Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

A crisis in confidence and the capacity of local government to execute transit projects

One of the things that struck me when I was writing about revitalization in various European cities last year and this year relating to a European Union National Institutes of Culture initiative in Baltimore was the difference in perception about the role of government and local government in creating and building quality communities, and in SUCCESSFULLY constructing new infrastructure between those countries and the US

(Even though government has been demonized in the UK as well, as part of the same neoliberal anti-government agenda that shapes political discourse in the US, London in particular has successfully delivered many projects including the 2012 Olympics and many transit expansion projects, some of which like the Crossrail program, are still underway, as are other transit projects elsewhere in the UK.)

Don't get me wrong, there are examples of less successful or "failed" initiatives in Europe too, such as the City of Culture project in Santiago de Compestela in Spain, which is building underutilized but grand buildings in a poorly sited location.  And the process to build subways in Athens and Thessaloniki have been long and drawn out, but still have come or are coming to fruition.

New and old subway stations in Hamburg, including the new stations in HafenCity are stunningly beautiful in terms of incorporating artistic and design treatments compared to most stations in the US.

The lights in the HafenCity University subway station constantly change color.

But the achievement of local government initiatives in cities like Hamburg, Bilbao, Barcelona, Marseille, and Helsinki are quite remarkable and on a scale much bigger and grander than just about anything that comes to mind in the US.

Tram service in Bilbao.

This is relevant in the DC region because of the aforementioned debacle of the Silver Spring Transit Center, but also the incredibly long periods of time required to move streetcar projects forward in Arlington County and Washington, DC, and to some extent, the process concerning planning the Purple Line light rail system in Montgomery and Prince George's Counties in Maryland.

Recently, the Arlington County Board voted to stop the streetcar projects there, and in DC, as the streetcar is about to open, there is a drumbeat of opposition, especially as evidenced by the recent editorial D.C. should hit the brakes on any streetcar expansion") in the Washington Post, calling for a "time out" in moving forward on streetcars.

(Ironically, it's not unlike the initiative to overturn the regional sales tax in Charlotte, NC, the vote of which occurred in 2007, just as the light rail system was about to open--the vote to overturn the tax failed.  See the past blog entry "Charlotte light rail and transit.")

Separately I intend to write another post about the streetcar on H Street (but I need to take a bunch of photos).

While the analysis will be subject to criticism, it's fair to say that at least $500 million of new construction on H Street--either already built or in the pipeline--wouldn't have been pursued without the expectation of streetcar service.

So it surprises me that "the DC business community" is diffident about streetcars, at least in those areas like H Street-Benning Road, Georgia Avenue, the SE-SW Waterfront, and Anacostia, which have so much build out opportunity.  (In that case, Bladensburg Road should be added to the list.)

In any case, $500 to $750 million of accelerated development is a huge payoff or "return on investment" for the current very short line that will soon become operational.  There is no question that these projects wouldn't be happening without the streetcar--it's fair to say that any project east of 6th Street would be considered "too far" from Union Station to pursue in the current development and financing environment.

My understanding is that the DC business community is not united around the streetcar and doesn't favor spending money on expanding the program--probably seeing the service as competition for increasingly scarce public financing for other projects like soccer stadiums, Olympics facilities, and deals that need tax incentives to be able to move forward.

Plus DDOT's failures in execution support suggestions of putting the streetcar program on hold for a couple of years to "sort things out."

While there are many things going on with opposition to these projects, ranging from a preference for automobility and personalized transit, cars, over mass transit and riding with others, fear of change, a mistaken belief that streetcars are "olden" technology, selfishness--for example most of the votes for the Arlington County Board candidate with a stated position against the streetcar came from wealthier sections of Arlington, including areas that already enjoy Metrorail service, we have to acknowledge that planning and execution failures by local government play a big part in messaging and agenda setting, and make it difficult for under-funded proponents to make the case in favor of new projects.

What is it about the Washington region that breeds failure?

Frequently, I use the example of streetcar planning as an example of failure.  DC (and Arlington) started planning for streetcars in 2003.  So did Seattle.  Seattle's first leg of streetcar service opened in 2007.  DC's first leg is about to open this December or January, more likely in January 2015. five years after Seattle, and when Seattle is on the verge of opening its first extension ("First Hill Streetcar delayed: Line is ready, streetcars are not," Seattle Times) which only took them 2.5 years to construct.

On the other hand, the DC Circulator bus service has been comparatively successful.  Then again, it's a lot easier to launch bus service than to build the infrastructure for a (new again) transit mode that requires tracks, power substations, new signals, overhead wires to provide electricity, and a servicing facility.

Still, compared to how Bilbao built a new subway system and added tram service after circumstances warranted additional higher capacity surface transit in the face of increased tourism--they created and opened the line in about the same time as Seattle did, or how Helsinki built a subway, and how Helsinki and Hamburg have extended subway lines to serve newly created mixed use districts, the area efforts are definitely wanting.

Note that comparatively speaking, the Silver Line has been reasonably successful in terms of actually opening its first phase, albeit with some delays (although frankly, delays are pretty common to such projects).

However, the financing and political winds in Virginia have been incredibly problematic, making it difficult to use the Silver Line as an example of great local success of local government bringing to fruition big infrastructure projects.  Similarly, the Inter County Connector toll road in Suburban Maryland--a key element of the agenda of previous Republican Governor Robert Ehrlich--is lightly used.

What these failures to execute, or at least execute quickly and successfully do is poison the ability to pursue other projects, especially good ones.

Government officials, both elected and appointed, need to take much greater responsibility for execution and for ensuring that the personnel and financial resources are in place to ensure success.

And they shouldn't be so cavalier with time.  People need to see results.  Otherwise all they do is whine and complain and obfuscate.

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At 7:36 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

I'm from the government and I'm here to help.

Still a good Rorschach test.

(For example, my health insurance in 4 years has gone from 55 a month to now what looks to be over 500 next year.) That is without me filing any claims in 15 years.

That said, I think you are underestimating the level of venality and waste in europe a bit. When you are there there is a huge groundswell of discontent on local projects but their democracy may not be so deep and robust on a local level.

And again I posit it comes down to financing --- the artificial divides between capital budgets and operating budgets, the tyranny of rating agencies and muni bonds, and low grade corruption.

(Ft Meyer road construction anyone?)

For example, our pension funds aren't corrupt but then again they are not investing in their futures.

At 9:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

what ever happened to th eplanes for a new streetcar for 8th street SE? All that I hear is that it was quietly defeated by the entrenched interests in the neighborhood. Is this true?

At 10:11 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I haven't read the MoveDC plan yet... that would have the answer.

At 10:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

all of the people who live near 8th street SE are rabidly against streetcars- at least the ones I have talked with. Irrationality rules the day near Eastern market. These people are against anything and everything that results in any changes at all unless it means more parking. recently a company took over the Hines blacktop and is now advertising for weekday parking- it is a big hit and lal of the old farts on CH are ecstatic to have parking next to a metro station - or so they can drive to eastern market !!!

At 10:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

...all of the old farts...not a good typist

At 4:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of the issues with many streetcar projects (particularly in DC) is the sponsors are typically not transit agencies but rather cities or other local entities. Not having experienced people that have gone through the process of planning and building a transit project nor operate transit service on a daily basis can be a major contributing factor to these types of problems.


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