Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Are State Governments Out of Date?

San Francisco Bay Area highlighted in red on a...
San Francisco Bay Area highlighted in red on a map of California (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Take a look at almost any state in the nation, and you will find something interesting. Except for the original states that were created from the colonies, often times our states were created long before they had major population centers. This means that the population of the state and its regional ties may not necessarily conform to state borders.

Previously I talked about the important of a regional agency that should oversee transit service to insure that separate agencies are working together to ensure connectivity between transit systems so that riders have an easier time traveling across the region. One of the major problems of creating a regional board is that they stop at state lines and even though the place across the border may have economic ties to the other, they often have a hard time working together.

To start off lets take a look at California. I grew up there and always listened to the debates about north vs. south and how one was better than the other or more important than the other. In a way you could say there is actually multiple California's. Looking at regional needs you could say that Southern California is one region, The San Francisco Bay Area from Monterey to Sacramento is another region, and the San Joaquin Valley is a third.

An even better case is in the Northwest. While many residents of Vancouver, WA would not want to admit this, they have more in common with Portland, Oregon than they do with Seattle or Spokane economically. Politically Vancouver is more aligned with Spokane, economically they are part of a region that extends from Eugene to Longview.

Politically and economically Spokane and the surrounding area are independent and have little in common especially politically with the Puget Sound region. The Puget Sound area is its own region that you could arguably say stretches from Olympia to actually Vancouver BC but with Vancouver you don't have just another state but a another country which makes matters even worse.

More examples would be Pittsburgh that has more in common with neighboring cities in Ohio than it does with Philadelphia; does Kansas City, Kansas have more in common and belong in a region with Kansas City, Missouri more than say Wichita?; St. Louis and its 'suburbs' to the east in Illinois, the Cincinnati Region and so on.

Lets not fool ourselves, our States and their political existence is a bedrock in our nation and we will likely not see any changes in the future. However, while it may not happen on a national basis, there is still great benefits to regions working together to design and build a interconnected future. Maybe someday Cascadia will represent an economic and planning region in the northwest that will boost the region and not just a time bomb waiting to severly damage the area.
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Friday, September 28, 2012

Eliminating Parking Requirements - Easier Said Than Done

English: Bronaugh Apartments at ‎1434 Southwes...
English: Bronaugh Apartments at ‎1434 Southwest Morrison Street in Portland, Oregon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many transit advocates look to parking requirements and say that eliminating the need for so many parking spaces when new buildings are built that it would have a positive affect on transit ridership by encouraging those who live and work in those buildings to ride transit instead of driving.

The theory is that you make parking so difficult or have so few spaces that people would rather take the bus, streetcar, or light rail than have a car that they have to pay for parking or waste time finding a parking spot.

While the concept of eliminating parking sounds like a wonderful idea, sadly it is much harder to implement reduced or no parking requirements than it sounds. Currently there is several apartment buildings in the Portland, Oregon area that are either in the design stages or under construction that include no on site parking for the tenants. The hope is that the people who move into these buildings will look to using transit instead of driving a car.

The problem occurs with the neighbors surrounding these buildings as they worry that all the parking in front of their homes will be taking up parking spots on their street. One of the controversial buildings is located on the MAX Yellow Line in the area near the Overlook station.

Of course there is two ways to look at the worry's of the neighbors  You could look at it as people worried that resident of these new apartments will take up all the parking in their neighborhood and there will be no spaces left for anyone else. The other side of the argument is that we have become so accustomed to having all the parking we need for free that we cannot handle not having it handed to use on a silver platter.

One of the major obstacles faced by advocates is to get the general public to look at parking differently than they currently do. While it may not be an easy thing to do, over time a paradigm shift can occur that will open up people to the idea that parking requirements. Today parking is something that is expected and people can not comprehend that a reduction in it will be successful.

However, I can tell you from personal experience that apartments with no parking have existed for more than a hundred years, continue to exist and gasp, people actually survive. As I have mentioned previsouly I grew up in Pasadena/South Pasadena area of California. That's right in automobileville itself  the Los Angeles area before there was a Gold Line to Pasadena or an alternative to the Southern California not so Rapid Transit District.

As I mentioned before, I spent many years growing up in an apartment complex with a small grocery store around the corner. Most of my block was made up of apartment buildings except for a few large homes directly across the street from our apartment. The amazing thing was that most of the apartments did not have any on site parking. That's right folks even the buildings that where built in the 50 and 60's did not have any parking attached.

To make this situation even more shocking was that only one side of the our road had on street parking because it was so narrow. Now if you would listen to the profits of doom these new complexes in Portland will be the end of the world. However, from personal experience I can tell you that they do work and over time people will get used to the situation.

However, one thing to take into consideration is transit access. These type of complexes must be on major bus lines, in fact the priority should be to put these where at least one frequent service bus or rail line runs and preferable at the intersection of two frequent services lines to provide the maximum benefit to those that live in the complexes.

Eventually cities like Portland can get even more aggressive about elimating parking requirements. It will take and will have to be well planned as it has worked in the past, it works today in many areas, and will work even more in the future.
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Monday, September 24, 2012

Opening of the new Portland Streetcar Line

Had the opportunity to attend the grand opening of the new Portland CL line this past Saturday. This is the third new rail opening I have attended, the first being the opening of the original TRAX line in 1998, the second was when I was invited on the VIP run of UTA's Front Runner commuter rail service between Ogden and Salt Lake City, and finally the opening of the this new streetcar line.

My first ride on the new line occured before the actual ceremony as I rode the new CL line from 11th and Jefferson to OMSI (Oregon Museum of Science and Industry) which I happen to be a member of.

The MC of the event was the mayor of Portland Sam Adams who will be leaving office at the end of his term in a few months. He took time to blast a attack article in the Oregonian and pointed out there is already investment going on along the streetcar line.

Another speaker during the ceremony was Neil McFarlane who is general manager of TriMet. For anyone who follows transit blogs in the Portland area, they will know that he is often blasted and called some rude names in many circles including on a blog run by a disgruntled former bus driver. 

He actually rode the same streetcar that I did from the Portland State University area and will have to say that I found him to be very approachable and talk to several people on the streetcar. 

There was several other excellent speakers during the ceremony including one of the people responsible for the streetcar itself Michael Powell who happens to own a bookstore of some notoriety that is served by both of the streetcar lines now.

After the ribbon cutting the VIP's boarded the Oregon Iron Works prototype car that was making its inaugural run in revenue service. There has been some complaints about Oregon Iron Works because they are behind in production of the cars by a couple of months but one of the speakers noted that the previous cars were 8 months behind in arrived so Oregon Iron Works is actually doing pretty good. 

I rode the next streetcar to the Lloyd District and took these pictures of that streetcar returning to OMSI. The area I took this picture is pretty desolate because the area is surrounded strictly by high rise non-mixed use office buildings that are ghost towns on weekends. You may also notice in the picture above that to the right there is a Honda Accord parked in the bike line which is supposed to be the lane on the right with parking to the left of the bike lane. 

After grabbing a bite to eat I made a point to catch this streetcar on its next trip back to downtown. The car had a minor problem with its wheelchair ramp that was quickly taken care of and the we had a good trip back to 10th and Clay where I got off.

The line is currently U-shaped but in less than three years will become a true loop when the new bridge over the Willamette River is completed by TriMet and the streetcar will use it along with TriMet light rail trains.

It will be interesting to see how this line performs over the long haul. Right now frequencies are not what is needed and the area is no Pearl district however that may actually be a good thing. Do we really need lots of new high rises that bring the suburbs to the urban center, or should we see development that is more human scale? There is plenty of potential along the new line and time we tell what will be made of it.
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Thursday, September 13, 2012

You Can't Get There from Here...

English: Zip car carsharing service at downtow...
English: Zip car carsharing service at downtown Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
New Flyer C40LFR laying over ath the Federal W...
New Flyer C40LFR laying over ath the Federal Way Transit Center. It left a few minutes later on route 402. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Lincoln City, Oregon
Lincoln City, Oregon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Two buses at the Forest Grove, Oregon...
English: Two buses at the Forest Grove, Oregon terminal of TriMet, the public transit agency serving the Portland, Oregon metropolitan area. This off-street bus loop for route 57 is located at 19th Avenue and B Street in Forest Grove and is the farthest-west point in the TriMet system. Buses 2559 and 2554 are both New Flyer D40LF units built in early 2001. The small building on the right is for use by bus drivers. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the biggest challenges for those looking to do without a car is when trips need to be made beyond the normal transit area. For those that are able to drive there is the option of renting a car either through one of the car sharing companies such as Zipcar or traditional rental car companies.

However, renting a car is expensive and will most likely become even more expensive with Hertz taking over Dollar/Thrifty leaving only four major companies left to provide rental cars.

For those that cannot drive, the options are even worse as service to many areas is either non existent or very poor and not designed for inter-regional trips. For example, in the last few months I have made three trips to Tillamook from Portland. While there is limited bus service from Tillamook to Portland you cannot travel from Portland to spend the day in Tillamook. In fact even for people traveling to Portland the schedule only allows for five hours in Portland itself.

For another example let's look at Lincoln City, Oregon which is a major tourist destination. If you want to head to Lincoln City from Portland for the day forget it. There is only two transportation options. One is a casino bus that runs only a few days a week that will take you to Chinook Winds Casino on the north side of town. However, if your leaving from the Portland area it leaves the Gateway Transit Center at 5:30am. Not a very appealing time.

The only other option is the expensive Airport Caravan that travels from Yachats to the Portland Airport via Lincoln City and cost $55.00. Problem is it travels to Portland in the morning then returns in the early afternoon. Lincoln City used to have Greyhound service until a few years ago that was a little more affordable but still did not have the best times.

In Northwest Oregon/Southwest Washington we have a number of transit agencies including TriMet, Cherroits in Salem, SAM, SMART, Canby Area Transit, Woodburn Transit, C-Train, Lower Columbia, CUBS in Longview, Amtrak, Greyhound, Bolt, Sunset Transit, Tillamook County Transit, Lincoln County Transit, Pacific County Transit and several others I am probably forgetting about.

The problem is these agencies number one priority is their own service area and are often blind to travel needs beyond their districts. If we are going to create a sustainable alternatives to automobile travel, all agencies are going to need to work together to provide service that connects important points not just in their own area but regionally also.

To complicate matters even further is the fact that support for any transit service disappears once you leave the urban areas and that is why some districts such as Pierce Transit in Tacoma, WA cut back their service district recently and Intercity Transit in Olympia, WA did it several years ago. Officials made the decision that it was better to create a smaller district that would have more support but of course cuts those off who are located outside the new district.

One way to solve some of the problems would create a regional transit coordinating agency that would work with all the different agencies not only the transit providers themselves but other stakeholders to design a system that will create a more usable system. Recently Reconnecting America recently had a program that discussed issues in rural areas and how to more effectively service them. One agency in southern Maine worked with public and private companies to better coordinate transit service in the area including connecting it up with Amtrak's Downeaster service between Portland, Maine and Boston.

The difficulty in creating a regional agency is to create an organization that can walk the thin line between being able to work with all the agencies involved to coordinate activities including fares, service, and marketing while not alienating groups and not becoming another bureaucratic nightmare of an agency that exists on its own inertia.

Basically we are down to the old chicken and egg scenario. Do we worry about only providing transit service to the busiest urban areas and let the outer and rural areas deal with it until the time comes when transit service becomes more vital across the board or do we start to look at a big picture?

While I used the a section of the northwest for example, you could look to almost any area of the country and see the problems that exist we access to transit services and the lack of coordination between agencies. If transit service is to become a more important part of the transportation mix, service will need to be better coordinated to make transit service more useful to the largest number of possible riders.

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Tuesday, September 04, 2012

How Economic Development affects Effective Planning

Mayor Dennis Doyle
Mayor Dennis Doyle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my last couple of posts, I talked about the efforts of many cities to create economic development by inciting corporations with subsidies to locate. Today, I am going to talk about how corporations influence public policy and can have a detrimental effect on effective public planning.

I also mentioned in the first posting of last week that often times companies will relocated such as Sears Holdings moving from downtown Chicago out to the suburbs through government subsidies creating a situation where the new location is poorly accessed by transit by its poor location. Further when one set of subsidies expire the corporations will often come back demand more and threaten to move if they do not get what they want. The problem is these major national/multi-national corporations do not care about the cities and will go where they get the biggest subsidies.

Now lets take a look at how these issues can affect effective planning by using the example of Nike.

Nike is located in Washington County, Oregon near the city of Beaverton. Like many corporate campuses it was designed around the automobile and transit access is near impossible as can be seen in this Google map image:

View Larger Map

There is bus service along Murray Blvd to the east, and as you can see in the map it is relatively close to a MAX light rail station. Looking at the map you can see a forested area that extends from the south of Jenkins Road to the MAX Blue Line. This property is owned by NIKE and it was proposed that they would extended their headquarters across Jenkins to that piece of land.

However according to the urban plan because it is located at a MAX station it needed to include housing and two new roads needed to be built to better access the site. In addition the city of Beaverton tried to annex the site which affects Beaverton because the traffic created by Nike has to be solved by the city of Beaverton.

Nike responded by filing a lawsuit against the city of Beaverton to prevent the annexation so that they would not face paying higher city taxes. This shows another problem with these relocations (while NIKE was not relocated it provides a good example), that a company will get subsidies to move outside city limits so they pay less in taxes but the nearby cities often end up subsidizing the roads in order to get the workers to the new building.

In addition NIKE started lobbying state senators and legislatures to help solve their problem for them and Charley Ringo a State Senator from Washington County was more than happy to obliged fearing that NIKE would pull up states and leave and despite being a member of the Sierra Club drafted legislation that forbid the city of Beaverton to annex the area for 50 years. That's right for two generations nothing can be done to enforce the plan that was previously created to make the area more transit friendly and ensure that Transit Oriented Development is put in by the MAX station.

In addition after the legislature of the state of Oregon dictated what the city could do for the next 50 years, NIKE tried to influence the next election for Beaverton mayor by donating and promoting heavily the person running against the current mayor who they declared was not "business friendly".

It is hard enough to get good development done, situations like this make it even harder and do nothing to build a better community. While giving subsidies to major/multi-national corporations may be a short term solution to economic development, in the long run working to build a local economy that has a stake in the community does more than throwing millions out the door.

I am not saying NIKE is a bad company, however they are looking at their own self interest. The people that should have been looking out for the best interest of the community such as State Senator Charley Ringo who interesting enough did not run for reelection the following year should have considered not only what NIKE wanted by what was in the long term best interest of the community as a whole.
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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

New Hillsboro Stadium

English: Hillsboro Stadium in Hillsboro, Oregon
English: Hillsboro Stadium in Hillsboro, Oregon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my last posting I talked about sports stadiums when specifically talking about economic development and how they don't actually accomplish what they set out to do. Today I am going to focus on the new Hillsboro stadium which next year will be home to the Hillsboro _________ baseball team that is currently the Yakima Bears.

As I mentioned in my last posting, you often here how wonderful these new stadiums are, how they will attract so much spending and will benefit the whole city. If you read Paul Allen's autobiography you will get a very good one sided opinion on the importance of the new stadium that was built in Seattle. The one good point about the new Seattle stadiums is that they are located near downtown will good transit access. The question is, what is their true cost?

Now lets take a look at the recently approved stadium in Hillsboro which will be built near Evergreen Drive and 229th. The stadium is located near the US Highway 26 but is two miles from the nearest MAX station and located near one of TriMet's weaker all day lines the 47 which after next week will take over the weakest portion of route 89 and travel from the Sunset Transit Center to Hillsboro. The route only runs Monday through Friday with limited evening service.

That means that access the new stadium via transit is a non-starter unless you want to walk two miles along roads that are design to speed drivers and not designed to make it a pleasant walk. I have walked some of the streets in the area and can tell you they are not designed with the pedestrian in mind. Now compare that to the Salt Lake Bee's stadium that is located just one short block from the TRAX light rail station on 1300 South in Salt Lake City, which one would your rather access:


View Larger Map

Salt Lake City:

View Larger Map

We can basically assume that most people are going to drive to the new stadium since transit is a non-starter. To make matters worse most of the weekday games will probably be in the evenings when the most number of people will attend so that means that it will make traffic conditions along US Highway 26 even worse with no alternatives to being stuck in traffic.

Then there is the financing of the stadium. The city of Hillsboro will finance the cost of the stadium by issuing a bond. Supposedly the bond will be repaid through ticket sales and naming rights through the stadium. However, the city is already stated that they will probably not be enough to repay the bond so the taxpayers will be on the hook.

Then we have the issue of the so called "multiplier affect". There is some typical chain fast food places located to the east of the new stadium along with a Fred Meyer big box store. Most of the other sit down restaurants are located a distance from the new stadium site. Beyond that most of the area is devoted primarily industrial which will be unwelcoming to those heading for the games.

How many dollars will be lost to other businesses is unknown and would most likely be felt outside the Hillsboro area although the movie theater in Hillsboro may see an affect.

When the debate was going on in Salt Lake City for a new soccer stadium that was finally put on the backs of tourist who will never probably use the facility, one long time Salt Lake talk show host Doug Wright who is also a major sports nut said that investments like these are important to the community. Of course I have shown that those dollars have to come from somewhere and often it is from businesses not located near the facility. So what is the answer?

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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Economic Development: Benefit or Black Hole?

The headquarters of Intel Corporation in Santa...
The headquarters of Intel Corporation in Santa Clara, California. Note the small "No Photos" sign in the picture. Photographed by user Coolcaesar on July 16, 2006. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
On August 15th, the Portland Tribune ran a article encouraging people to opt-in to a survey being conducted by the Metro planning agency. In the article they mentioned some of the comments left by people and one particular struck me and that was by a person who said that the government should work to bring more businesses to the area such as Intel which is making big investments in the Hillsboro area.

The comment makes since to those who only look at the surface and say it will create more jobs which almost every area could use. However, looking below the surface so called economic development has become a $50 Billion a year business. That's right cities, counties, states and the feds spend upwards of $50 Billion trying to get a business to move to a certain area. 

The problem is, in our new global society our cities have become disposable, as soon as the tax incentives have expired the corporation will start demanding more money or just pick up and leave the area. If there is a good balance of business in the area it is not so devastating but when they are the major employer, the effects of a pull out can be long lasting. The subsidies themselves can take multiple forms including tax breaks, infrastructure improvements, or outright cash. Either way this incentives cost the area money and often times fail in the long run to be worth what was paid. 

Let me give you some examples of economic incentives gone wrong:
-One city gives $300 million in subsidies to a major airline to create a maintenance base. Over the life of the base it employed half the number of employees promised and when the subsidy period ended the airline contracted out maintenance to another company who received other forms of incentives over the years. 

-Another city gives subsidies to a major computer manufacturer to locate a manufacturing facility and call center. In a interesting twist the company lays off the employees before a deadline which means they would have to pay back all the subsidies they received so they have to quickly hire back employees and pay them to do nothing for two months before laying them off again. 

-One city subsidizes a major corporation to leave the city center and move to the outer suburbs (these moves are usually designed to move the company closer to the current CEO and don't benefit the average employees or usually the companies for that matter). The area has only limited transit service because there is nothing else out there which causes more subsidies for highway and street expansions. The company has been in financial troubles for years but when the company starts "shopping" to move pressure is put on the governor of the state to give the company more subsidies. This also shows how desperate or corrupt some of these economic development teams are when they are willing to extended so much subsidies to a company that has been on the brink of failure for several years. 

-Some cities have spent more than one million dollars per potential job created. However, in the long run the amount of payroll dollars never makes up for the amount of subsidies give to the business. 

These are just four examples of what can go wrong when it comes to economic development. 

Sports teams are another subsidy black hole. How often do you see some sport team that is telling the city you give us something or we are moving. The are always quick to point out the "multiplier" affect but of course leave out the other side of the equation which I will talk about separately. 

Often times when discussing economic development you will hear the term "multiplier". This means that for every direct job created so many secondary jobs are created because that job was created. However, what often is not discussed whether it be a sports team or retailer is while they may create jobs there, it often comes at the expense of something. If you read the economic forecast for a sports team you will hear glowing things about the economic impact as if those attending the games just have this money sitting around to go to these high priced games or races. However, if a person decides to go to a major sporting event, it means that they have an opportunity cost for that event which says that they will not do something else. So the stadium may make the money but the movie theater looses, or they may reduce the number of times they go out to dinner. Often times since people come from the surrounding area, the city that has the stadium benefits and some other area looses so it is not quantified. 

The same thing goes when a government agency gives subsidies to retailers such as Wal-Mart, Ikea, Cabela's and many others who get subsidies to locate in a certain place. While the city itself gets new retail dollars (unless of course they city is big enough that they are just paying Peter to rob Paul), those dollars come from somewhere and it means they don't shop somewhere else. For example a new store goes in at city A but it robs sales dollars from city B and C. The same dollars get spent, it just moved from one city to another. 

The problem is, it is often small businesses that end up subsidizing major corporations that end up causing the small business to close. Of course this is no different than when the streetcar companies were heavily taxed and those tax dollars subsidized their competition back in the first half of the 20th century. 

The trouble is, has the state of economic development incentives become too big of a monster to slay? 
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