How the government shutdown affects transportation planning

Source: Beforeitsnews.com

As you have no doubt heard by now, the federal government has shutdown. So for those in the transportation planning community what does this mean?

  • In Chicago, my own agency will be running normal schedules with no direct impacts to riders due to the shutdown. However, we might have a few less riders because…
  • Chicago is fourth on the list for non-Post Office federal employee population with 16,069 employees, many of whom work downtown. This includes offices of the Federal Transit Administration, General Services Administration and Environmental Protection Agency, three departments that will see massive furloughs. Outside of D.C., New York, Atlanta and Philadelphia are tops on that list by the way.
  • If you have projects funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation, you may want to consider hitting the pause button. “No grants, cooperative agreements, contracts, purchase orders, travel authorizations, or other documents obligating funds will be executed to any of the FTA’s 1300 grantees” according to DOT guidance. For transit agencies, grant money, obligating funds, etc. that you are getting daily from the FTA will cease. Almost all FTA staff will be furloughed. In October of FY2013, FTA payments to grantees averaged about $200m per week.
  • The above being said, if you are in the construction management or a contractor and your project stalls, don’t expect to get paid until the shutdown ends. Many transportation agencies may be loath to dip into their reserve funds to keep projects going unless there are signs that the shutdown will be short-lived.
  • Air Traffic Controllers will be on the job, although some non-“essential” FAA employees will be on furlough. TSA agents will also be on the job. If your airport is undergoing an airport planning process or is currently receiving planning grants, your project may be stalled.
  • The Federal Railroad Administration will furlough half of its employees, none of them involved in safety operations. Functions to be suspended include the high-speed rail initiative, all grant and financial assistance activities, and Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing (RRIF) loan payments.

 

 

Traffic Signal Synchronization, Ctd.

 

MinnPost file photo by John Noltner

I was recently quoted in an article on traffic signal synchronization – an ongoing project in Minneapolis right now. I have a contrary view to conventional wisdom on this topic as I have been quoted in the article and expressed in greater detail here.

Communities like traffic signal synchronization because it is smart technology that can reduce congestion and increase traffic flow without making any geometric changes to the roadway system. My argument is that these technologies work a little too well – they actually create induced demand  which in the longer term leads to more congestion and air pollution and poor land use decisions. I’ll stand by my quote in the article in that traffic signal synchronization is a solution that becomes a victim of its own success.

The latest example proving the nexus between transportation and land use…

Crossrail Line 1. Source: David Arthur

…Comes to us from London, my brief one-time home. Courtesy of Crossrail, the major commuter rail project linking East and West London together more seamlessly with dramatic expected time savings. While Crossrail is not scheduled to open until 2018, the benefits that the Crossrail project is promising to deliver have already impacted the local real estate market.

Goldman’s employees would be able to reach Heathrow Airport from Farringdon in about 30 minutes on Crossrail, compared with more than an hour on the London Underground. Travel to east London’s Canary Wharf financial district will take 9 minutes, from about 25 minutes today. The City Thameslink system already takes passengers to Gatwick Airport to the south and Luton Airport north of the City.

“That’s what makes this the crossroads of central London,” Rees, the City’s top planner, said in an interview.

Crossrail will build 9 new stations in Central London, provide up to 24 trains per hour (1 train every two and a half minutes!) carrying 1,500 riders each. It will increase the rail network capacity while simultaneously reducing travel times by up to 50%. Transit-oriented development is already taking place, capitalizing on new areas of Central London becoming more accessible. More than 3 million square feet of residential and retail development are anticipated to take place, just over the stations sites.

This is the benefit that transportation infrastructure can bear on a place. It is smart development – taking advantage of the high-capacity, incredibly expensive infrastructure by also providing high density land uses to leverage that infrastructure investment.

See video.

 

Regulations and Land Use

I am not saying that zoning, fire and safety codes, materials and workforce safety regulations would have prevented the West, Texas disaster. And as rigid and inflexible of a tool as zoning can be, it does have the ability to prevent the building of a school, hospital, nursing home and residences so close to the plant as to be obliterated in case of disaster. And these regulations matter. If I compare Texas to my own home state, Illinois, this is what happens:

Fires and explosions at Texas’ more than 1,300 chemical and industrial plants have cost as much in property damage as those in all the other states combined for the five years ending in May 2012. Compared with Illinois, which has the nation’s second-largest number of high-risk sites, more than 950, but tighter fire and safety rules, Texas had more than three times the number of accidents, four times the number of injuries and deaths, and 300 times the property damage costs.

One of the key reasons zoning codes are around is to separate incompatible uses. And while I understand the fertilizer factory was originally built outside of town, it was the town that grew all the way up to the gates of the factory. Since zoning is a police power, this is something the municipality of West, Texas might have been able to control. Or, maybe not. Texas is, after all, proud of its anti-regulatory culture and is proud of  having the largest city in the country without a formal zoning code.

The Suburban Experiment, Explained

I have been an enthusiastic adopter of the term “suburban experiment” after having following the magnificent work that Strong Towns does up in Minnesota. But it came to my attention that I have not fully explained it and applied it here in Chicago.  So, I’d like to take a step back. Of course, since I did not invent the term, it’s best to direct you to the primary source. Chuck Marohn’s seminal articles on the suburban experiment note that:

“our post-World War II pattern of development — operates like a classic Ponzi scheme, with ever-increasing rates of growth necessary to sustain long-term liabilities.”

Meaning essentially that this form of development cannot fiscally sustain itself over more than one life cycle without  more growth to pay off previous liabilities.  Essentially, all of the infrastructure that supports the inefficient development pattern that is modern suburbia, the huge investment in roads and utilities to support sparsely dense areas, does not make economic sense after one life cycle.

We’re already seeing this today.

You know we can’t support our towns and cities when roads turn to gravel, when bridges collapse, streetlights get turned off and park districts, schools and municipal budgets are slashed despite ever rising taxes. It means that we’re not allocating our resources efficiently, that maybe the great wealth this country has had has been spent towards a pattern of development that just cannot sustain itself.