Big Rail

A pro-rail coalition should be much larger

As a big supporter of rail and transit, the creation of the OneRail coalition is quite heartening. It is, in a nutshell, a group of rail advocacy organizations that have banded together to lobby for rail investment. The Hill reports: Several trade and issue advocacy groups are part of OneRail, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Amtrak, the American Short Line & Regional Railroad Association, the Association of American Railroads, and the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership. If I have a complaint, it's this: A broader coalition is necessary. When highway funding is on the table, the heavies get into the game -- the oil companies, automobile companies, and chambers of commerce. Rail activities should also work to exploit the economic spillovers generated by rail investments. Transit-oriented development has proven lucrative for city governments as well as many commercial and residential developers. Producers of products from steel to electric and diesel engines to upholstery could benefit from new transit projects. Power companies, which helped develop the first generation of streetcar networks a century ago, might conceivably benefit from an increase in electricity demand or from the grid improvements that could accompany creation of improved national rail corridors. The point is this -- rail investment is good environmental, energy, and economic policy, but it's also good business. And if OneRail can get business on board, then we can expect real legislative progress.

Andy Lipkis: Rebel with a cause

TreePeople founder discusses his Ashoka fellowship and green infrastructure

Andy Lipkis founded one of the largest independent nonprofit environmental groups in Southern California, TreePeople, which is famous in Los Angeles for helping battle the floods of 1978 and 1980, planting a million trees in the 1980s, helping teach the city to recycle in the 1990s, and, recently, working to green its schools. Lipkis just returned from a briefing trip to Washington, which he took because he and his team at TreePeople are concerned that President Obama's vaunted economic stimulus program will go mostly towards roads, bridges, and airports -- gray infrastructure -- and prolong some of the problems caused by it, such as flooding, water shortages, and pollution. Lipkis sees an extraordinary opportunity to invest in greening cities, adapt to climate change, reduce energy dependence, and relieve the chronic unemployment of urban youth. It's a once-in-a-lifetime deal. Yet what's interesting about Lipkis, to this observer, is the nature of his advocacy. He finds ways to make his point without demonizing or dismissing his opponents. When a Los Angeles columnist named Bill Boyarasky warned in the Los Angeles Times that environmentalists could stall Obama's reconstruction efforts, Lipkis disagreed forcefully in an op-ed, but at the same time wondered out loud if he could find a way to bring Boyarsky over to TreePeople's side. He sat for an interview last week. Kit Stolz: You were just honored with an Ashoka Fellowship, which is an award given to social entrepreneurs to help bring their work to greater numbers of people. How did this feel for you, and where do you want to take your work next? Lipkis: It's encouraging. I've been in this business for 38 years, and it's a nice pat on the back. Ashoka gives a three-year, stipend-funded fellowship that's intended to lead to bigger things. It's saying we're investing in you because of your track record as an activist, and because we think you could make a bigger difference. In the application process, Ashoka asks for a five-year plan. This meant we [at TreePeople] had to think hard about the next five years. Because a group of climate scientists had announced a deadline for [acting against] climate change, which is now 94 months, I made that part of my process. We now have 94 months to make a difference. We're facing severe weather now because of climate change. We have to radically reduce our carbon output. For me, the missing link is not just to make my city sustainable, but to work profoundly to improve all cities, to protect people from climate change. OK, I say, that's my charge. What can I do to take these innovations, which we have piloted in Los Angeles and shown to be viable, to a larger arena? How can we scale this up? We can't just move along as we have been doing -- we don't have that luxury. We have had some success, but now we have to move much more rapidly towards climate protection and adaptation. So I said, that's what I'll do. They've given me this award, now I need to make use of it.

Finish what you didn't start

As housing starts slump, green building gains steam

Amid news of an epic slump in housing starts -- they fell 15.5 percent in December, to the lowest rate on record -- this tidy round-up of studies says green building will save us! OK, it doesn't quite say that, but it does show widespread support for green building, including for those sexy retrofits. Which is either my new band name or a column I'll be writing this year. Stay tuned.

Not just for drug deals anymore

Greening the alleys of Los Angeles

This article is part of a collaboration with Planetizen, the web's leading resource for the urban planning, design, and development community. Green alley projects are popping up in cities all over the U.S. and Canada, in an effort to make the concrete jungle a little better at absorbing rainwater. A new program in Los Angeles goes beyond the runoff to actively integrate these once-derelict spaces into the urban fold.

The Transit Authority: Stimulus miss

Bills for highways, no change for transit

Think all news is bad news during this epic recession of ours? Think again -- over the past three months, real wages have increased 23 percent, an enormous gain. At a crucial period for many working families, paychecks are going a lot farther than they did back in the summer. The explanation is simple: wages are flat, prices are down. The labor market operates on a bit of a lag, so while the recession affected oil demand and prices very quickly, layoffs and falling wages are emerging more slowly. Eventually, the weak economy will catch up to workers (those who still have jobs), and spending power will decline. But this is important to remember given the trends of the past decade. When economies are growing, oil prices rise. This means that even while wages are growing, it's difficult for consumer spending power to keep up, unless we reduce the intensity of oil in our economy. How can we do this? Easy -- cut commuting times, reduce driving, reduce congestion, green intercity travel and green freight shipping (so that rising oil prices don't feed through to prices for other goods, including food). This, of course, is the logic behind a push for greener infrastructure. Better transit and rail systems boost productivity -- by improving movement of goods and people -- which increases wages. They also reduce the petroleum intensity of the economy. In a boom period, you then have rising wages that aren't much eroded by rising energy costs. And that means a richer and greener society. Barack Obama understands this; at least, that's what we've been led to believe by his speeches. Many Congressional leaders understand it too. And it is therefore very disappointing to see the contents of the new American Recovery and Reinvestment Act -- also known as the stimulus bill. As has been widely reported, roughly $30 billion of the proposed infrastructure spending will go to highways, while only $10 billion is allocated toward transit and rail.

Links to enviro news and more

Driving change in Washington

Transportation projects get big money from state, feds

As the nation turns its attention toward the big Inaugural events next week, Washington Governor Chris Gregoire (D) danced her way (back) into office during her own Inaugural Ball Wednesday night. But the celebration was over the next day as she announced her economic stimulus plan for the state, which faces its biggest budget shortfall in history. While a big chunk of change -- more than $800 million -- would go toward accelerating building and road projects, she also suggests funding greener ventures: Some $30 million would help construct water-pollution-control facilities, and $10 million would install alternative-energy equipment in government facilities. Gregoire also hopes to create 20,000 new jobs in the next two years. There's no word on exactly how many of those are "green jobs," but there are likely to be quite a few openings in light-rail construction now that Sound Transit has been awarded a $813 million federal grant as part of the Federal Transit Administration's New Starts program. The three-mile light-rail tunnel linking hot-spots in Seattle was awarded the FTA's top rating because of the city's dense population and high transit-ridership. The money, which covers about 40 percent of the $1.9 billion price tag, will come primarily from federal gas taxes.

Let cyclists roll

In Oregon, bicyclists want to roll through traffic-free stop signs

In the '70s, the right-on-red wave passed through the states as drivers were increasingly frustrated by idling at red lights devoid of cross traffic. When one is stopped at a red light on a timer, a right-on-red and the even more daring left-on-red -- permitted in Oregon in some situations -- make sense. What makes even more sense is to let bicyclists treat stop signs as yield signs so they can roll through or stop when appropriate. Adopting a similar rule from Idaho, the Bicycle Transportation Alliance is trying to get the laws changed in Oregon to make biking easier while imposing no downside for automotive traffic. This is an idea that should spread to all 50 states; it's the right-on-red movement of the 21st century.

Radiant Cities: Suburbia edition

New book offers a prescription for 21st century suburbia

Pay no attention to the images of skeletal subdivisions abandoned in the face of high gas prices (remember those?) and the burst housing bubble: Suburbia is not dead. It's not even dying. Half of all Americans live in suburban areas, and 40 percent of American jobs are rooted there. But our suburbs are unsustainable, and not because we've rediscovered the joys of urban dwelling and a connection between vehicle miles traveled and quality of life ... and air. In fact, the greatest threat to suburbs over the next decade is this: "There might not be enough people to live in them." So says June Williamson, author of Retrofitting Suburbia. In the 1950s, 50 percent of American households had children. Now, says Williamson, that percentage has shrunk to 35; by 2030, it'll be down to 25 percent. Without families to fill those McMansions, suburbs will need new housing types for retirees who want to downsize and grown children who wish to remain close to home (though this unearthed article has one housewife comparing suburbia to jail). Not all those folks want to shift into urban centers, or can afford to. So suburbia is due for a massive makeover. Yes, it's time for a retrofit.

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