Cities

Taxing times

Sales tax shortfall could affect Seattle's public transit

Photo: Seattle Municipal Archives This whole "economic downturn" thing is tricky business. As I've mentioned, it may be helping boost transit ridership numbers as cash-strapped folks abandon their cars. But those same cash-strapped folks are also buying less stuff (even if they are buying locally). Buying less stuff means less sales tax generated in Washington state. And because Seattle's Metro bus service gets more than half of its revenue from a dedicated sales tax, this is not good news for Seattle's primary mode of public transit. To give it to you in (rather depressing) numerical form, King County administrators have said that Metro's sales tax revenue losses over the two-year 2008-2009 period could total $100 million -- that's 800,000 to 1 million hours of bus service. (And that doesn't count the time you'll spend standing around at bus stops waiting for a ride.)

Out in the foodshed

NYC's Scott Stringer releases a plan for remaking the urban food system

For those of us wondering what it would take to "localize" urban food systems, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer has some answers. In a just-released study called "Food in the Public Interest," Stringer's office analyzes the New York City "foodshed" (a term we'll be hearing a lot of in the future) and comes up with a lengthy set of recommendations. If it does anything, the report emphasizes just how daunting a task it will be to reform food policy in this county. Much of what Stringer hopes to accomplish (especially in the area of nutrition programs) will be handled at the federal level. Still, the report emphasizes the outsized impact on issues that involve land use and commercial development that the control over zoning and business licensing regulations gives to local authorities. Attempting to eliminate food deserts in low-income areas by creating "Food Enterprise Zones" and reducing red tape in the permitting of food processing companies is exactly the kind of thing that zoning and licensing reforms can address. Interestingly, the report's conclusions on food deserts align with a recent study by two SUNY-Buffalo researchers. They suggest the solution may lie in thinking small (increase the number of neighborhood grocery stores) rather than big (spending tax money on attracting chain supermarkets). Indeed, the same focus on local regulations applies to the expansion of urban agriculture (first step: overturn New York City's beekeeper ban!) and to the development of a wholesale farmers' market and food storage network (so that industrial and commercial buyers can better take advantage of local agricultural output).

Nearly 1,500 more cars in Beijing daily

BEIJING — Nearly 1,500 cars a day have been added to Beijing’s streets since the start of the year, state media said on Tuesday, indicating new curbs on driving had not dampened the desire for automobiles. The already gridlocked and heavily polluted Chinese capital registered 65,970 new motor vehicles in the first 45 days of the year, a daily increase of 1,466, Xinhua news agency said, quoting the municipal traffic authority. That compares with about 1,350 new cars added daily in 2008, according to city figures. This year’s new cars brought the total in the city to 3.56 million as …

All aboard the SUPERTRAIN

The stimulus bill provides serious money for high-speed rail

There are those who have expressed dismay at reports the high-speed rail provision of the stimulus bill was destined to build supertrains to carry gamblers back and forth between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Thankfully, they were woefully misinformed. Matt Yglesias cleared things up when he uncovered a legal analysis of the actual language from the bill: The Stimulus Plan includes two provisions modeled after the [High Speed Rail] Act that finance high-speed rail development. First, the Stimulus Plan provides a $2 billion grant for high-speed rail projects that will remain available until September 30, 2011. The grant will be distributed among applicant states, interstate compacts, public agencies having responsibility for providing high-speed rail service and Amtrak for capital projects associated with inter-city passenger rail services reasonably expected to reach speeds of at least 110 miles per hour. The Secretary of Transportation will have discretion to award grants based on an extensive set of criteria, including the legal, financial and technical capacity of the applicant to carry out the project; compatibility with relevant national plans; and anticipated economic, environmental and transportation effects. Sorry, Vegas. No earmark for you. Looks like Reid's statement that a Los Angeles-Vegas route "could get a big chunk of the money" was more wishful thinking than act of Congress. This statement is no doubt causing further heartburn in Sen. Reid's office now that it's been embraced by the right as a supposed example of the pork that lards the stimulus package. In fact, according to the Sierra Club, Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood has set up a new entity called TIGER (an acronym that just oozes efficiency, no?) to prioritize stimulus projects based on merit, rather than whim. Really. Yglesias also uncovered this fantastic map of officially designated HSR rail corridors, some of which would presumably get first dibs on the money. Note the absence of a little green line between L.A. and Vegas:

Plum good

Clustered housing and green space combine to good effect

Located just outside Austin, Plum Creek in Kyle, Tex. is this region's first traditional neighborhood development -- a community of 8,700 residential units, several hundred acres of green space, over 600 acres of commercial, employment, and mixed-use property, a 70-acre town center, and a commuter rail station, all built on the principles of "new urbanism." View full stats and project history at Terrain.org, which has an absorbing file of such "UnSprawl Case Studies" (and other great literary and visual content on place, both natural and built) viewable in the dropdown in the top right corner. Plum Creek may not look like paradise to everyone, but it's an example of the way new developments can keep up with the times and the needs of a changing social and energy landscape.

Sweet nothings

Obama says the right things about transportation infrastructure: We'll see what happens when the transportation bill comes up later this year.

Whose plaza is it anyway?

Improving on the ambiguity of privately owned public spaces

This article is part of a collaboration with Planetizen, the web's leading resource for the urban planning, design, and development community. Cities are filled with spaces intended for the public -- but many of them are clearly owned and operated by the private sector. Though cities bend rules to get these spaces built, the public benefit is often outweighed by the cost. The challenge now is to make them better. The difference between what is public and what is private is usually pretty clear. A city park is available to everyone. Your neighbor's living room is not. But the line dividing public and private can blur, and when it does, spaces get ambiguous, and questions arise. Who can use them? What are they for? Who's in charge?

Local warming

Looking at climate change from a regional perspective

"Climate change poses a tremendous threat to the Puget Sound and Georgia Basin area." Clear. Concise. Depressing. The quote comes from Patty Glick, senior global warming specialist at the National Wildlife Federation, but it was echoed in the words of all the speakers at the three climate-change panels held Wednesday at the Puget Sound Georgia Basin Ecosystem Conference in Seattle. Scientists of varying disciplines from all over the region shared their research and forecasts for the future. But one big question for the day arose: How do we take all of this climate change science -- which is primarily based on predictions that are global in scale -- and translate that into local management decisions?

Service first

Using stimulus funds to make mass transit free

Irwin Kellner, chief economist for MarketWatch, suggests a better use for the billions contained in the economic stimulus legislation: Right now federal money for states and local governments is aimed at big capital projects such as buying new trains or busses. But what is the point of buying new transit equipment if the local systems are mothballing their fleet because of service cuts?Better to use these funds to help eliminate fares and maintain or increase service. It also avoids the government giving people tax cuts with one hand while taking them away with the other.

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