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Funding Debate Sparks Examination of New Transportation Realities

The recent political focus on the reauthorization of the multi-year surface transportation bill provided some nervous moments for Americans hoping to see more options for getting around that don't involve driving an automobile.

With a shrinking pot of money available for transportation projects, there were a number of, eventually unsuccessful, attempts to reduce or eliminate dedicated funding for bike paths, trails and sidewalks. The thought was that, with money tight, investing in such things was "frivolous" and did not relate to the 21st century American concept of transportation.

As a result, the federally administered Transportation Enhancements, Recreational Trails and Safe Routes to Schools programs, though boasting an impressive record of success and value for money, found themselves on the chopping block. 

But something very valuable did emerge from placing a spotlight on America's transportation future - a re-examination of what residents and businesspeople in communities across the country are demanding that future should be.

In the midst of changing social and economic patterns, and unprecedented environmental challenges, existing assumptions about how we live and move are being re-calibrated, to the benefit of transportation planning that better reflects the desire of the American people.

In an article in the New York Times last month, urban and regional planning scholar Christopher B. Leinberger wrote it was the rejection of car-dependent residential and commercial developments that contributed most significantly to the mortgage collapse.

Leinberger is one of a number of transportation experts leading the re-investigation. He says "there has been a profound structural shift" in the demand for housing in recent years, driven not primarily by any mortgage market or economic collapse but by the aging of the baby boomer population, and a widespread revision amongst homebuyers of how they want their neighborhoods to function.

This revision is inspired by environmental and social patterns; notably an expanding population, diminishing natural resources, a growing appreciation of concepts of sustainability, and the historic need to deliberately construct daily opportunities for physical recreation and movement.

The fact that high-density, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods in the city and inner suburbs represent the most in-demand and recession-resistant housing in the nation reflects these priorities. And with municipalities and regional governments increasingly eager to respond to the demands of existing and potential residents and businesses, it is driving transportation infrastructure decisions from the grassroots, up.

Surveys have shown that residents would vote for local taxes and rate increases if that money was used to pay for trails and pathways. At the city and county planning level, increasing bike- and walk-ability is a priority of a growing number of councils and planning agencies in communities large and small.

"Many boomers are now empty nesters and approaching retirement," Leinberger writes. "Boomers want to live in a walkable urban downtown, a suburban town center or a small town, according to a recent survey by the National Association of Realtors. The 'millennials'... favor urban downtowns and suburban town centers - for lifestyle reasons and the convenience of not having to own cars."

"Reinvesting in America's built environment - which makes up a third of the country's assets - and reviving the construction trades is vital for lifting our economic growth rate," Leinberger continues. "As Congress works to reauthorize highway and transit legislation, it must give metropolitan areas greater flexibility for financing transportation, rather than mandating that the vast bulk of the money can be used only for roads. We have to stop throwing good money after bad. It is time to instead build what the market wants: mixed-income, walkable cities and suburbs that will support the knowledge economy, promote environmental sustainability and create jobs."

One of the key lessons being learned is that the either/or funding equation pitting road infrastructure against non-motorized infrastructure is outdated, and unnecessarily oppositional. 

In a recent interview with Bike Portland's Jonathan Maus, Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation, Polly Trottenberg, described the inclusion of bike and pedestrian facilities in road projects as "the new normal."

"We shouldn't separate [active transportation] out, because really, it should be part of federal highways and it should be part of every roadway we design - that it's just part of what goes into them," she said. "It should be an integrated part of all the roadway planning that we do."

Trottenberg acknowledged that the growing demand for communities that are connected by non-motorized transportation was manifesting itself in organized political action.

"We went to LA for this re-authorization visit," she said. "This is LA, which people think of as the car city, and 300 bicycle activists showed up... I just see that's where the political energy is in transportation right now."

As Leinberger and other experts have determined, this energy is the result of a defined shift in American lifestyles, and not a trend or cultural glitch. Local elected officials and planning agencies have already responded to the demands for biking and walking options they are hearing from their residents. In the recent round of the federal government's TIGER 3 funding program, 22 of 46 funded projects included walking and bicycling elements, with many more unfunded applications also built around active transportation.

Whether the federal government will now enable this movement toward an environmentally, socially and economically stronger America remains to be seen. Our only dedicated sources of funding for non-motorized transportation - Transportation Enhancements, Safe Routes to School and the Recreational Trails programs - are the lynchpins of a successful move in this direction, and it is crucial they are preserved.

Computer generated image of streetscape courtesy of City of Newark. Photo of Hudson River Greenway, N.Y., courtesy of Boyd Loving.


Posted Thu, Dec 29 2011 10:56 AM by Jake Lynch

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