The New Normal?

As the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) for this area, it’s our job to work with local jurisdictions to identify, plan for and program how federal transportation funds get used in the region.  We’re already working to line up funding for construction projects that won’t begin until 2017.

Those funds, not surprisingly, have become a lot more scarce.

Last year, as part of developing the TIP, (Transportation Improvement Program), a document that allows Duluth Area communities to use federal transportation dollars, we were talking about divvying up about $7.5 million in federal highway transportation funds for local roadway projects throughout Northeast Minnesota.

This year, the funding allocation for the same area is about $5 million.  Of that amount, $2.1 will go for projects to improve roads and transit services throughout Duluth, Hermantown and Proctor.

Spending to Meet Performance Goals

So, working within the “new normal” of funding restraints, it’s more important than ever to decide on projects that will fix critical maintenance needs.  (Not to mention, new construction is pretty much off the table). These federal dollars do have strings attached: they need to be spent on projects that will meet performance goals, i.e., to improve safety and traffic flow, in measurable ways.

Every year, jurisdictions in the Duluth metro (the Cities of Duluth and Hermantown as well as St. Louis County) tell us which projects they’d like to use federal funds for and we work with our Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) and Policy Board to decide which ones are the most important.

We Want to Hear from You

Transportation projects are public facilities and services funded with taxpayer dollars, and therefore local citizens have a right to weigh in on such decisions, along with the planners, engineers and elected officials.

This year, the following transportation projects are being proposed by the City of Duluth, St. Louis County and the Duluth Transit Authority for our area:

  • Mesaba Ave Repairs – Concrete and joint repairs from Central Entrance to I-35 and repairs to bridges over Superior Street and 2nd Ave West
  • East 4th Street Repairs – Mill & overlay, safety improvements and ADA improvements (pedestrian ramps) from 6th Avenue East to Wallace Avenue
  • DTA STRIDE Buses – Purchase of three STRIDE replacement buses to maintain existing fleet to safety, comfort, and efficiency standards

Do you have any opinions

…about the importance of these proposed projects to our area?

Talk to Us – Online, In Person or by Phone:

  1. Make a comment, below,  or
  2. Stop by our office at 221 West First Street, ARDC entrance on the Skywalk level, or
  3. Call me with questions or comments–Robert Herling at (218) 529-7573.

Although it’s only March 2013, NOW is the time to give us your input on these proposed projects before funding decisions are made for 2017.

You have three ways to let us know.

Carless in Duluth

It’s no secret that we Americans are in love with our cars.

They demonstrate our status and standing in society.

The way we’ve invested in roads and highways and the way we’ve developed our cities pretty much mandates that you need to own a car to be able to access jobs, food, education and recreation.

Driving a car has become the default mode of travel for almost all people for every trip of any distance.

And here in Duluth, perched on a steep hill with prominent winters, it makes sense that people want to drive.

So why would a person choose not to?

Video documentary and panel discussion

Carless in Duluth, a video documentary about people who walk, bike, or take the bus instead of driving, will premiere on:

Tuesday, March 20, 2012
6:00 pm
Teatro Zuccone
222 East Superior Street, downtown Duluth

Following the video, there will be a panel discussion with engineers, planners, and other experts in the area.  Afterward, an informational tabling session will be held in the atrium where food and drinks will also be available.

Area bike and ped projects, and lots of them

The event, hosted by the Healthy Duluth Area Coalition, follows a series of public meetings that were hosted throughout Duluth about one month ago.  At each meeting, residents were given the opportunity to learn about ongoing and upcoming bicycle and pedestrian projects happening all over the city, including the Cross-City Trail, the Duluth Citywide Sidewalk Study, and the Duluth Traverse Mountain Bike Trail, and gave their feedback about their interest in these projects as well as other potential ideas. Over 50 residents participated in these meetings.

The Carless in Duluth premiere and transportation forum on March 20th will conclude this series of public outreach events. Organizations including the Duluth Transit Authority, the Metropolitan Interstate Council, City of Duluth Engineering, and the Bike Cave Collective have already confirmed their participation in this event, with pending confirmation from the Northern Lights Express, COGGS, and the UMD Cycling Club.

Check it out – it’s free and open to the public.

The Future of Transportation in One Word

Proposed Multimodal Terminal for Duluth, MNMultimodal.

Safe, efficient transportation depends on infrastructure that supports multiple ways of traveling from point A to point B.  Not just by road, but by air, water, rail, bus, bicycle and on foot.

Locally, there’s a forward-looking, multimodal project that the MIC has been a partner in developing for many years.

DTA-Multimodal Terminal street viewDuluth Multimodal Transportation Center

Public taxpayer investments, more than ever before, are being called upon to serve multiple goals.  The proposed Duluth Multimodal Transportation Center does just this. It will provide a centrally located transportation hub that serves the City, the northeast region, and the state.

The state of the art facility will serve passengers of the Duluth Transit Authority’s local bus service as well as passengers of inter-city bus services.  Both Jefferson Lines and Indianhead Transit as well as local providers LCS (private) and Arrowhead Transit (public) will be using the facility.  It will add parking for commuters and provide space for rental cars and taxi operations, as well as secure bike parking.  Pedestrian and bicyclists will be connected to the downtown area, convention center, and waterfront trails via replaced skywalks and concourses.  The transit area will take advantage of all the DTA’s state-of-the-art technology and provide riders with real-time information and other amenities in a safe and secure area.

It’s being developed in response to documented needs. The existing DTA transit center on Superior Street requires improvements to increase safety and security, to improve the effectiveness of the current and future transportation demand, and to provide connectivity to the overall transportation system.

DTA-Multimodal Terminal - new skywalk connectionPublic-Private Partnerships

The project includes upgrading portions of the aged Northwest Passage Skywalk with an improved design, easier connections, and potential retail commercial potential.

Working with non-profit, private owners, community partners, current and future tenants of the facility will strengthen the value of the facility.  The DTA will work with a private partner on this project and will use the design/build concept of construction to rapidly complete the project.

State Bonding Bill

This project is being put forward as part of Minnesota’s proposed 2012 bonding bill, to appropriate $6,000,000 to create jobs and invest in the multimodal transportation needs of tomorrow.

Interconnected, multimodal transportation options encourage economic growth, reduce congestion and environmental impacts, and improve mobility and access to transportation for both people and goods.

For these reasons, there’s lots of support for this project at the local and federal levels.  Let’s make sure we support our state lawmakers to see this bonding bill through and see these benefits happen here in Duluth.

The Long and Winding Road

How a bill becomes a law - graphic

Political gridlock in Washington has resulted in years of legislative limbo in dealing with our nation’s aging infrastructure.  But something needs to happen by March 31, when the eighth (!) extension of the SAFETEA-LU federal surface transportation bill expires.

Transportation legislation

In a possible sign of progress, both the House and Senate have pledged to take action on the reauthorization process, which sets the laws, priorities and spending levels for federally-funded transportation projects and programs for the next several years.  And indeed there has been a lot of Congressional activity this past month and even this past week.

But reaching agreement on what exactly will be included in the new transportation bill—and how to pay for it—is a convoluted process.  Enacting a bill by the end of March will require that both the House and the Senate negotiate no fewer than ten procedural hurdles and more significantly, overcome deep political and philosophical differences.  And from what we’ve seen just this week, there are plenty of differences to reconcile.

Good news, bad news

The House released its version on January 31st, a five-year, $260 billion, 800-page surface transportation bill known as the “American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act.”

From our perspective, the proposed legislation contains some good news in that it is favorable to existing MPOs such as the MIC so that we can continue our work to plan, prioritize and coordinate federally-funded transportation projects with local input.

Of concern to us, however, is that funding for the Safe Routes to School program is eliminated, along with the Transportation Enhancements (TE) program and “complete streets” projects that make infrastructure improvements for bikers and pedestrians in addition to cars.

Certainly important to all MPOs, these funding categories would be turned over to the discretion of state DOTs to decide if and how they are continued.  Essentially, states would have the option of spending money on these types of projects, but would no longer be required to.  As the League of American Bicyclists commented, “it basically eliminates the status and standing <of the bicycling community> in the planning and design of our transportation system—a massive step backwards…to a 1950s highway- and auto-only program.”

Then, also troubling, the House Ways and Means Committee weighed in with a proposal to eliminate gas tax funding for bus transit and other mass transportation systems.  Transit, Air Quality Improvement, Congestion Mitigation and other programs would be placed into a renamed Alternative Transportation Account and would need to be funded annually through the general fund and annual appropriations process.

Bipartisan support

Non-auto oriented transportation programs, however, do have a measure of bipartisan support, which up until recently has been how our country has made its important transportation infrastructure investments.  Several House Republicans, led by Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.) with backing from Democrats, attempted to amend the draft bill to restore funding for bike and pedestrian projects and Safe Routes to School.

And the Senate has so far managed to reach bipartisan agreement on their version of the bill. A two-year, $109 billion reauthorization, called Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century or MAP-21, passed the Environment and Public Works Committee last month.  The transit component of that bill was released by the Senate Banking Committee with unanimous bipartisan support for public transportation programs at current funding levels and includes some reforms — such as allowing federal funds to be spent on operations — that transit advocates have been pushing for.

The sticking point: how to pay

You may have heard by now that the House’s bill, in addition to cutting some transportation programs to pay for the reauthorization, proposes a new source of revenue in the form of royalties from new oil and gas drilling leases on public lands and federal waters.  This, however, is a contentious issue and may or may not make it into the final bill during the step when the House and Senate reconcile their two versions into a final bill.

It also extends the federal gas tax at the 1993 level of 18.3 cents-per-gallon (as well as the 24.4 cents-per-gallon diesel tax and the .001 cents-per-gallon leaking underground storage tank tax) for the next five years.

Pressure at the state level

Much of the pressure to pay for the problem of the nation’s aging bridges, highways, and transit systems will fall to the states. Most—like Minnesota and Wisconsin—are refocusing their priorities on preserving and maintaining the existing system rather than constructing new roads.

Although states may consider raising their portion of the gas tax, or automatically increasing the existing rate for inflation, finding new ways to fund transportation will require innovation, new technologies, and smarter management practices to ensure their scarce resources address the key problem areas.

MnDOT is conducting studies on new user-fee mechanisms that assess fees based on how many miles you drive on the roads rather than how much gas you put in your tank.  Other states are considering expanded use of tolling and state infrastructure banks.

Unpopular at the personal level

And many of these new options may be downright unpopular.  As we noted previously, it’s not just our politicians who will need to make some attitude adjustments.

No matter how long it takes for Congress to hammer out a new transportation bill, and despite the cuts it will make or efficiencies it will impose, all of us, as beneficiaries of the transportation network, will need to be willing to make a shift in how we think about paying our way.

Photo credit: http://www.cyberlearning-world.com

My Awesome Walk to Work

Snow-covered section of the Superior Hiking Trail in Duluth MN

My Facebook post today reads: “Another awesome walk to work this morning on the Superior Hiking Trail—despite the snow—or maybe because of it!”

Within seconds a friend (an actual friend, in this case) responded “I did the same. I love Chester Park.”

Another commented “You are the luckiest commuter ever!”

This exchange reminded me of the simple, real-life benefits of one of our favorite concepts here at the MIC: multi-modal transportation networks.

It’s all about options

From a transportation planning perspective, a multi-modal transportation network refers to a balance of  infrastructure that supports multiple modes of travel — a mix of roads, air, marine/port, rail, public transportation, bicycle and pedestrian facilities (including paved and non-paved trails).  This mix is plainly visible on any given day in the Duluth-Superior area.

From a societal and governmental perspective, multi-modal transportation networks have been widely supported because a balanced transportation system encourages economic growth, reduces congestion and environmental impacts, and improves mobility and access to transportation.

From my personal perspective, though, a multi-modal transportation network means that I have options. It was just too nice of a morning to get in my car and drive (the very walkable distance of) two and a half miles.

Trails as commuter pathways

One big advantage of living in Duluth, Minnesota, is the proximity of urban areas to green spaces. A multi-modal system, in this city, means that I can walk out my back door onto the Superior Hiking Trail, which in turn intersects with our urban streets infrastructure across Skyline Parkway (as scenic a walk as you could ask for), down through a couple of local neighborhoods and to our downtown office.

And a community-wide vision is emerging for Duluth to become the premier trail city in North America. Developing an inter-connected trails system will provide not just outstanding recreational opportunities but compelling transportation options as well.

Quality of life improvement

Bottom line, I don’t have to get in my car and drive every time I need to go somewhere. I’m able to travel on foot (or by bike or by bus), and I consider that a big quality of life enhancement.

How about you?

Do you have an awesome walk to work of your own?  Would you like to be able to walk or bike more often in your daily life?  Does it make sense to continue to fund multi-modal transportation networks? (More on that topic to follow…)