Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Grasping for Silver Bullets

Stephens Media reports that the folks at (the inconveniently-named) Move Arkansas Forward are gearing up to push for a half cent increase in the state sales tax next year that would partially fund $1.8 billion in new highway construction and expansion over the next ten years. The asphalt boosters in the state Chamber of Commerce and the Highway Commission want us to pay for a statewide grid of four lane highways and add capacity to some existing roads even though we already have one of the most extensive state highway systems in the country. And they're selling the whole scheme to us in economic development terms, so it's harder for people to question the plan without getting labeled as anti-growth Scrooges. But I'm going to try. Instead of wasting money on the same old-fashioned false hope that we can tax-and-pave our way to prosperity we should seriously consider investments we can make in Arkansas's infrastructure that will increase choice for its citizens, make its economy more efficient and resilient, strengthen its communities and the ties between them, and genuinely improve the state.

Arkansas already has more than 16,000 miles of state highways; California, the 8th largest economy in the world (right between Italy and Brazil), has only about 300 more (and California's measurement includes planned roads that they haven't even been built yet). That equates to about 29.5 linear feet of state highway per person in Arkansas and about 2 feet, four inches per person in California. Put another way, California enjoys almost $115 million worth of g.d.p. from each mile of state highway while Arkansas only manages to squeeze $6 million out per mile. Of course, there are significant geographic and demographic differences between the states that account for some of the discrepancy. California's residents are more concentrated in a handful of places and the counties and local governments are responsible for a larger share of the roads out there. Plus, each mile of California's highway system contains on average more lanes than Arkansas's. But still- it's hard to say that Arkansas suffers from a lack of roads. And to add insult to injury, the people of Arkansas already learned first-hand what can happen when we spread ourselves too thin by building roads. The state defaulted on some debts back in the 1930's stemming partially from... building too many highways. Today though it appears that our leaders think flirting with a repeat of history is a great idea. We're already carrying several hundred million dollars in bond debt that funded a bit of recent construction and maintenance, but the long-term needs of the current highway system far outstrip even the rosiest of future revenue projections. And now the tar boosters want to add $1.8 billion in more lanes to that system, lanes that will undoubtably require maintenance and repaving not too far down the road (ha ha, pun intended).

"Ahhh, simple-minded, idealistic little Timmy," say the tar spreaders, "what's your worry? Everyone knows that growth always pays for itself. Once we build these next couple billion dollars worth of roads, growth and prosperity will rain down like manna from heaven, filling the state coffers with plenty of money to continue with business as usual." If that's the case, then why are we in any debt right now while maintenance needs continue their upward trajectory? Why haven't those 16,000+ miles of previous state highway projects led to a semblance of an economically-sustainable plan for funding future projects? Why did the city of Little Rock just have to pass its own $100 million sales tax increase to pay for things like road maintenance, fire stations, and police officers when Deltic Timber's Che-sprawl Valley was supposed to pay for itself without sucking people and money out of the rest of the city? Why does Pine Bluff find itself in its current condition despite being served by a big, wide four-lane interstate highway with a top-notch bypass to boot?

According to the Stephens article, Arkansas Highway and Transportation Director Scott Bennett estimates that the $1.8 billion program could create 50,000 jobs. We need a lot more information before that number starts to make any sense at all. By my maths if they spent every cent of the money on wages alone, then each of those '50,000' workers would get only $36,000, or $3,600 per year for the 10 year life of the tax. When you factor in the fact that most of the money for highway projects goes toward materials, fuel, equipment, etc., then there's even less cash for those '50,000' workers. Where does that '50,000' number come from? Projections of jobs that will magically appear because people's driving time between towns will drop by a few seconds? I don't buy it. Tell us more so that we can be informed participants in the democratic process.

Our road- and car-centric policies of the last 70-80 years have created a system in which effectively every person in Arkansas relies on private automobiles. There are a few neighborhood pockets in some towns where people can and do go about the bulk of their daily activities on foot or bike, but for most of us a car is an absolute requirement. There are a few towns too where public transportation allows people who can't afford cars to have at least a minimum level of mobility. The wide disparity between car and transit funding though leads most of us to drive whenever possible. And the result? Every Arkansawyer is basically forced to spend a huge chunk of change to buy a car every few years; pay for license, registration, and taxes; buy fuel; and pay for maintenance and repairs. Then there are a bunch of huge costs that may be harder to accurately measure but are every bit as real: the cost of time wasted driving as our cities and towns spread further and further out; the cost of decimating our downtowns to provide places to store all of our cars; the cost of the deaths and injuries caused by car crashes; and of course the costs of building and maintaining more and more roads. Some people say that the fuel cost component will be solved by advances in technology in the near future. That's swell, but what about everything else? Doc Brown's DeLorean still had to be parked somewhere when it wasn't using its Mr. Fusion generator to travel through time.

"But little Timmy, you're out of touch with reality," say the asphalt apologists. "We're a nation and state of DRIVERS. We LOVE our cars! Cars equal FREEDOM! Arkansas is too spread out for anything except cars to ever work, so we NEED four lane highways connecting all corners. You don't honestly think we can change our ways, do you?!" Yup. I do. We were a nation and state of horse riders before we decided to dive whole-hog into cars. We were a nation and state of tap-tap-taaappping telegraphers before we adopted phones. Just about every little town had a thriving opera house before movie theaters and then televisions entered our consciousness. We used to settle differences with a duel to the death. Et cetera, et cetera. Change happens. Get over it. We can either plan and prepare for change or we can try to prop up the past for a bit longer. In the current instance that prop is going to cost roughly $1.8 billion with some very large and unfunded long-term maintenance costs tacked on for good measure.

Admittedly, it's the easiest thing in the world to sit back and criticize, especially for a blogger relaxing in a warm coffee shop. So, what about solutions? Alternatives? Proposals? First of all, I agree that cars are here to stay as an indispensable component of our transportation system. Let's maintain and invest wisely though in a way that actually contributes something and in a way we can afford. We shouldn't keep blindly piling all of our eggs into that one straining basket and expect the basket to get stronger as the load gets bigger. We don't need to spend nearly $2 billion to avoid getting stuck behind some retirees driving their RV's a little below the speed limit. It's time to start investing in choice and resiliency instead. We can have economically and socially sustainable growth without paving everything in site.

A few ideas to get things started...
1. Make our towns walkable and bike-able. The car trip not taken is the most valuable one to our economy (not to mention our health and well-being). Similar to T. Boone Pickens' tree planting advice, the best time to build a bike lane was 20 years ago; the second best time is today. Just like cars to roads, if you build a well-connected, safe, and convenient network for bikes, people will choose to ride. The same goes for walking.
2. Stop building bypasses. There aren't going to be any places left to go to if we keep bypassing them all.
3. Get honest about the real costs and benefits of different types of development. The longer our cities agree to assume the long-term maintenance costs of infrastructure in new low density development without figuring out how to pay for it, the more painful the inevitable bill is going to be. This is going to sting a little, but if we keep putting it off the needle is just going to keep getting bigger.
4. Start planning for passenger rail. Prediction: some day there will be high speed rail between Dallas and Memphis/St. Louis passing through Arkansas. Rise above the nasty partisan politics of today and look around. It's hard to deny that we will reach a point of diminishing returns with roads and air travel, probably sooner than later. Investing public dollars in passenger rail will make sense then just like investing public dollars in roads and airports makes sense today. That transition will be much easier though if we go ahead and decide where the tracks and stations are going to go right now and start to promote appropriate development in those places.
5. Develop a plan for regional transit in central and northwest Arkansas. Some work has already been done, but it's time to recognize transit as a viable and indispensable part of our transportation network instead of something we provide out of a sense of obligation to poor people. From a capacity perspective 50 people choosing to ride a bus is no different from building enough road space to handle 50 extra cars. Let's fund it as such. Spend wisely though. Vintage-looking trolleys that pose well on postcards but don't provide much actual benefit are a waste of everyone's money and just fuel the naysayers' fire.
6. Replace minimum parking requirements with maximum-parking-allowed limits and price parking appropriately. Read The High Cost of Free Parking (free paper here, or the larger book that grew out of the paper here) and see the world through a whole new lens. The 'parking problem' that seems to plague every town suddenly transforms from a lack of parking into a stifling overabundance of parking that's choking the life out.
7. Start planning to decommission our urban freeways. I-630 in Little Rock and I-30 in NLR and LR are dinosaurs of a different era that should play no part in the future of the region and state. They siphon money away, don't pay for themselves, sever neighborhoods, discourage development in the immediate area, take up valuable space, and encourage sprawl that doesn't pay for itself either. Likewise, if we absolutely must build the northern loop through Camp Robinson to connect I-430 and I-440, then let's simultaneously plan for the eventual un-building of I-40 through North Little Rock. Urban freeways do more harm than good, and the cities that realize that are going to be much better positioned moving forward than the ones that just double-down in the face of uncertainty.

Connecting rural areas of the state with active transportation is a little further out on the bell curve of what's feasible, but it's not impossible. See here and here. Of course anything over a 2-3 mile bike ride becomes a chore for most people; buses need high ridership numbers to make economic sense; and train tracks only connect some parts of the state. However, #'s 1, 2, and 3 above would start us off in the right direction. When people can realistically bike and walk in a town, then a bus stop in the middle starts to make more sense. Just look at all the tiny towns across Europe connected with high quality bus service. Heck, there's a town in Austria with fewer than 1,100 people and a subway running its full length. I don't know what the answer is for Arkansas, but I do know that the best solution is not to just keep building more roads.

That's that, for now. Who's organizing the opposition to Move Arkansas Forward's $1.8 billion tax-and-pave plan next year?

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Great White Buffalo of Opportunities

Tomorrow the Pulaski Technical College Board of Trustees will make a potentially monumental decision on where to place their Culinary Institute. The Institute will likely end up on their southwest campus, near Benton/Bryant.

I’m not sure whether to be encouraged or thoroughly disheartened by this. Why encouraged, the 11 readers of this blog ask? Well, I saw the presentation Mayor Stodola gave and saw the 65 or so diverse partners who showed up to support locating the Institute downtown, many of whom gave impassioned pleas as to that end. I was impressed that the city put its money where its mouth is and in a very short period of time put together a deal that met or beat the price for placing the Institute near the edge of the city.

Disheartening, well that one’s a lot easier. This is a once in a twenty-or-so years opportunity. PTC has the opportunity to do something truly great for this city. Truly great. They can do something that will inspire development further throughout the downtown core. This will have numerous ripple affects in the way that only keystone projects can have. Like the River Market nearly twenty years prior, this project has a chance to inspire development and give confidence to investors in downtown properties. Great cities have great downtowns. Ours is moving that way, but we have a very long way to go.

Better yet, PTC has a chance to do something UALR (full confession: two-time alum here, & still paying it off) & UCA haven’t done - they can become truly integrated in the center of the city. PTC doesn’t have a low profile in the community, it has no profile for those who don’t have family or friends who attend or teach there. PTC is disconnected. It’s in Southwest Little Rock, off the freeway in a nearly industrial area. In North Little Rock it’s in the beautiful but removed Crystal Hill area. It has a lovely campus there but unlike the hill in Fayetteville, to name one place, there’s essentially nothing nearby. Locating downtown would change all of that. It would give PTC high visibility. And it would be good for the students. Their student union would essentially be downtown. 6th and Main with the Rep has two solid anchors for a creative corridor. This wise use of public funds is twinned by its incentivizing other development without other financial incentives for the nearby buildings (oh and if the Center Theater weren’t torn down, think what could be there! Alamo Draft House, anyone?)

But I fear the decision makers here are far too focused on the forest to see the trees. There appears to be a legitimate gap in financing some of the operational cost. The amount is somewhat debatable but it seems everyone on the Board of Trustees agrees that the downtown location will bring in more sales tax revenue thanks to the captured workforce who would likely eat at the student run restaurant and aid in tourism activities, particularly for the surprising large convention revenue that Little Rock has. I suspect that placing the Institute downtown would aid in student recruitment as well, not to mention build significant goodwill in any bond endeavor PTC tries to pass in the coming years.

I heard a lot about thinking about what’s best for the students of PTC. Many of these board members clearly hadn’t been students for some amount of time. The one student that spoke at the meeting expressed a clear preference for the downtown location. In fact, she said her fellow students felt the same way and she encouraged the board to reach out to the students and verify that. I’d be curious to know if that ever happened.

Sometimes things aren’t as simple as black and red. It takes the public sector to be out front on projects that benefit the community. This is an opportunity for such a project. It’s a very rare opportunity for such a project. Think of this investment as an advertising expense. The visibility and goodwill alone will pay for itself ten fold. I sure hope we don’t blow this one, as we have a tendency to do. History will judge the wisdom of such decisions. I fear it will not judge us wisely in this case. I hope I’m wrong.

UPDATE: As predicted. I think the comments on the Arkansas Blog get it right - clinging to mediocrity. The photo posted is linked from a commenter there

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

And I Thought the Chenal Rule Codified Lack of Soul

I read about some in city government's interest to revisit the 'Chenal Rule' in yesterday's paper (paywall). This despite promising 17 years ago it wouldn't widen Chenal Parkway. But hey, what's a promise, right? We've covered induced demand and why this will only further sprawl and do nothing for actual traffic. Let's think only about the car when we're spending our tax dollars on roads, right?

Well, there are a couple of relatively minor things that could be done to improve the condition if we must (and we mustn't) grow Chenal. Check out the idea of ThrU turns that that bastion of liberalism, Salt Lake City is doing. SLC, by the way, is undertaking some great smart growth efforts because they see the value of conserving our natural areas by limiting or avoiding sprawl and the fiscal sense of smart growth efforts.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Surface Parking in Downtown Little Rock

I found this on the knobs & tubes of the Internet, so I can't speak 100% to it's accuracy, but it looks pretty close. I know that three surface lots have been added since I first saw this image - two from the loss of the old Channel 4 building and another across the street from the former Channel 4 building.

This photo also doesn't include the buildings demolished on Main Street that aren't parking lots, but rather just holes in our downtown.

An Update From the State [Updated]

Via the Arkansas Blog: Anne Laidlaw, the director of the state Building Authority, says the tree removal behind the Capitol was more about avoiding damage from falling limbs from the root-compacted trees than necessarily about creating more spaces (I'm no arborist, but might the asphalt have something to do with compacted roots?). The current plan is to spend $400,000 on the tree removal, repaving, re-striping, better lighting, and more security cameras.

Still, even though the main problem as the state sees it seems to be parking-related, it sounds like there're no plans to spend any of that money in ways that would encourage people to actually do anything but drive. Everything's going to be fine and dandy once we add just a few more parking spaces and get rid of the pesky trees that might drop limbs on our cars. I shudder to think of where that logic is going to put is in a few years.

Hopefully I'll hear back from Laidlaw soon regarding the tree crew's assertion that a combination of removing the trees' traffic islands and shrinking all the spaces by 6" during the re-striping would add 100 new spots.

From Laidlaw:
The ‘paver’ island will not be replaced, however, there will be a new sidewalk and very well marked pedestrian walkways provided with crosswalks, stop signs, directional signage, speed bumps and more lighting added for improved pedestrian safety.  Islands will be limited to the ends of the parking rows to maximize the number of spaces.  Traffic flow within, in and out of the DWS lot will be also be improved. 
I am not opposed to ways to decrease traffic and improve access.  We added bike racks some time back to encourage biking and our locker rooms/showers are about to undergo improvements as well to support our MAC tenants who may choose an alternative means of transportation. 
We're waiting to hear a final number of new spaces. 

How Much Parking Does the Capitol Have Already?

After the trees came down this weekend I decided to finish the Capitol parking space count I started a while back. The total is somewhere around the 3,000 mark before the pending expansion. See the screen grab below with the parking lots shaded in that yellow-orange color, and if you want to see it as an actual Google map, click here. It's admittedly difficult to stay focused when counting 3,000 parking spaces on a computer screen, especially when there are all those darned trees blocking your view in some of the lots, so I welcome one and all to check my work.

Capitol Grounds

Here are the digits, roughly from left-to-right, and top-to-bottom:
Far left: 62
State Vehicle Pen: 48
DF&A: 437
Real Estate Commission: 155
NW Lots: 144
Revenue Building: 70
North Lots: either 435 or 535 right now (I got a little cross-eyed while counting) with 100 more on the way.
Wolfe St. Lot: 106
Wolfe St. South Lot: 374
Capitol Mall: 198
Sup. Court Lot: 94
Around the Capitol: 459 (very hard to believe since it's almost all on-street parking. I welcome a recount.)
Lot across Woodlane: 245
South of 7th: 180
Total: a little over 3,000

And the powers-that-be want to continue limiting people's options on how to get to work by adding 100 more instead of looking for ways to increase freedom and choice. When your only tool is a hammer every problem starts to look like a nail.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Are Freeways Doomed?

Another great article about how cities can be improved by removing freeways. Worth the read.

Comments and Mobile Version

Some readers have informed me that the Comments feature on this here blog doesn't work for them. I haven't been able to figure that one out yet. On the plus side though, while working on the comments problem I did figure out how to turn the mobile version of the site on, so now if you visit from a smartypantsphone you'll see a layout that may be more appropriate for your screen size.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

If We Just Had 100 More Parking Spaces...

While on a little brainstorming walkabout with some other folks today we stumbled upon a tree crew cutting down all the trees in the lowest parking lot behind the Capitol. According to some of the crewmen the state is planning to remove the traffic islands down there so they can squeeze 100 more parking spots into the space.

Here's the Google Map view. See those trees in the parking lots on the left side?
Aerial view from Google

The ones here in the Google Streetview?
Google Street View

They're all gone now:
No Trees 1

I'm sure the bushes aren't too far behind...
No Trees with Capitol Dome

The sidewalk is going away too:
No Trees on Sidewalk

Another stump:
No Trees with Capitol Dome 2

The view from atop the stairs on the west side. All of those traffic islands used to have some nice shade trees in them. No more:
No Trees with Smokestack

The really amazing part about the state's approach is that they seem to be completely ignoring ways that might simply lessen the supposed need for parking spaces. I can think of several changes that would make alternatives to driving more attractive to state workers, and when there are viable alternatives to driving, example after example worldwide shows that people will use them.

For instance, five different Central Arkansas Transit bus routes go by this stop on 7th Street between Marshall and Wolfe every day, two of them express routes. Yet look how desolate (not to mention super-hot in summertime) the walk would be down to the Capitol Mall:
7th Street Bus Stop

And here's the stop across the street for the return trip. Anyone getting off the bus here has to cross four lanes of fast-moving 7th Street car traffic with no crosswalk and then walk across a 2.5 acre sea of hot asphalt full of cars. The bus stop signs give no indication of what routes they serve much less any information about those routes' schedules, so anyone wishing to ride has to do a lot of pre-planning. (If you are interested, here's a link to the map, the #3 schedule, the #5, the #17, and the #25 and #26 express routes. The #1 and #8 lines stop on the north side of the Capitol complex on 3rd street. And finally, the #11 stops at the corner of Woodlane and 7th on the SE corner of the Capitol grounds.)
7th Street Bus Stop 2

So, eight bus routes make multiple stops on different sides of the Capitol grounds, yet there seems to have been no thought or effort put forth to make the experience more pleasant for transit riders on their walk between the stops and the buildings they work in. The State bends over backwards to devote more and more limited space to cars in reaction to a perceived parking problem, but what have they done to actually solve that problem? What have they done to make it easy and convenient for employees to ride the bus? What have they done to make biking to work safe and convenient? 100 people deciding to ride a bus to work is no different from carving out 100 new parking spaces, except 100 new transit riders would have allowed those trees to continue providing a little shade for the cars in the parking lot.

I bet some very small steps toward improving the connections to the bus stops would result in way more than 100 state employees choosing to ride transit to work. That seems like a smarter long-term solution than just slashing trees and paving everything in sight... and a much better use of my tax dollars.