You Can’t Be For Less Transit and Less Gridlock

Here’s Dana Grubb complaining about the post-fireworks traffic out of Southside Bethlehem on the 4th of July:

Frequent council commentator Dana Grubb said he was in traffic and watching anxiously as an Easton ambulance crawled through bumper-to-bumper traffic toward St. Luke’s Hospital in Fountain Hill. Other motorists struggled to get out of the ambulance’s way, he said. His trip from Hayes Street to the Minsi Trail Bridge, ordinarily made in a minute or two, took 15 minutes.

“It was a cluster, to put it bluntly,” he said. “I only shudder to think what it might be like after a headlining concert.”

And here’s Dana opposing the LOOP Shuttle between North and South Bethlehem:

“I understand the ambulance, I understand the firetruck, but I’m a little befuddled by the city pursuing funding for the Loop out of the gaming money at the county level,” Grubb said. “I’m out and around the town pretty much and those buses are pretty darn empty. As a taxpayer I’m really concerned, given the performance to date.”

The thing about gridlock is that it’s caused by too many cars trying to occupy a scarce amount of street space at the same time. If everybody tries to bring a car to a popular event like the fireworks, there’s going to be a lot of traffic. The solution, then, is to charge more for parking at the site, and then encourage people to park at the Northside parking garages and take the LOOP over.

This isn’t brain surgery. If you’re concerned about traffic, you need to be advocating for better mass transit service. If you’re for cutting back transit service, then you can’t complain about too many cars on the road. It’s one or the other.

Will Corbett Support His Commissions’ Recommended Tax Increases?

This weekend we learned that Tom Corbett’s Marcellus Shale commission, despite its lopsided representation from the natural gas industry, will apparently be recommending some form of tax fee on fracking in addition to the odious practice of forced pooling. Here’s Angela Couloumbis and Laura Olson at the Inquirer:

Gov. Corbett’s advisory panel on drilling in the Marcellus Shale endorsed a long list of recommendations Friday on how to deal with the burgeoning industry, including imposing a local impact fee – not a tax – on the extraction of natural gas.

The 30-member commission also tacitly threw its weight behind the controversial practice of “pooling,” which effectively allows a drilling company to force holdout landowners to lease their below-ground gas rights under certain circumstances.

Today we learned that Corbett’s transportation funding panel recommends an increase in the gas tax, in addition to various fee increases:

The commission urged legislation to increase the cost of titles, inspections, driver’s licenses, and other documents in line with inflation. It said the move would raise $412 million in the first year and $574 million by the fifth year. The panel recommended increasing passenger-vehicle registration costs by $13 and four-year driver’s license fees by $4. Drivers would also be charged a $10 local registration fee.

The panel also suggested readjusting the wholesale gasoline tax, capped at $1.25 in 1993. That could bring in an extra $1.4 billion of revenue per year, according to the commission.

If properly adjusted for inflation, the tax would be increased by $1.43. The commission estimated that this would increase gas prices by about 22 cents per gallon this year.

An increase of 22 cents per gallon, around $36 a year, is a very smart way to raise $1.4 billion a year with minimal cost to economic growth. The state’s gas tax is already very low, and on balance, the gas tax policy should be encouraging less carbon-intensive ways of getting around. It’s a good thing if some people drive less as a result of the tax increase.

Likewise, taxing fracking is a very sensible way to raise revenue. I’m opposed to anything other than a statewide severance tax, but the fact that an industry-dominated panel recommended any kind of tax just goes to show how obvious a revenue source this is, and how extreme Corbett’s position is.

But Tom Corbett is unlikely to support any sensible suggestions for closing the state’s revenue shortfall, because his boss Grover Norquist has veto power over the majority Republicans, and Norquist doesn’t believe in “budgeting.”

Don’t Run Over Michael McFarland

Michael has shared his plight in a Letter to the Editor of the Morning Call. Please do not make him ride his bike into the corn:

I’m a 12-year-old boy and I like to ride my bike a lot. I think it is very scary when I’m riding on the street that has no shoulder and cars come flying by without slowing down. I live in the country so I can’t go into the grass because it’s just corn. I’m just hoping people would be a little more cautious when they see walkers and bikers on the road.

This is why we need a Complete Streets policy at PennDOT.

Transit Access and Economic Mobility

Over at Patch I have a new column up making the case that increasing transit access to jobs is a good way to improve economic mobility. My prescription is to increase the number of businesses that can fit in the downtown business districts:

It’s true that the Valley’s core cities are already pretty dense, but there’s still a lot more that can be done to increase net density. Surface parking lots and empty lots can be filled in with taller buildings.

Commercial buildings and multi-family homes that get demolished can be replaced with taller ones over time. Cities could uncap height restrictions and tax just the first 4 floors of new buildings in the core business districts as an incentive for developers.

Increased density would make public transportation a practical option for more people across a range of incomes, increasing fare revenues to LANTA that could be used to buy more buses, reduce wait times, and improve service frequency between the cities and the suburbs.

Taxing only the first 4 floors of new commercial buildiings is actually an idea Michael Donovan gave me, and it’s a very good one. The marginal cost of adding additional floors diminishes as the number of floors increases, so it’s likely that a free market for land in the central business district would yield taller buildings organically, even without any tax incentives.

One thing I didn’t get to go into in the column is the politics of this issue.

For Democrats, it’s a policy win for multiple groups in the liberal electoral coalition. Labor gets construction and service-sector jobs. Economically-disadvantaged people get more service-sector job opportunities a short distance from home, and more affordable housing. For climate hawks, it would reduce car trips, reduce commute times, increase ridership on public transportation, and slow sprawl. For seniors, it would mean retaining more independence after they stop driving. For students and young adults, more cultural offerings.

On the Republican side, you’d think the Chamber of Commerce and “business-friendly” politicians would support anything that would produce more robust growth or increase productivity in the region. The theory of change is pretty conservative – the assumption is that the market will produce more job opportunities on its own if we loosen the rules to allow more office space and residents in the central business districts.

But there’s also a strong NIMBY strain within both parties that views these issues not as a technical debate over what land uses will produce the most job growth, but as a culture war issue pitting suburban identity politics against urban identity politics.

This is one issue where I hope we will see the raw coalition politics win out.

The Low-Hanging Fruit of Transportation Reform

Bipartisanship! Tanya Snyder brings us 7 ideas that the hippies at Transportation for America and the free marketeers at the Reason Foundation say they can agree on.

1. Transportation scenario planning – Rather than planning for a future just like the present, metros and states can use a more dynamic planning process, often used by the military but increasingly adopted by policy-makers, which brings together a variety of community stakeholders to envision how the future could look under a variety of possible scenarios. They come up with a “preferred scenario” and set policies and goals oriented toward achieving that scenario.

2. High Occupancy Toll lanes – Sometimes derided as “Lexus lanes,” these lanes are reserved for carpoolers but are also open to those willing to pay for a quicker trip with less congestion. HOT lanes can use dynamic pricing to change the cost of driving on the lanes based on demand to keep congestion on those lanes low enough to guarantee a 45 mile-per-hour speed, according to Shirley Ybarra of the Reason Foundation, Virginia’s Secretary of Transportation from 1998 to 2002.

3. Bus Rapid Transit – Latin America has pioneered a host of innovative ways to make bus service faster, more reliable, and more pleasant. The buses travel in their own designated lane, preferably physically separated from other traffic, to keep from getting stuck in the same traffic jams as everybody else. The stations often are more elaborate platforms, with fares collected at the station, to speed the boarding process. BRT is scalable, allowing cities to test the waters with a modest system and then improving stations, real-time bus tracking, fare collection systems, and lane separations as the system matures.

4. Intelligent Transportation Systems – Everyone seems to agree that E-ZPass (and even boothless “open road tolling”), traffic light optimization, electronic transit fare payments, and real-time transit tracking are improvements cities and states can make right now to get the most out of their existing capacity, potentially staving off the perceived need to expand. Despite the consensus on the utility of these tools, however, states are still slow to implement them, so let this be a tri-partisan push for them to get on it. A 2005 GAO report found that ITS reduced delays by 9 percent where it was implemented.

5. Inter-city Buses – Libertarians love inter-city buses because they use virtually no subsidies (except for those that build and maintain the roads they drive on). Operators like BoltBus and MegaBus offer clean and comfortable rides with wi-fi service. Inter-city buses were the fastest-growing transportation mode in 2010. Erich Zimmerman of Taxpayers for Common Sense added that bus service does a good job of connecting rural areas, too. About 78 percent of rural Americans have access to inter-city bus travel, he said.

6. Telework – We can all get behind this one, right? Doing your part to reduce vehicle-miles-traveled by working in your pajamas from your easy chair? Ybarra says educating employers is always the challenge – employees get it intrinsically. Once managers are convinced workers will be equally – or more – productive at home, they tend to embrace the idea.

7. Local street connectivity – Call it Operation Cul-de-Sac. Suburban growth models did away with traditional urban grids that allow easy access from one place to another through a variety of routes. In their place, they built high-traffic arterial roads that connect little cul-de-sac communities that don’t connect any other way. This puts so much pressure on the arterials that people end up using interstates to go just a couple of exits to take the kids to school, said James Corless of Transportation for America. And that keeps the interstates from efficiently performing their primary job: moving people between states. Besides, when the only roads that go anywhere are high-speed arterials without sidewalks or bike lanes, your only option is to drive, even for short trips. Better just to have functional grids that give people more options of how to get from point A to point B.

Transit Access to Jobs in the Lehigh Valley

Brookings has a new paper out on transit access to jobs, complete with fun infographics for the Top 100 US metros. Here are the Lehigh Valley’s numbers:

Here’s overall coverage:

Here’s service frequency. You have to zoom in to the core areas to see anything. In the darkest areas, service is best – a 0-5 minute wait. In the next lightest areas it’s 5-10 minutes, then 10-15, 15-20, and the lightest is anything over 20 minutes:

Head over to the map to play with some other features. The main takeaway is that the city cores, which have the most low-income people, are best served by transit. But only 27% of all jobs are reachable by transit within 90 minutes. To make transit a realistic option for more people, you want to get the service frequency number down, so there’s less time between buses.

The way to deal with jobs access is either to make transit go where the jobs are, or try to move the jobs to where the transit is. This is why it’s a good idea for public policy to nudge businesses to cluster in the downtown cores. If the region starts adding most of its new jobs in the core cities instead of sprawling office parks over the next several years, that’s the easiest way to get the access-to-jobs number up.

But to do that, you need to increase density (height) to fit more people and businesses into a fixed space. Not only would this increase productivity, it would reduce air pollution and save people money at the pump. And the less people have to spend on gas, the more they can spend at the Valley’s businesses. This is as close to a free lunch as you’re going to get.

After Pork

The post-pork era in Congress means more money for transportation and livability projects:

The FHWA just announced that 11 programs, funded at a combined $422 million, will be making discretionary grants for innovative projects. “These grants will support projects that work to improve safety, maintain a state of good repair, and make communities more livable,” the FHWA statement said. The money for most of those 11 programs used to be consumed almost entirely by earmarks.

The bad news is that the very year the Lehigh Valley’s Congressman got on the Appropriations Committee, it suddenly became politically unfashionable to be seen handing out big cardboard checks. Luckily there are a number of projects in the Valley’s cities that would unquestionably qualify for merit-based federal grants – the Greenway in Bethlehem, the bike trails plan in Allentown, and the Silk Mill project in Easton.