development debacle and the MNDoT logic which threw millions (about $45 of them) of tax dollars at the interchange serving, as yet, nothing.

Back story: Back in 2011, I posted this about Elk Run and its history of problems and in 2012 the lawsuits started, there were unpaid property taxes, and Pine Island eliminated the city administrator job out from under the pro-Elk Run administrator.

Latest development: There’s still no development!  Not in the business park, anyway.  In June, MNDoT held a public open house in Pine Island about its diverging diamond interchange on MN52.  Problem 1: MNDoT plans to close direct access to 52 which will isolate existing businesses in order to serve the businesses which might inhabit the biobusiness park some day.  Problem 2:  Pine Island bet heavily with MNDoT; the deal for the interchange included promises to create 20 biobusiness jobs a year starting in 2013 until 2021 which, if not created, will cost Pine Island $20,000 for each job which doesn’t exist.  Pine Island is trying to negotiate so MNDoT won’t call in those chips.

Glimmer of hope: A letter to the editor in the Cannon Falls Beacon asking “Given today’s environment of scarce resources, shouldn’t transportation planning rely on something more than wishful thinking?

Thinking about cycling differently

Beware bicyclesDorothy Rabinowitz’s video rant about New York City’s bike sharing program may be the most blogged about bit of cycling commentary in recent memory.  Let’s just say her statements mark the extreme view of US cycling where bikes simply do not belong on streets or in cities (and here’s a link to learn about the real bike lobby, not the mythical one Rabinowitz described).  There’s been some more local hoo-ha about cyclists vs. drivers,

In Northfield, we’ve put pretty good policy in place for encouraging cycling and walking, as well as for building sidewalks, bike trails and on-street bike facilities as we take on street projects.  Each new project, however, which tries to build non-automobile facilities continues to meet with resistance from some Council and community members while being  championed by others.

Part of the problem seems to be that in Northfield and New York has nothing to do with the infrastructure, though, but the perception cyclists are some special class of people and, consequently, “they” are sucking up resources that “we” need for other things, like cars.  Perhaps we can stop thinking of cyclists and start thinking of people on bikes, you know, as people like everybody else.  And here’s a little video from a Dutch cyclist who, while visiting the US, observes “the average cyclist in San Francisco seems to be a young fit adult, mostly male and appears to be in a constant hurry” and, unlike Amsterdam, cycling here is recreational, not transportational (and Americans don’t wear “normal clothes”).

For the record, I’m trying to sell my road bikes (the kind one rides in spandex shorts) and keeping my beater bike for riding around town from point A to B in my regular clothes (even skirts), but I’d kind of like one of these.

And here’s a little round-up of other cycling-related stuff which has clustered lately around good infrastructure (and planning infrastructure) and “peak car” – new studies show driving is declining.  Somehow I also fell upon a few older posts about the cost of car ownership (cars from AAAcomparison from NYTimes and a DIY calculator from Bikes at Work and a great new phrase “infrastructurally coerced car ownership” from A New Dallas).

 

 

 

Fun urbanism – design your own fun

Play is important for learning, exercise, community-building, and fun.  Although one can play pretty much anywhere, some places just invite a bit more playful interaction.

So here’s the PlayScapes competition to choose a design to recycle a not very good place into a playful, productive place.

“Ask yourself where is that part of the city that is underused, undervalued, by-passed everyday because it’s unsafe, dirty or just so boring that no one notices it.”

 

On the TIGER trail story

Former Council member Noah Cashman made headlines at the June 4th City Council meeting by asserting Northfield’s TIGER trail project is part of a Growth Ponzi Scheme saying he got the term from Strong Towns (KYMNLeague of Women Voters). [You can listen to my conversation with Jeff Johnson on KYMN here]

There are two problems – (1)”ponzi scheme” (followed up with a reference to a state fraud hotline) grabs attention while preventing rational discussion; (2) Mr Cashman has misunderstood the Strong Towns mission and, consequently, how it might apply to the TIGER trail project.

joined the board of Strong Towns because I wanted to help broadcast its’ mission ”to support a model for growth that allows America’s towns to become financially strong and resilient.”

What is the Growth Ponzi Scheme?  It is not identified simply by the funding source of a project.  Mr Cashman cited the $1.1 million federal grant funding as definitive, but grants (or other intergovernmental transfer of funds) do not make a project part of a ponzi scheme.  Rather, it’s the these “mechanisms of growth” taken as a larger-scale pattern of post World War II approach to growth:

  1. Transfer payments between governments: where the federal or state government makes a direct investment in growth at the local level, such as funding a water or sewer system expansion.
  2. Transportation spending: where transportation infrastructure is used to improve access to a site that can then be developed.
  3. Public and private-sector debt: where cities, developers, companies, and individuals take on debt as part of the development process, whether during construction or through the assumption of a mortgage.

Strong Towns stresses seeking a higher return on the infrastructure we have already built, capturing value from growth which has occurred and adding value to existing neighborhoods before massive spending in search of potential growth. “Intergovernmental transfers” like federal money for the St. Croix Bridge, tax abatement programs, local government aid help create the illusion of getting a really great deal in the short term, but disguise the long term obligations or undermine the potential tax revenue.

Now let’s ratchet down the rhetoric and think about the TIGER Trail.  What would a Strong Towns analysis of this project look like and how could we rationally discuss the project, including the increase in project cost?

The best option for ensuring safe, convenient travel across Highway 3 for bikes, pedestrians, or people with limited mobility was lost (despite much citizen work) back in 2004 when the highway was reconstructed before MNDOT’s context-sensitive phase and before Northfield had any policy in place (like Complete Streets, or Safe Routes to School) which would have helped design the roadway and intersections to enhance the safe access across the highway.

Next best option: retrofit.  To increase the safety, perception of “cross-ability” and non-motorized access from the West Side to downtown, schools, the pool, and any other destination on the east side of the road, Northfield could retrofit the highway itself, but this would be considerably more expensive than the TIGER trail.  For comparison, MNDoT reconstructed Highway 169 through downtown St Peter in 2010 at a cost of $16.6 million to add bumpouts to reduce crossing distance, street trees for traffic calming and stormwater, etc., as well as improving traffic flow.

The TIGER trail bypasses Highway 3 by using the existing underpass and routing the trail along a city street.  By using the existing infrastructure to add transportation options to further connect established areas of the city, this project helps build resiliency for a Strong Towns.

Looking at the bigger picture, increased bike and pedestrian access to downtown reduces the demand for parking which helps leverage existing parking – a direct tie in to the current Downtown Parking Conversation.  The trail will provide a safe, non-motorized link for a part of town with a concentration of lower income housing.  The City had already agreed to add a trail along the Cannon River by The Crossing site; this project includes that segment.  The trail helps carry out the goals to capitalize on the riverfront by linking to the River Walk.  With an aging population, adding mobility options helps Northfield “age in place.”  

In short, the TIGER trail furthers Northfield’s policy goals for more transportation options, enhances existing neighborhoods, and reuses existing infrastructure to do it.  The trail was supported by many community groups as part of the grant application.  It’s a good project.

But what about the increase in project cost?  Nobody likes this sort of surprise and Mayor Graham is right: “when do we say ‘ouch’ and when do we say ‘uncle’” when deciding how much is too much?  This, really, is the question we should be asking and answering with reference to Northfield’s guiding policies, expected value-added by the project, and short term budget limits.

We should be weighing at least these issues:

The TIGER trail project contributes to building a Strong Town which helps fulfill Northfield’s policy goals and adds value to the core of the City.

The project is funded by a competitive, significant federal grant.  Northfield gets positive recognition for demonstrating we can do the project, success helps Northfield with future grants and not completing the project is likely to adversely affect future grant possibilities.

What allowance should be made for unforseen difficulty? It’s a difficult project with multiple jurisdictions (railroad, MNDoT, private property owners, FHWA), difficult topography and a speedy federal timeline as well as the usual unknowns like soil quality, construction bids, etc.  There have been completely unforeseeable difficulties such as needing to change a retaining wall design (with increased cost) because of Duluth’s experience with flooding.

The Council needs to ignore the headline grabbing rhetoric, learn more about what helps build a Strong Town, examine its policies and then determine how much is too much.

 

 

Schools and where to put them

Northfield Middle School – beautiful and isolated

Northfield Middle School tops my list for local planning failures; it “wins” because its location and design shine a bright light on Northfield’s development pattern over the last 25-30 years.  There’s a lot to learn from the Middle School.

I served on the Planning Commission when the Middle School was in development, but in 2001-3 the Commission’s and neighbors’ questions about increased traffic and connectivity didn’t register in the development culture of the time.

Indeed, it’s only in the last few months that I’ve been reading about the importance of school siting and its role in community planning, physical activity, safety and more (in addition to all the other more general information in the last few years about walkable communities).

Old Middle School

Old middle school location

The old Middle School (now Carleton College’s Weitz Center for Creativity) occupied just over one city block – about 3.75 acres – on the east edge of downtown.  The original building had been the city’s high school and had been expanded several times, but could no longer accommodate the 1000 students (in a growing town).  Students used the city park next to the school and athletic fields about 6 blocks away for sports and PE classes.

Old and new middle school

Old and new middle school

The new Middle School became the 3rd school in Northfield’s south side campus; the Middle School occupies 60.6 acres at the south end of about 145 acres of school property with Northfield High School at the north end and Bridgewater Elementary School in the middle.

The location at the edge of town was almost guaranteed.  School siting guidelines at the time called for 35-40 acres for a middle school of 1000+ students; Northfield’s 2001 Comprehensive Plan also guided development of schools – because of their traffic impacts – to the edges of residential developments.  In 2009, after NMS was built, Minnesota removed minimum acreage requirements for school development.

Putting the school at the far south edge of town increased the distance to school for many students, but prior planning decisions make the Middle School hard to reach even for those living within sight of the school.  The multischool campus sits on the west side of MN state highway 246; Jefferson Parkway runs between Bridgewater Elementary and the High School.  The Middle School’s only entrance is on Highway 246.

EW subdivisions

No exit

The residential subdivision to the west was designed with multiple culs de sacs radiating off a single loop of street.  Within the boundaries of the subdivision, there is obvious logic to the arrangement, but there are no opportunities to connect to surrounding destinations. The only one way out is onto Jefferson Parkway which was “improved” when the Middle School was built by adding a median.  Unfortunately, the median makes it unsafe to bicycle on the street because the lanes are too narrow to permit a bicycle and car side by side and the median prevents cars from moving left to avoid cyclists.  And, more recent research shows that the cul de sac – collector pattern is less safe than a more grid-like pattern which slows and distributes traffic. On the plus side, walking or bicycling from this side of the school is relatively easy on well connected off street trails.

250' to walk, 1.5 miles to drive

250′ to walk, 1.5 miles to drive

On the east side of the highway, another subdivision is arranged with long, interlocking streets ending in culs de sac.  Again, it makes for pretty patterns within the subdivision, but prevents any continuous north-south travel or east-west connections across the highway.

Highway 246 with its 45 to 55 mph speed limits effectively eliminates any pedestrian or bicycle traffic from the east despite off street trails parallel to the road because there is no safe crossing (and the school district buses all students east of the middle school). I’ve blogged about MNDoT’s new attention to context, but this highway predates this approach.

The end result: All school automobile traffic must funnel through the Jefferson Parkway/246 intersection.  The intersection itself was not redesigned to accommodate walkers or cyclists when schools were built, so this logical crossing point is difficult at best and deadly at worst (there’s been one fatality during school rush hour).

What could we do differently for Northfield’s next school?  

Educate city and school district planners (and the voters who support school bond referendums and city council policymakers) about how can good school locations coupled with transportation planning can help improve traffic safety, public health, and quality of life. Serendipitously, Northfield school board member Rob Hardy just blogged about the district wellness policy:  ”all students in grades K-12 will have opportunities, support, and encouragement to be physically active on a regular basis.”  One way is to have physical education classes and sports teams; another is to think about siting and designing schools to make it easy to walk or bicycle to reach them (Here’s a summary of issues from the Safe Routes to School partnership).  

Collaboration should be next: As in most places, the city and school district in Northfield haven’t collaborated in planning (here’s another take on this). In 2009, the city and school district did work together on a Safe Routes to School planning grant; the resulting plan outlines improvements we can make to improve bike and pedestrian access to the current schools, but thinking ahead, we should want to avoid the need for retrofits by planning schools on safe routes to begin with.

Northfield has already adopted policies which should make this easier – Safe Routes to School, a Comprehensive Plan which prioritizes connectivity and multi-modal transportation as well as neighborhood schools, the MN GreenStep cities program, and our award winning Complete Streets policy.  Consistent implementation in collaboration with the school district could produce some impressive results if:

Long-term costs should be evaluated: Yup, it costs lots of money to redesign intersections and build bike/ped facilities.  However, there are also the costs to bus students who might be able to get to school on foot/bike with safer routes, the public health costs of pollution, obesity, etc. from car-reliant transportation.  How can the next school incorporate long-term thinking about where to locate and how to connect the school to the community which could avoid the need for retrofits later and realize some of the community benefits immediately?

 

 

 

 

 

 

http://www.pps.org/blog/walking-is-not-a-crime-questioning-the-accident-axiom/

Strong Towns – schools on safe routes

http://epa.gov/schools/siting/download.html

 

 

 

 

 

Interlocking directorates

I got to know the term interlocking directorates in law school, I think, along with its connotations of trust busting, big business, robber barons, and consolidating power.  Now  I’m actually interlocking a couple of directorates myself, but it’s not quite so dramatic in my case.  I am now a member of both the Northfield Downtown Development Corporation and Strong Towns boards; this combination (not used in its Sherman Act sense) comes with no fame nor fortune, but just some very happy confluences of interest and priorities.

The NDDC is a non-profit, non-partisan organization committed to sustaining and improving the downtown in Northfield, MN.  Strong Towns is a non-profit, non-partisan organization trying to help America’s towns develop financial resiliency through educating the public about the costs inherent in our patterns of growth and advocating for more productive development patterns.  Northfield’s downtown already exemplifies some qualities of a Strong Town.  Strong Towns can help develop analytic and practical tools to help Northfield and other towns evaluate development, plans, and budgets.

My new direction should surprise no one reading this blog; I’ve been trying to identify costs of development beyond the “jobs and tax base” mythology (like this post from December) in Northfield and in the news.  Glad to be able to put my passions and skills to work for both these organizations.

Northfield’s Complete Streets policy one of the nation’s best!

Northfield’s Complete Streets policy has been recognized as one of the top 10 policies in the country for 2012 (we ranked #5 out of the 125 Complete Streets policies adopted in the US in 2012).

What’s so great about having a Complete Streets policy?  My big policy goal is to link transportation and land use planning to increase the productivity and sustainability of Northfield.  To reach that goal requires some consciousness-raising, disseminating information about the costs of development for cities, and many incremental steps.  A Complete Streets policy is part of making transportation planning more intentional, better linked with surrounding land uses, and increasing awareness of the critical role streets play in cities’ budgets, safety, economic development, stormwater management, quality of life and, of course, getting around town.  By itself, the policy won’t accomplish much, but it is a piece of the bigger picture.

Here’s a bit more news coverage of the announcement: Envision MN highlights Northfield’s  accomplishment; Streetsblog provides some criticism about Complete Streets policies; Better Cities calls Complete Streets a “key strategy” for revitalization of cities.  Here’s some old coverage about some of the people who helped organize the Complete Streets effort in Northfield and even a mention in Rice County’s public health information.