Analysis Questions Success of Light Rail Investments

April 17, 2014

An April 10 Atlantic Cities article  analyzed light rail investment made in five cities in the 1980s and found that the systems did not increase transit use or prevent a decline in the center city’s share of urbanized population, although it did appear to lessen the amount of decline compared to other cities that have not adopted light rail.  The article concluded that light rail can be an important component in revitalizing center cities but will not be successful on its own – transit-oriented development and planning and zoning changes de-emphasizing automobile usage are also necessary.

Based on the decisions to build these projects, which were made by hundreds of local officials and often endorsed by residents through referenda, you might think that the experience building light rail in the 1980s had been unambiguously successful. Yet it doesn’t take much digging to find that over the past thirty years, these initial five systems in themselves neither rescued the center cities of their respective regions nor resulted in higher transit use — the dual goals of those first-generation lines.

According to an analysis of Census data, in four of the five cities with new light rail lines, the share of regional workers choosing to ride transit to work declined, and the center city’s share of the urbanized area population declined, too. San Jose was the only exception, seeing a quarter of a percentage increase in the percentage of workers using transit and a 6 percentage point increase in its center city’s share of the urbanized area.  …

There is one metric by which the metro areas with 1980s light rail investments “thrived” more than others: core population….The median 1980s light rail metro saw its center city’s share of the urbanized area population decline by just 6 percent by 2012, compared to more than 10 percent for the 45 other regions with populations of more than 500,000 in 1980.  …

Even this relatively positive outcome doesn’t compensate for the fact that regions that invested in light rail in the 1980s largely failed to increase the share of workers commuting by transit, or to increase the vitality of their center cities with respect to the surrounding regions. Does this mean we should cease investment in new light rail lines? Certainly not; in many cases, rail has provided the essential boost to reinvigorate communities, and in some cases it has also resulted in higher ridership than before: just look at Rosslyn-Ballston in the D.C. region or Kendall Square in the Boston region.

But spending on new lines is not enough. Increases in transit use are only possible when the low costs of driving and parking are addressed, and when government and private partners work together to develop more densely near transit stations. None of the cities that built new light rail lines in the 1980s understood this reality sufficiently. Each region also built free highways during the period (I-990 in Buffalo, I-205 in Portland, US 50 in Sacramento, CA 54 in San Diego, and CA 237 in San Jose), and each continued to sprawl (including Portland, despite its urban growth boundary). These conflicting policies had as much to do with light rail’s mediocre outcomes as the trains themselves — if not more.


2014 “90 Day Report” Now Available On General Assembly Website

April 16, 2014

The “90 Day Report” is now available online on the Maryland General Assembly website.  The Department of Legislative Services produces this report each year, which summarizes major issues discussed and/or enacted during the General Assembly session.

Sections of particular interest to local governments are listed below.

“Beyond Terrapin Run” Seminar

April 15, 2014


1000 Friends of Maryland and the Maryland Chapter of the American Planning Association are hosting a seminar titled “Beyond Terrapin Run” on May 1 in Annapolis, Maryland.  County officials, attorneys, and planners are invited to attend.

Thursday, May 1, 2014 – 9:00 am to 12:00 pm

Pip Moyer Community Center, 273 Hilltop Lane, Annapolis

Just how binding are local comprehensive plans? Beyond Terrapin Run will provide a refresher on the Terrapin Run court case and the subsequent state legislation that overturned the court’s decision. Recent court cases from Queen Anne’s and Anne Arundel counties concerning zoning consistency with the comprehensive plan will also be highlighted. AICP CM Law credits pending.

Registration fee: $35

Continental breakfast and free on-site parking provided.
Doors open at 8:30.

View Panelist Bios

View Agenda


Maryland League of Conservation Voters Releases 2014 Session Summary

April 9, 2014

The Maryland League of Conservation Voters (MDLCV) has released its 2014 Environmental Legislative Wrap-Up.  Among the five major policy issues highlighted in the summary, MDLCV counted two victories and three losses.

Defending the “polluted water law” (also known as the stormwater remediation fee) and the passage of pesticide reporting funding legislation were counted as wins.  Failure to pass legislation that would make changes to the State’s energy Renewable Portfolio Standard, freeze natural gas drilling (fracking), and require cumulative environmental impact assessments for certain permits were listed as losses.  The stormwater fee, Renwable Portfolio Standard, and natural gas drilling efforts were priorities of the environmental community.

The Wrap-Up gave a mixed verdict on the budget, supporting the funding for the Chesapeake Bay Trust Fund and low-income energy assistance but expressing disappointment with a cut to Program Open Space funding.    The Wrap-Up also commented on the outcomes of seven other environmental bills.

House and Senate Pass Different Bills Allowing Renewable Energy Facilities on Preserved Agricultural Land

April 1, 2014

A March 28 Baltimore Sun article reported that legislation (HB 861 / SB 259) that would allow farmers, under certain circumstances, to place renewable energy generation facilities on lands subject to preservation easement by the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation has passed both the House and Senate but with differences.  The General Assembly will either have to reach an agreement about the bills in conference committee or one house must accept the changes of other house in order for the bills to be reconciled and passed.

The 44-3 [Senate] vote would clear the way for farmers to enter into contracts with companies that produce energy from solar panels, windmills, chicken litter or cattle manure to use their land for those facilities in exchange for payment. Those payments would be on top of the money farmers had already received from the state for putting land into permanent conservation.

The House has already passed a similar bill, but the two chambers must pass the bill in identical form before it can go to the governor for his signature.

Both versions leave the decision whether to approve a farmer’s request to used conserved land for energy purposes up to the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation. Farmers would be limited to using five acres for energy generation and would have to pay 5 percent of their lease proceeds to the state for future farmland preservation.

Planning Secretary Requests Charles County to Reconsider Septic Tier Map

April 1, 2014

As previously reported on Conduit Street, Charles County recently approved a septic tier map different from that recommended by a work group assembled for the task.  The approved plan includes half of an  18,000-acre deferred development district in the Mattawoman Creek watershed in a tier allowing future growth on septic systems.  A March 27 article reported that Maryland Secretary of Planning Richard Hall has sent a letter to the County Commissioners recommending that they reconsider the inclusion of the 9,000 acres.

In his letter, Hall called the plan “a significant improvement” over the map drawn by the pro-growth Balanced Growth Initiative and approved by the Charles County Planning Commission in November 2012, but he wrote that the 9,000-acre tract was unnecessary to meet the county’s growth projections and potentially would harm the Mattawoman. …

Hall noted in his letter that the county has more than twice the land zoned for development needed to meet its growth needs by 2040. More than 62,000 acres are mapped with current or future sewer areas on the approved plan, more than that total area of either Washington, D.C., or Baltimore, both of which have populations more than four times that of Charles County, he wrote.  …

In addition, “The Maryland Department of Natural Resources has significant concerns that extensive development within the Mattawoman Creek Watershed will irreparably harm this water body, which supports a diverse, high-quality aquatic ecosystem,” Hall wrote. Ninety-three percent of the 9,000 acres is located within the watershed.


This Week’s MACo Testimony – Week of March 24, 2014

March 28, 2014

The MACo staff gave testimony this week on the following bills:

March 25, 2014:

MACo supported its initiative bill, creating a public safety radio governance board – on its way toward passage.

MACo supported a study (after House amendments) to evaluate private and alternative school financing options.

MACo supported legislation creating a “whistleblower” style law to guard government programs against costly false claims.

MACo supported clarifications to Program Open Space laws, encouraging and enabling better public access.

MACo withdrew its previous opposition to troubling legislation, following an agreement and amendments supported by law enforcement and police representatives.

MACo asked for changes to far-reaching legislation designed to create tax incentive zones around colleges and large related institutions.

March 26, 2014:

MACo supported a narrowed bill to require better notice for schools and recreation programs regarding sudden hart issues arising from exercise-related stress.

MACo supported an amended bill, creating a county option tax credit for certain nonprofit community organizations.

MACo withdrew previous opposition to a far-reaching recycling bill, and indicated its continued willingness to remain engaged on recycling mandates and incentives.

March 27, 2014:

MACo opposed dramatically lowering the threshold over which state prevailing wage laws would apply to mostly locally-funded school construction projects.

MACo supported an amended bill creating state regulation for “cash-for-phone” machines, which retained county authority to ban their use through local laws.

MACo supported broad reform and accountability measures for local speed camera systems, while raising concerns with specific Senate amendments.


To see online versions of MACo’s written testimony from the 2014 legislative session, click here.

Tackling the Urban/Rural Planning Divide

March 28, 2014

An April 2014 Governing article explored the challenges of reconciling differing needs between urban and rural jurisdictions and highlighted three efforts to overcome the urban/rural divide.  First, the article discussed the work of planner David Shabazian in the Sacramento area in California.

Today [Shabazian] oversees a project called the Rural-Urban Connections Strategy (RUCS). Since its start in 2007, the group has advised city and county officials on how to capitalize on the metropolitan region’s agricultural sector while reducing traffic congestion on rural roads and improving cities’ access to fresh food.

The Sacramento area includes six counties and 22 cities. About 70 percent of the land is either forest, open space or farms. Although that rural portion accounts for only 13 percent of the region’s population, it has almost half of the road network. When the rural/urban program launched, Shabazian found that the region’s planning maps suffered from what he called an urban bias. Central cities, suburbs and exurbs received 13 color designations, depending on density and whether the primary land use was residential, commercial or industrial. The doughnut surrounding Sacramento was one color: green. The message, he says, was that the urban areas came off as a vibrant mix of different uses, while the outlying area was a big, undifferentiated mass marked “rural.” The RUCS staff drew a new map (below).  …

Thanks in part to this more nuanced view, the Sacramento Metro Council can now shortlist significant rural road projects that connect everything from processing plants to city markets, and that serve the interests of the entire region. This hasn’t translated to funding allocations yet, says Shabazian, but it’s a first step in forging a common path for rural and urban communities.

RUCS’ new map replaced the large swath of “rural” land, left, with a more nuanced depiction, right, that reflects the varying uses of land surrounding Sacramento. (Source: Sacramento Area Council of Governments)

The article also discussed the communication efforts of the Center of the American West, a think tank located at the University of Colorado, Boulder.  The Center came up with a novel way to highlight urban and rural differences in the form of a play.

Since its inception in 1986, the center has published reports on the prevailing public policy topics of Western states: energy, water and air quality. During a speaking tour in the 1990s, Patty Limerick, a center co-founder, noticed a rift between the state’s urban and rural communities….Limerick wanted to promote a public conversation about urban/rural conflicts, but she knew it had to be more than a dry policy brief for government officials.

So she wrote a play. The Urban/Rural Divorce in the American West was a comic take on the divorce trial of its two main characters, Urbana Asphalt West and Sandy Greenhills West. “The presumption was that the urban interests and the rural interests had worked like a marriage,” Limerick says. Country boy Sandy felt exploited and unappreciated. He complained that Urbana had despoiled his home with trash dumps and polluted air. The play outlined arguments from both sides about their contentious and sometimes opportunistic relationship. Limerick and two other colleagues from the center performed more than a dozen shows in Colorado, Idaho and Oregon, each time casting local public officials and citizens as witnesses and the presiding judge. In a few townships, participants told Limerick the play came up during subsequent public meetings. “We would hear that our ridiculous metaphor was helping people talk about the issues.”

Finally, the article highlighted the efforts of United Growth for Kent County, a nonprofit in the Grand Rapids, Michigan region.  The group was able to start a discussion between local urban and rural areas by finding one shared interest.

But it is possible to corral both rural and urban interests around a single idea, says Kevin Wisselink, a transportation planner for the city of Grand Rapids, Mich. Wisselink is a board member for United Growth for Kent County, a nonprofit in the Grand Rapids metro region. His group found a subject where city dwellers and rural residents shared a common interest: farmland preservation. City residents want access to fresh, local food; farmers want to protect their lifestyle and business. About 10 years ago, Wisselink’s group pushed for county funding of a program that pays farmers not to allow commercial or high-density residential building on their land. In part because of their efforts, the Kent County Board of Commissioners budgeted four years of funding for the program.

Central Maryland Sees Greatest Population Increases

March 27, 2014

A March 27 Maryland Department of Planning (MDP) press release announced that the majority of Maryland’s population growth over the 1-year period from July 1, 2012 to July 1, 2013 occurred in 5 Central Maryland Counties, with Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties seeing almost one-half of the total growth.  The article also noted a slowing of growth in Southern Maryland and population declines in 4 rural counties and Baltimore City.  The findings are based on an MDP analysis of recent population estimates from the United States Census Bureau.

 Almost one-half of the approximately 44,000 population growth statewide over the July 1, 2012 to July 1, 2013 period was due to gains in Montgomery (12,209) and Prince George’s (8,662) counties, Maryland’s two largest counties. Other growth areas in the 12-month period were Anne Arundel (5,568), Baltimore (5,333) and Howard (5,224) counties.  …

For most of the 2000s, Southern Maryland led the state in population growth rate, but since 2010, the region’s growth has slowed. In the just-reported period, Southern Maryland fell just below the Washington suburbs with the second largest percentage gain (3.7% versus 3.8%) in the state.

The city of Baltimore’s estimated population loss of 313 in 2013 was a marked turnaround from the 1,430 gain in the prior year.  …

Four, mostly rural counties also experienced population declines. Allegany, Kent, Queen Anne’s and Talbot counties experienced a combined 650-person drop in population, with the largest decline occurring in Allegany County (-348).

The analysis also found that Maryland’s 2013 population gain was ranked 14th among the states and the District of Columbia.  It also found that population mobility remains limited due to the 2007-2009 recession and the housing market collapse.


US Coastal Communities & Maryland Plan For Sea Level Rise

March 21, 2014

A March 19 Sustainable City Network article detailed how coastal communities in the United States are preparing for predicted sea level rises over several decades.  Globally, sea levels are predicted to rise at a faster rate than in the last several thousand years.

“Science is pretty clear. Sea level is rising and it has risen significantly in the last 100 years. The most robust numbers are from the U.S. National Research Council (suggesting sea level rise over the 21st century of between 22 and 79 inches). But it is difficult to predict,” [Chief Deputy Director of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) Steve] Goldbeck said. “We don’t know, for example, how much greenhouse gases will be emitted in the next several decades.”

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that sea level worldwide is currently rising by about 0.118 inches per year, which is “a significantly larger rate than the sea-level rise averaged over the last several thousand years …”

In the article, Goldbeck and others stressed the need for coastal regions to incorporate sea level rise into their planning and land use processes.

“Really, it’s more important that people start planning immediately for a rise in sea level. BCDC, which has served some 100 cities in nine California counties for more than 20 years, is trying to be resilient to a range of sea level rises. We have a mandate to plan for the Bay and its shoreline as a regional state agency,” Goldbeck said. “People need to make sea level rise part of the planning for a number of threats and issues. For example, we know we are going to have a major earthquake here again. We already face the potential for flooding and extreme storms. We must have a regional strategy for the bay in planning at all levels.”  …

For those who haven’t begun seriously addressing sea level rise, [San Franscico Planning and Urban Development Association (SPUR) Sustainable Development Policy Director Laura] Tam suggested that the best place to start is a comprehensive risk assessment.

“Understand what projections are most applicable, what are you going to face and where,” she said. “Coastline makeup and tectonic movements will affect any ocean rise. Create coastal inundation maps that show what land would be covered by a rise.”

Building codes also have to be amended to account for sea level rise, Tam said. Structures need to be properly designed and funded so that future changes can easily be made, for example, raising the height of sea walls or levees. Any design and financial strategy needs to offer protection well into the next century.

The article also discussed actions being taken by various East Coast regions, including Cape Cod, the New Jersey shore, and South Florida.  Such actions include permitting and zoning changes; building code revisions; coastline “undevelopment”; and the construction of dunes, beachheads, and seawalls.

In Maryland, a workgroup met over the 2013 interim to study the issue and the Department of Natural Resources has proposed legislation (HB 615) that would create a Coast Smart Council that would develop building and planning criteria for State facilities and projects located in areas subject to flooding or sea level rise.  The bill has passed the House with minor amendments and has been assigned to the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee.  A Senate hearing date for the bill has not yet been set.



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