There’s Still Time for the Stimulus Bill to Get Rail and Roads Right

With more funds for rail and walkable street networks, President Obama and Congress will help Americans live well on less energy

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The release of House Democrats’ version of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Bill on Thursday came with a sinking feeling — and buzz on news, politics and environment blogs about how its infrastructure provisions may get the recovery part right but falter on reinvestment, directing too much of a too-small pot of infrastructure dollars to conventional highway projects. (Reports are actually surfacing in a variety of places— WSJ, TPM, Transport Politic — about how even Democratic members of the House Transportation Committee aren’t hiding their dissatisfaction with the scaled-back funding for transit and other forms of infrastructure, with a spokesman for Committee Chair James Oberstar even suggesting to Kate Sheppard at Grist that the Obama Administration helped give Amtrak and other inter-city rail funding a $4 billion haircut from proposed levels.)

Americans need a bill that serves their urgent short-term needs (jobs) without undermining their long-term needs (a transportation system that makes life more convenient and functions well on less oil).

They may still get that bill, if they rally around a couple clear priorities:
1) Join with the smart growth coalition Transportation for America in calling for the bill envisioned by Transportation Committee Chair James Oberstar, with billions more for Amtrak and existing public transportation systems — plus provisions for prioritizing repair of dangerous bridges over highway expansions.

2) Urge Congress and the Obama Administration to go one step further, directing the bill's pavement dollars not just to gas-intensive highways (and major bridges) but to the walkable streets on compact blocks that support good transit-service and lively sustainable neighborhoods. There are plenty of these walkable streets in big cities, walkable suburbs and small towns across America. They’re where our transportation system functions most efficiently and adds lasting economic value – and CNU and partners have a practical proposal into Congress for identifying and funding them.

A good Economic Recovery and Reinvestment bill will invest strategically in streets and transit — and give the Obama Administration a home run, not just more spending on the status quo. "Getting the right mix of transit and road funding in this bill is essential," says CNU President and CEO John Norquist, "but funding the right kind of roads is just as important. Communities across the country realize their future is in walkable, livable, fuel-efficient neighborhoods — they want to build up the infrastructure that supports that vision. If the pavement portion of this stimulus winds up looking like just another superhighway bill, it will be a step backwards from energy independence and from lasting economic recovery in home and real estate markets, which is where the economic crisis started."

Although federal pavement funds typically flow to high-volume highways that serve automobiles exclusively, much of the cutting-edge work in transportation design is occurring at the other end of the transportaton spectrum, where tight-knit networks of streets efficiently serve users including pedestrians, cyclists, riders of streetcars, buses or light-rail trains, and drivers of cars and trucks. At CNU's Transportation Summit in Charlotte in November (featured in this month's Atlantic Monthly) leading transportation design innovators — including two transportation engineers who have served as president of the Institute for Transportation Engineers — unified around the idea that America's ubiquitous automobile-only infrastructure is underperforming and that well-connected networks of walkable streets represent a superior platform for the future. Benefits range from improved circulation and traffic flow (people have more ways to get around and multiple routes to choose from) to far lower per-capita carbon emissions and reduced injury and fatality rates. Research reported in this month's issue of New Urban News shows how dramatic these safety benefits are: a new study of 24 California cities by two University of Connecticut transportation engineers reveals that a group with the least-connected, automobile-dependent street systems had traffic fatality rates 225 percent higher than cities with better-connected, more walkable networks.

In December, CNU gave Congressman Oberstar and others in Congress a proposal for identifying the areas where these connected transportation networks exist and can be strengthened through immediate funding of shovel-ready projects. The proposal makes areas meeting straightforward connectivity criteria eligible for a “network” designation. Once a state recognizes a qualifying local area with a network designation, all streets in the network (including the portion of streets devoted to pedestrian use, ie. sidewalks) would be eligible for investment for projects that maintain or improve the function of the network, even accelerated maintenance and pothole repair. Typical federal funding practices fund individual roads in isolation, often resulting in more traffic on larger roads, a prospect many communities now view warily.

The CNU proposal would avoid earmarks, an important condition set by Congress, and offer a solution to the problems that resulted in the infrastructure funding shrinking in recent versions of the Recovery Bill. Explained Congressman Oberstar at a Thursday hearing of the committee he chairs, "The issue, frankly, is that the Congressional Budget Office says, 'Oh, you can’t - the agencies under your jurisdiction, principally federal highways, can’t spend that money as fast as you proposed it, 90 days.'"

But says Norquist, "This proposal enables many more projects in strategic areas from big cities to small towns where our transportation system functions at peak efficiency. And it does without earmarks and without bureaucratic delays. Most of the projects in the current bill are large in scale and will take many months or even years to get underway. Local network projects are ready and are getting more shovel ready with each winter storm. Maintaining existing streets and filling potholes would not require a Federal Alternatives Analysis or an environmental-impact statement."

The CNU proposal utilizes the same basic connectivity standard — a minimum of 150 intersections per square mile — as the Green Building Council's LEED for Neighborhood Development system, which recognizes that fine-grained walkable networks support green neighborhoods in ways that branch-like street systems in driving-only subdivisions do not. The image below shows how areas with similar amenities but different levels of connectivity function completely differently from one another, with one requiring driving for almost all trips and another inviting convenient walking and transit trips.

A highly regarded research project from the Brookings Institution and the Center for Neighborhood Technologies (CNT) demonstrates how connected street networks and transit service work together to conveniently reduce household driving and driving-related carbon emissions. The project uses US Census surveys and state vehicle emissions testing data to gauge how driving levels vary depending on factors such as transit service, street connectivity, and population density. Old Town Alexandria and Franconia are both served by the blue line of Washington DC's Metro rail, but the Brookings/CNT map at shows that the average household near the rail line in Franconia drives 70% more than households near the rail line in Old Town with its compact, walkable streets and higher population density. A new poll shows Americans hungering for more of this energy-saving infrastructure: 80 percent of respondents in the poll from Transportation for America and the National Association of Realtors said "transportation investments should support the goals of reducing energy use, with 58 percent agreeing strongly."

Norquist said it's also hard to understate both the economic benefits of these networks streets. Alexandria, for instance, is one of the most desirable living and shopping destinations in DC, for instance. And numerous reports now show comparable housing in neighborhoods with walkable streets holding more of their value in the downturn – and key demographers like Arthur C. Nelson of the University of Utah have made eye-opening predictions about how the US will be oversupplied with large-lot homes in driving-only locations for decades but will face shortages in townhouses, condos and apartments in walkable locations.

Read and share a concise version of CNU's plan for generating stimulus jobs improving walkable transportation networks. Delve deeper with an illustrated background paper on the proposal prepared in cooperation with leading transportation engineer Rick Chellman and colleague Brian Bochner, a past president of the Institute of Transportation Engineers.