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Robert Goodspeed's blog

Why is it so hard to build a train?

I received a newsletter in the mail recently about the Purple Line, a light rail line in the planning process in the Washington, D.C. suburbs. Like hundreds of other public transit projects across the country, the rail line is in the "planning" stages and nobody can really say exactly when it will be constructed or begin operations.

The cause is simple: too little funds and a lack of political support both locally and from the federal government. Quite simply, we get more roads because our policies are structured to spend more money on them, and they're more popular with elected officials. Although the specific cause of the lack of transit investment is simple enough, its effect on the way transit systems are planned and perceived by the public is far from simple. The lack of funds has added complexity length to an already complex and lengthy process. As a result, project supporters and detractors alike are alienated from the planning, forced to navigate a morass of acronyms, plans, and steps.

The problem lies in the fact that since there is some money available, local supporters of the roughly 400 planned projects (with an estimated total cost of $248 billion) pretend they've got a shot at it. Time and again local boosters tell the media they'll just submit for federal funds and break ground after they complete the required paperwork. As we'll see, this couldn't be farther from the truth.

Whither the Regional Planning?

Over a year ago I blogged about a conference of urban historians where the group debated a talk, titled "Whither the Region?," where historian Greg Hise observed the group was talking about regional history less. In my response, I suggested several causes: limited decision-making at the regional level in America, center city biases among historical sources like newspapers, and metropolitan areas growing to encompass entire regions due to urban sprawl. I also observed that although it may go unstudied by the group, a good number of regional planning organizations and agencies do exist.

Should the Internet Replace Newspapers for Public Notices?

In thousands of planning and zoning laws across the nation, official announcements are required to be published in the local newspaper of "general circulation." In an era of newspaper decline and expanding diversity of media, are these laws becoming obsolete? Furthermore, should we be concerned with newspapers at all if a newer, more universally accessible medium is available: the Internet?

A variety of announcements are legally required to be published in a local periodical of "general circulation," sometimes in addition to being published in an official government gazette. The practice entered the planning world through the U.S. Department of Commerce's highly influential standard zoning and planning enabling acts.

The Origin of New Urbanism's Persistent Image Problem

Decades after its founding, New Urbanism design movement retains a serious reputation problems among American urbanists. Despite a broad-based interdisciplinary membership, for many the movement is defined by a handful of large, high-profile green field projects like Celebration and Seaside, Florida, and The Kentlands in Maryland. This view ignores its other successes, ranging from overhauling obsolete zoning codes, developing sensitive infill projects, and improving the quality of public housing through the HOPE VI program. However, much more than an unfair stereotype of the movement, the reputation problem runs to the core of intellectual life among American urbanists, speaking to the way our cities our developed and studied.

Getting the Transportation Infrastructure We Need

Bank, Commission, Capital Budget or Business as Usual?

There's a growing consensus the U.S. needs to invest more in our infrastructure, especially our transportation infrastructure. Too many roads and bridges are in poor repair, and congestion is slowing the economy of many cities. High gas prices has only added to intense interest nationwide for new and enhanced public transportation. With the expiration of the SAFETEA-LU legislation, next year Congress has the opportunity to revise the policies guiding investment in this critical infrastructure.

Unfortunately, after the interstate highway system, the federal role in transportation infrastructure is mostly known for its excessive pork barrel spending (bridges to nowhere) and limited funds and Byzantine policies restricting mass transit investment.

How should we evaluate the various proposals to reform federal policy? The Urban Land Institute (where I am working this summer) proposed an 8-point "action agenda" for infrastructure in their second-annual infrastructure report. The agenda is a statement of principles that should guide investments. It includes: build a vision for the community, invest strategically in coordination with land use, fix and maintain first, reduce driving, couple land use decisions with water availability, break down government "silos," cut pork barrel spending and support smart growth, keep score and keep governments accountable.

Taking those principles as advice, let's take a look at what has been proposed.

What Flavor of TEA Do You Want?

The federal law setting nation transportation funding and policy, SAFETEA-LU, is set to expire on September 30, 2009. The huge bill has regulated everything from the New Starts transit program to thousands of pork-barrel transportation projects around the country. With unprecedented concern over global warming, a new president in November, and popular frustration with congestion on both transit and highways, there may be the opportunity for a major revision in federal policy. In this post I review some of the debate so far, and outline the proposals recently released by an independent commission.

Smart Growth at the Grassroots, Part 2

Rethinking College Park

Route 1Is College Park, Maryland a great college town? Although the town is home to a top-ranked national research university that is one of the largest employers in the state of Maryland, the town pales in comparison with the nation's best-liked college towns, whether Ann Arbor, Michigan, Ithaca, New York, or Charlottesville, Virginia. In this post I describe one attempt to use the internet to improve an aspiring college town.

Smart Growth at the Grassroots, Part 1

Matching Obstacles and Techniques (Part one of two)

Creating Smart Growth in our metropolitan areas is generally more complex than conventional auto-oriented development, more expensive, and requires more public involvement and coordination. The strong policies and regional cooperation planners desire to coordinate development have proven politically challenging. Unless planners are able to create systems that overcome these obstacles our efforts to encourage Smart Growth will be stymied. Luckily solutions are available, but they must be as nimble and resourceful as the forces they hope to counter.

Considering a Smart Growth President

It's often said that in America, urban development issues are decided at the local level. In general the rule of thumb is accurate, explaining a country home to cities as different in form as Houston, Texas and San Francisco, California. The notable exception to the rule is the country's interstate highway system, build with extensive involvement of the federal government. However, under closer inspection we can find a number of areas where federal funding and policies has a strong impact on urban development. A survey of what the leading presidential candidates are saying about urban policy suggests what priorities our next president may have.