Thursday, January 28, 2016

No New Roads and A Devil's Bargain

Much has been made of the fact that our state's last gravel highway has finally been paved in 2016, some 60+ years after the Federal Highway Act of 1965. At 16,411 miles of highway, I suppose closing the loop on that last 3.87 miles is a good thing. This particular stretch of road goes through a national forest & approaches a state park. You'll find few bigger fans of state parks and national forests than me.

That said, can we now finally be done with adding more roads? I'm a bit hesitant to criticize this particular paving as it closes the books on a promise to pave all existing highways & can only help tourism in that neck of the woods But let's take a look at some of the numbers pointed out in the linked article:
  • In 1997, the average number of cars that traveled Highway 220 daily was 315.
  • In 2015, the average number of cars that traveled that highway daily was 30. Admittedly, this was during a construction period.
  • The cost to widen the highway to two lanes & build a bridge is $7.7 million.
  • A similar size stretch (3.56 miles) cost $4.5 million to widen & grade in nearby Crawford County.

We are adding roads at a time when other state departments of transportation are proposing the elimination of highway expansion. Ohio, Michigan & California have committed to the 'No New Roads' and/or 'Fix it First' agenda. Like many people & groups, I believe having good roads (really, transportation) has become an essential part of the role of government and is important in economic development. I also believe that too many roads is a poor use of resources, both financial and environmental. These two points of view do not have to be conflicting. In fact, they are not in opposition, despite what the concrete & construction lobby tell you. This is a fiscal and environmentally conservative perspective. Fewer roads = smaller government.

The the most disappointing & heartbreaking part? We know better. We know the historical impact of I-630 & what it did to our city, our neighborhoods. But we're doing it anyway, particularly with the I-30 Crossing proposal. Innumerable people are pointing out the flaw in growing our amount of asphalt but we won't listen. We're operating from the last generation's set of facts. It's operating from last generation's set of facts that causes us to be 49th (or 1st in the bad stuff) all too often. That's just not necessary any longer.

Don't believe we need a 'No New Roads' policy? Take a look at Highway 64, for example. I've had occasion to take Highway 64 recently. Take Exit 88 at Pottsville & head west. You'll find 8.8 miles of five lane the whole way - two lanes each running east & west plus a turn lane that runs the full 8.8. AHTD shows that anywhere from 20,000-25,000 cars travel that part of the highway per day. Every time I've been on 64 it looks like it does on Google Streetview (as below). Go ahead. Follow it via Streetview and tell me we need more roads. I'll wait.  Now that's a bargain galore, right?
Traffic jam

It's looked like this every time I've taken it. Also, why the turn lane?
One point of view is that the Highway 220 undertaking is adding capacity (for traffic, travel, etc.) to our roads. Another way to view it is from the perspective of adding future upkeep & maintenance. Admittedly, most road maintenance comes from heavy truck traffic, not your standard sedan hosting a tourist or grocery getter but some sort of future maintenance is unavoidable. What's also unavoidable? The cost of that maintenance. And where does that money come from?

Well, in the case of finally paving these roads it came from a federal highway grant. That's a good thing, such that it is. My point being that these funds didn't come directly from Arkansas taxpayer coffers. Sure, you say; we the taxpayer ultimately paid for it. Yes, I agree but it didn't come from our very, very limited bucket of funds set aside for road construction. I make this important distinction because of the findings of the Governor's Blue Ribbon Highway Task Force. The most significant of these recommendations, to my mind, is the unprecedented dip into general revenue for roads. As Pulaski County Clerk Larry Crane & Arkansas Advocates for Children & Family point out, this is a slippery slope.

However, there is some very limited upside. Rep. Andy Davis writes:
For the first time, general purpose revenue will be used for highway expenses in addition to user fee revenue sources like fuels taxes. Along with this shift in policy should [emphasis added] come additional policy changes aimed at verifying the best possible use of these general funds in addition to the other hundreds of millions collected and spent on highways each year.
The operative word there being 'should'. The title of his article is Highway Department Oversight Needed. I'd shift that a bit & reiterate my call for the elimination of their constitutional independence.

Now here's the devil's bargain:

I'd strongly consider supporting a dip into General Revenue for highways in return for the elimination of AHTD's constitutional independence.

If the I-30 Crossing debate has taught me one thing, it's that a system where citizens can directly hold their elected officials accountable on important public policy is a system where we, the citizen, have a chance at helping shape the public policy we believe is best for our community. That's not the case with an independent transportation department. Look at the Little Rock city board as it relates to this decision. Outreach & advocacy is having an impact. There's a resolution that's being hotly debated. Public meetings are being held. Conversation is happening. Sure, one can argue that the classic delay strategy is being implemented on the public but we are having a (largely civil) conversation. There was an excellent post in the Improve I-30 Crossing Facebook group the other day which solidified my opinion on this thought. It reads:
3) Everything that occurs within the ADHT, the City of Little Rock, and Metroplan is done for political leveraging. Metroplan is generally concerned in designing a better Little Rock and knows all to well about the nefarious effects an I-30 expansion would have. The ADHT has a job—to move cars. We can argue the merits of this all we want, but for the short-term, that role doesn't change and we shouldn't lambaste them for doing their jobs. The City of Little Rock and its officials are simply taking sides based on the opinions of their electorate. If you want a council member to change his views, then change the views of the majority of their district. Simple as that.
This option doesn't currently exist for us, the citizens of Arkansas, on the state level as it relates to highways in our community. We can't expect AHTD to change and begin to institute radical or even minor shifts in practice in its current structure. A radical shift is needed. I'm not so naive as to think our current political climate is such that it will suddenly start to believe that bike lanes, green lanes and congestion pricing will be instituted immediately. But I do know that without a radical change we'll keep getting the same type of Mad Men era thinking.

This devil's bargain would allow that to change.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Little Rock Board of Directors Deferred Action on Seeking More Study

The Little Rock Board of Directors voted to defer action on Directors Webb and Richardson's resolution seeking more study from the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department before proceeding with the current plan to build a ten-lane Interstate 30 through downtown. Here's the full resolution. And, here's a point-by-point analysis I did back in November. Basically it says, "Whoah, hold up, AHTD! You might have skipped over some good stuff on the front end of your planning process. Go back and take a closer look please." That's it. A yes vote simply asks for more study. A yes vote does not express a view on whether or not a 10-lane highway is good or bad. Seriously, it really does only ask for more study, because what to do in the I-30 corridor will have lasting impacts on the city and region for decades to come.

The meeting was packed!

Hands down, the biggest news to come out of tonight's meeting was that Charley Penix, CEO of Cromwell Architects Engineers boldly called for complete freeway removal in downtown Little Rock. He's kind of a big deal. The firm is kind of a big deal. For them to take position calling not just for minor tweaks to the AHTD's plans for I-30 but for removing I-30 from downtown altogether is kind of a big deal. (in the interest of full disclosure, I am not certain whether Penix was speaking as an individual or on behalf of the firm. Either way, it's big.) Cromwell is the oldest and largest architecture firm in Arkansas, plays a significant role on a regional level, and does work nationwide. They design and manage very big deal buildings for big deal clients with deep pockets. They've long been a major investor and employer in downtown Little Rock, and recently they made a strong commitment to East Little Rock, a neighborhood carved off of the rest of downtown when I-30 was originally built. Cromwell even designed the Highway Department Headquarters back in the 1960s and has been hired again to assess the current and future needs of the department. Cromwell designs city halls (including Little Rock's). They build corporate headquarters. They build big, expensive hotels. They're the kind of firm that gets hired by the Rockefeller and Stephens families. In other words, they are not some volunteer two-bit blogger who writes occasionally about this in his spare time.

I don't think I'm being overly dramatic when I say that for Penix as an individual and for the Cromwell firm as a whole to take a stand like this could be a turning point in the whole 30 Crossing process.

In other news from the meeting...
I was actually encouraged by the discussion among the Directors. Sure, adopting the resolution tonight would have been the best outcome. But, as I said to several folks after the meeting, the facts and reality are on our side. Some of the Directors are genuinely undecided and are listening to learn as much as they can. If the no votes had been there, this would have been defeated already. So, if the open-minded undecidedes want more time to reflect and learn, then a lot of well-informed, concerned citizens are going to be more than willing to share over the next couple of months why we need to be considering much more than just a 10-lane or an 8-lane freeway expansion. Lance Hines sounds like the only solid vote against the resolution, and even he came across as a little less aggressive tonight. Several Directors commented on the gravity of the decision and how what happens with 30 Crossing might literally be the most important decision they're going to be involved with during their time leading the largest city in the state. If they need more time before taking the small step of adopting Webb and Richardson's resolution, then I say take it. Again, the facts are on our side. More time should mean more yes votes. That will only make the ultimate approval even stronger. Or, heaven forbid, if the resolution is defeated in April, the dissent should be much stronger than it would have been tonight.

Eleven members of the public signed up to speak in favor of the resolution, and none spoke against. In addition to Penix mentioned above, there were other architects, home owners, young mothers, grandmothers, business owners, concerned and committed citizens like me, investors, and a retired transportation professional who chose to move to downtown Little Rock from Texas because of the budding sense of place. It really was inspiring to hear everyone share why they took the time out of the busy lives to speak on behalf of taking a harder look at 30 Crossing. And the silence of the opposing side was deafening!

There are a ton of discussion threads happening in the Improve 30 Crossing Facebook Group if you're interested in getting involved with a large subset of our merry band of highway opposers. As one consistent voice said just a moment ago about tonight's meeting:
The tone has changed. The important thing is the board was forced to listen to good citizen comment. Their minds had to have been broadened. They were unable to shut it down and move on so I would call it a partial victory.
I'll add again that it takes great political courage for an elected official in this state to raise even the slightest voice of opposition when it comes to the Highway Department, so the fact that the resolution even made it onto the agenda and wasn't voted down immediately speaks volumes. Do what you can to express to our City Directors that we're backing them up.

Vision Zero for Little Rock aka Don't Blame the Victim, Let's Examine the Street

Two pedestrians were hit on West Markham January 11. The statewide paper had a quick blurb about it. One of our local television stations took a different angle & focused on the 'problem' of jaywalking.

As this editorial points out, you should be able to cross the street without fearing for your life.

Markham is a busy street. It's an arterial street connecting lots of different parts of the city - Hillcrest to downtown, Quapaw to Midtown, etc. It's a main connector to the Zoo, War Memorial Stadium, the accompanying golf course and fitness center. There's also a relatively new multi-story dorm home to numerous medical students often from places outside of Little Rock.
Time to Adopt Vision Zero Little Rock

Neighbors in the adjacent Hillcrest & Capitol View/Stiftt Station want to be able to safely cross West Markham to enjoy the nearby amenities. There's a deep irony in crossing an unsafe street to get to the walking paths that surround War Memorial Park. That says nothing of the safety concerns for bike lane that exists for a short period when Van Buren becomes Fair Park.

Markham is home to numerous retail establishments but the high-speed traffic & setback of the strip malls make it far from an appealing place to linger. It may score decently on the WalkScore index but it fails the loveability index. Streets designed like West Markham disconnect neighborhoods and thus a city in ways similar to how freeways divide neighbors. There are some simple things we can do to fix this problem.

* Adopt a Vision Zero Initiative . The Vision Zero Initiative is traffic safety initiative that aims to achieve a transportation system with zero fatalities or injuries due to road accidents. In New York City it's reduced pedestrian fatalities by 34%. Adopting a Vision Zero policy shows that the city places value on pedestrians and is doing something in effort to protect them. The nation's most obese state should do everything in its power to promote activities that promote an active lifestyle. Vision Zero is proactive.

I'm not advocating Jaywalking but rather than blame the victim we should consider what led to their decision to cross the street where there wasn't a crosswalk. The car culture here is to speed through a yellow light & occasionally rush a red. Vision Zero helps to move the culture of teaching zero tolerance for such unsafe practices. Policy changes aren't a utopia solution, but they are a start.

* Install more frequent & creative crosswalks along West Markham
Better This?

or this?

* Redesign the street with pedestrians in mind. This proposal will take time & cost some money but it's an investment in people and the neighborhoods. My suggestion is to start with just a small area - the block(s) nearest the Oyster Bar, Pizza D, etc. and then the blocks nearest War Memorial.

We can do better than this
Better Option 

Finally, slow down the speed limits. Start with the areas shown first. These are the ones closest to commercial centers. There's also a couple of blocks in Capitol View/Stifft Station that are adjacent to Hillcrest which would benefit from this type of improved connectivity. If we can't create an environment where neighbors can easily interact with neighbors, we're not serving our citizens as they deserve. If you have to get in your car to cross the street so your kids can play with the neighbor kids, then we need to do better. And we can.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Quick Check-In

I just sat through over two hours of discussion by the Little Rock Board of Directors with Jim McKenzie, executive director of MetroPlan. The impetus was a resolution proposed by Directors Richardson and Webb basically asking for more thoughtful planning to be conducted before the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department locks itself further into a $600 million widening of seven miles of Interstate 30 in LR and NLR. This post'll just hit some fleeting takeaways that I want to get down while they're still fresh on the mind. Hopefully something more in-depth will come later, time permitting.

1. We all need to listen to Jim McKenzie and MetroPlan. They're a little too locked into the cars-first mentality for my liking, but if I'm being completely honest, their approach to transportation problems here and there throughout the central Arkansas region seems about as even-keeled, practical, and politically-feasible as any others right now. 

2. Many of our City Directors are genuinely interested in figuring out what's best for the city's and the region's future, regardless of what the past's conventional wisdom and rules of thumb say is best. I understand that local elected leaders questioning the AHTD's actions in even the mildest of tones takes great political courage, and I appreciate that some are working hard to make sure a more open and public conversation happens before we dive headlong into a more intensively expensive freeway-dependent future. 

3. Lance Hines has some screwy notions about what kinds of government interventions further the interests of a free market and what interventions hinder it. 

4. If Lance Hines and Dean Kumpuris are going to combatively question MetroPlan's methodologies and long-held policy positions, then they should do the same for the AHTD. I have no problem with hard questions. Just don't be lopsided in your use of them. 

5(a). Some of our City Directors seem uninformed about the role of MetroPlan. 

5(b). Some of our City Directors seem uninformed about their role in continuously evaluating and working to implement or reject MetroPlan's plans. There were some comments about what MetroPlan wants and how MetroPlan is or isn't going to pay for those things. That is wrong. That is backwards. That view represents a lack of understanding about the services that MetroPlan provides and the City's responsibility in taking advantage of those services. [this is one of the points that could grow into a much longer post/posts, so I'll cut it short for now.] Suffice it to say, MetroPlan is like our region's retirement advisor, except hopefully there's never going to be a 'retirement', just continued prosperity. Yeah, that's a good analogy. I'll try to run with it later. 

6. Genuinely accepted fact: widening Interstate 30 will necessitate additional widening projects along other freeway segments if we are to see the promised future 'benefits' of 30 Crossing. Statement made tonight: if the statewide 1/2 cent sales tax that's paying for all of the Connecting Arkansas Program projects were extended for two more 10-year periods, then 30 Crossing's follow-up projects will eat up 100% of that money. In other words: if 30 Crossing is going to function the way the highway engineers are selling it to us, then we'll need a dedicated 1/2 statewide sales tax for 20 years. Obviously, the U.S. Congress might decide that we're worthy of that kind of money and just give it to us instead of us Arkansawyers paying for it. 

7. Ken Richardson correctly and repeatedly pointed out throughout the discussion that the questions being raised were precisely why his and Kathy Webb's resolution needs to be adopted. 

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Hillcrest, I Love You But There's Work To Do

I've lived in Hillcrest about five months now. It's always been my favorite neighborhood on this side of the river. Its legend of hipness looms large, particularly for people from Dogtown, like me. Other neighborhoods in central Arkansas strive to be like Hillcrest.
I lived in Park Hill for 13 years. I founded the neighborhood association there and was its president for almost five years. I constantly heard "I believe Park Hill could be North Little Rock's Hillcrest". That was the stated goal of many residents & developers. It wasn't my goal but it was a lot of peoples.

And living over here is great. I love it. But it's not what the legend portrays.

The perception is that it's the perfect neighborhood. No neighborhood is perfect.

Hillcrest is a place with terrific historic housing stock, streets that largely have sidewalks and benefits from significant tree canopies throughout the neighborhood. Its homes haven't been too goobered-up or torn down, so they largely retain their historic character which benefits its quality of place There aren't too many McMansions (though there's one, ah, development on Van Buren that seems to have the neighbors rightfully up in arms). The sidewalks make it walkable and because of its location and age, its biggest benefit is its adjacent commercial corridor on Kavanaugh.

Kavanaugh Boulevard continues to be a narrow two-lane street with a number of 'third-places' that are popular places to eat and drink. This, more than anything, is what people love and what makes it unique among Arkansas neighborhoods.

There aren't that many neighborhoods left that have nearby, walkable establishments where you can have a cup of coffee, a bite to eat and a few adult beverages and walk (stumble?) home. A few, sure but not that many. This is probably the top reason it's so appealing to so many. The short commercial strip makes it something of a mixed-use area.

But you can't rest on your laurels. Other neighborhoods (we see you SoMa, Stift Station, downtown, etc.) are doing great things. They have plans, leadership, advocates, active social media presences, etc. Hillcrest has HarvestFest.

I have a few ideas for some little things the neighborhood could do to produce a bit of a shot-in-the-arm that it needs to get people talking. For example:

Gateway Signage & Elimination of Billboards

I think of the the main gateway to Hillcrest as the turn from Van Buren onto Kavanaugh, by Mount Saint Mary's. The biggest greeting to the neighborhood by this beautiful school is the 'trash on a stick' of a billboard. Regardless of who is advertising at the moment, it's an unsightly and far from the ideal welcome mat that great neighborhoods deserve.  There are a lot of great, different options out there. I'll link to some but here's one just for comparison.

I'm not much for the digital signage but this is one style option that could replace the pedestrian island
another option
Period Appropriate Street/Power Poles & Updated Banners Across Kavanaugh 

We have a handful of period appropriate light poles near Allsopp Park. How much better would Kavanaugh look if all of the poles echoed this design? For comparison:

On That Note, It's Time To Update The Brand 

Lamp posts are ubiquitous. They don't differentiate. The version below looks better than the one on the banners but it's still not unique.

Get Rid of These Billboards Too 

How many other great great neighborhoods have full fledged billboards littered through the commercial core? Hillcrest isn't exactly adjacent to a major metro thoroughfare which are commonly littered with billboards so it's even more of an eyesore.

Let's Do Something With These Buildings 

I'm not sure what's going on with the top, white building. It looks like it was once a garage & is now storage. It's built to the street & that's key. Setback takes away the street wall & pedestrians are unconsciously motivated to either cross the street or turn around. The apparent former  garage is build right. A coat of colorful paint would go a long way. The bay door could make a terrific open air spot for a cafe or bar. Lots of options here. If it was a garage, there's a chance that it's a brownfield. That's tough for development sometimes but we're lucky that Pulaski County has a terrific program that helps with remediation.

Banks are tougher. As mentioned, the setback is all wrong for a pedestrian focused area. Plus banks have vaults which don't have a lot of reuse options. They're heavy. All sorts of issues there. However, what a great patio option. Hillcrest has a couple of good patios but one more & it's a cluster. Then we're the patio capital neighborhood of Little Rock. Or tear the building down & build something cool with first floor retail and upper-story housing. Just build to the street & no more than three stories. Above that & it's out of place.

Bury the Power Lines

This one is more expensive & not short term but just think how much better this place would look without all those unsightly power lines littered across Kavanaugh.

More of These Trash Cans 

These are nice. They add character. But they're only by the park. How about a few more up & down the boulevard?

Signs, Signs, Everywhere There's Signs.

I love Hillcrest Liquor. I shop there. It's a great sorta Art Moderne building. But you wouldn't know it with it being littered with sale signs. How about a limit on the number of signs posted outside/attached to a structure? Additionally, in the case of this building we'd then also be able to see some pretty cool, complimentary architecture.

Public Art, Complete the Street (wall)

Here we have an active, seemingly prosperous business. However, their building is necessarily set back, breaking the continuity of the street. Adding public art would go along way to keep the continuity you want to enhance walkability. Even a bike rack would do the trick.

Speaking of bike rack & public benches, we could use more/better installations of those.

The benches we have are fine but a creative upgrade would add to the 'interesting factor'

Hillcrest is great but it can be so much more. Even in Little Rock it's no longer enough to just be fortunate enough to be the beneficiary of a commercial area with a fairly narrow two-lane street. When you begin to count, there are only a few restaurants and bars along Kavanaugh. Too many important buildings along the boulevard are not being used for their highest and best purposes. Corner and street frontage buildings that could be retail or restaurants or bars have become offices. These spots close at 5pm, further limiting street life. Proposed rooftop areas common to the urban areas we propose to want to replicate are denied.

Great neighborhoods require management.  Improvement districts can fund a lot of projects if people are willing to pay for them. But volunteers can do a lot of things, as well. There are a lot of solutions. The problems are of the first world variety. Work the plan that's developed. Just don't sit & let things happen to you. Work to control the destiny of the neighborhood. Just because a neighborhood's been great for decades & decades doesn't mean it always will be.