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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for August 13th, 2007

Portland’s Green Dividend

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CEO’s for Cities

What if you could add $2.6 billion annually to your local economy?

That’s what Portland has effectively done by getting its citizens to drive just 4 fewer miles a day, according to a briefing paper by our colleague Joe Cortright called Portland’s Green Dividend.

As a result of enacting a growth boundary, increased density, mixed land uses, and investments in public transportation, walking and biking, Portlanders are saving time and money on transportation that gets funneled back into the local economy.

For most people in Metro Vancouver, the benefits of the transit investments have been concentrated into Vancouver (and its east side at that) Burnaby, New Westminster and North Surrey. The savings of time and money are a hard sell in communities like Langley, where the increased density is there but isolated in miles of ‘green belt’. The region as whole does not compare badly with other cities – in the USA. But that really has been a facile comparison. (And as it happens we tend to do better than either Portland or Seattle.)

Even so it is one that Kevin Falcon is incapable of understanding. He is determined that we end up as spread out as Minneapolis/St Paul, or maybe Kansas City (either of them, it doesn’t matter which). For he is acting simply in the interests of those who stand to profit from property development. And since we are, by and large, a property owning democracy, a lot of voters in the outer suburbs think they will benefit. But once the newly widened freeway is even more plugged up than it is now, and all that open space that makes the suburbs so desirable is covered in “little boxes, all made out of ticky tacky, and they all look just the same”, I wonder who they will blame?

Written by Stephen Rees

August 13, 2007 at 11:10 am

Catch Me, I’m Falling

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New York Times

An opinion piece on the Minneapolis 35W bridge failure by Samuel I. Schwartz, who was the New York City Department of Transportation’s chief engineer from 1986 to 1990.

While there has been speculation about why this bridge failed, and the warnings about possible failure, this is the first article I have seen that actually identifies the root cause. I have refrained from comment until now, as I am not a Professional Engineer, but I have heard the members of that profession complain about this problem, and I am somewhat surprised that it has not been addressed (so far as I have seen) before now.

In the United States, local authorities can qualify for federal funding for bridge building or bridge replacement. But there is no federal funding to ensure that bridges are maintained.

“A 1989 study, which I commissioned for New York City’s transportation department, concluded that the city’s 840 bridges could be maintained in near pristine condition for $150 million annually. At the time, instead of conducting routine maintenance, we were spending $400 million a year to replace parts and even whole bridges. “

Federal funding looks like other people’s money. So states and cities would rather spend that than the dollars that have to go to their local taxpayers for. Mr Shwartz thinks there should be federal funding for bridge maintenance. I am not so sure. If the problem is due to federal funding, becoming more dependent on Washington may well make the problem worse.

We have also seen a continuous barrage of appeals to Ottawa for more federal funding of infrastructure funds – especially for transit and transportation. This is because Ottawa has been running budgetary surpluses for some years, and using it, mostly, to pay down the debt. And in general terms, reducing the amount of money needed for debt service now should leave more room for program spending in future. But some provinces, such as BC and Alberta have also been running surpluses. And in Alberta’s case, they have become debt free. Even so there has not been a significant increase in that province’s transit spending. Even some essential roads – such as those serving the oil patch that is producing this revenue – have been neglected.

The bridge failures – yes he describes rather a lot of them – and the attendant loss of life, would, you would think, attract attention. It is also the case that road maintenance is also neglected. And while the death and injury toll caused by poor road surfaces and pot holes comes in dribs and drabs, and the cost of damage to vehicles is probably much more than the dollars saved by not fixing problems quickly, this practice continues too, on both sides of the border.

As the saying goes, be careful of what you wish for, you might get it. I think it is much more important that transportation funds – from whatever source – are spent wisely, and with a view to optimizing life cycle cost. No new research is needed to establish how to do that. But an institutional mind set must be changed.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 13, 2007 at 4:47 am