Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Dulles De-Railed?

Will this....

...ever get here?

After Friday's Washington Post headline, that's a question many Washingtonians are asking themselves. The Federal Transit Administration's decision to not grant an expected $900 million to the Silver Line has caused quite a stir here in the seat of government.

Since the 1960s, before even the current Metro system was open to passengers, regional leaders have been calling for a rail connection to the area's largest airport. Of the three Airports in the Washington area, the premier gateway, Dulles, is the only one without train service to Downtown (and BWI also has service to Baltimore). The Silver Line would include 23 new miles of heavy rail, with trains operating from Ryan Road (Rt 772) in Loudoun County to Stadium-Armory station along the Orange and Blue Lines in Washington. Along the way, it would serve one of the region's largest job centers while connecting international visitors to downtown on a one-seat ride.

Many people I spoke with on Friday responded with surprise and outrage that a project being planned for four decades was suddenly in such a precarious position. According to the Post, it wasn't just everyday Metro riders that were upset either, Friday's lead article described Virginia Senator Warner as "livid."

So why all the hubbub? According to columnist Marc Fisher, the decision by the FTA to put federal funding at risk for Phase I of the Metro extension to Dulles Airport is not completely out of the blue. Still, the feds and Virginia have already allocated $104 million to the project, and utility relocation for the project has already started in Fairfax County.

It seems that there has been some contradiction regarding conversations between FTA and Virginia leaders. The Post is reporting that Virginia's cost estimates don't match the FTA's and that only a few days before the bell tolled for the Silver Line, FTA sent a report to Congress rating the Dulles Metro line as meeting criteria for funding. The Post articles indicate that Virginia's leaders feel like FTA has been leading them on with regards to the project's hopes. Many of the concerns raised last Thursday have already been addressed, including the slashing of costs late last year to meet FTA cost guidelines. If FTA is so concerned with the project, they should have sent up smoke signals earlier.

Due to this pressure, US Secretary of Transportation, Mary Peters, has agreed to grant a "cooling off period" before making a final decision. It seems very unlikely, however, that the FTA is going to change their mind and that leaves Northern Virginia's citizens and leaders in a quandary.

As reported before (here and here) on Track Twenty-Nine, the Silver Line was about far more than getting people from home to work (an estimated 60,000 commuters daily), it was to be about redefining Northern Virginia in a way which would change the very foundation of the home to work trip. Of course, it would take more than a Metro line to transform Tysons into Bethesda, but it isn't too far-fetched to imagine a transformation on the scale of Silver Spring's in gridlocked Fairfax County.

Without the $900 million in federal dollars, the $2.5 billion project will probably not move forward, at least not without major changes. Already talk is surfacing of ways to make up the gap. Governor Kaine has already expressed his disinterest in further raising tolls on the Dulles Toll Road to pay for the project. Some have suggested a private takeover of the project, but public-private partnerships still face much criticism, at least outside of the White House.

Regardless of the fate of the Silver Line, however, this situation is indicative of a larger problem facing America's urban areas. Transportation dollars are stretched thinner and thinner each additional year that passes, and the costs associated with the aging infrastructure from the Interstate Highway era are piling up. In an age where cheap oil seems to be in retreat, it does not seem prudent to continue to spend $40 on roads for every $1 on transit, yet that is where our national transportation policy is aimed.

Furthermore, the implications of the Dulles Metro rejection should be looked at in a broader context. For some time now, many cities have shied away from even considering heavy rail because FTA is unlikely to fund it. A few cities that already have systems are considering extensions, but what doubt the Dulles decision will cast is yet to be seen. For more information on this, check out the Overhead Wire's articles here and here.

In his State of the Union speech Monday night, Mr. Bush encouraged Congress to pass a stimulus package in the face of this recession. The Dulles Metro project is the same kind of stimulus for Northern Virginia because it challenges some of the forces that put us into this economic situation. Alternative forms of transportation would allow Americans to cut back on fuel spending, and therefore put money back in wallets across the nation.

It's ironic how spendthrift this administration is when it comes to improving our urban areas, education programs, and the health care system, especially in the face of Mr. Bush's own pet project, Iraq. Everyday, America spends an estimated $720 million on the Iraq War--almost enough to cover FTA's bill for Dulles. According to, one day's worth of War dollars would buy 6,500 homes, or give health care to 423,529 children, or even convert 1.27 million homes to run on renewable energy--talk about a stimulus package!

It's time that Metro opened its doors at Dulles and it's time that America's transportation policies started to lean in a more sustainable direction. America can't afford to miss the train when it comes to the greening of our cities. It's time for the Bush Administration to get on board with Dulles Rail.

Agree? Let the people in charge know at

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Bad Carma

I had two near misses with cars today, ironically enough in the same intersection. As such, I was inspired to write a post on pedestrian safety issues. On my way to work today, I was crossing an intersection on the UM campus that I cross every day, Prienkert and Campus Drives. This is the home stretch, my workplace is on the corner, and since I'm on a university campus, pedestrians are often treated with a good bit of respect. Anyway, As I entered the crosswalk, a vehicle on the far side on the intersection came to a stop. The driver, who could have safely made a right turn before I crossed his path, waited until I was in front of his vehicle before proceeding. Although I was trying to make eye-contact, he never looked left or ahead. My yell and hood slap, though, caused him to brake before colliding with me. He did shake his fist at me, presumably for the slap--but I think a full-scale collision would have been a less desirable alternative.

If that had been the end of it, I would probably not given another thought to pedestrian issues today. But as I left my office, bound for the Metro, I crossed the very same crosswalk. Here, left-turning traffic from Prienkert (moving in the same direction as me) has the right of way over oncoming vehicles from Campus Drive. As I entered the crosswalk, I looked to see a left-turning car stop, even though she didn't have a stop sign. I thought, therefore, that she was stopping for me (I had, after all, made it halfway across the street already). She was, however, apparently only stopping to make sure that the oncoming car also stopped. Without checking the crosswalk, she swung left and almost stopped in time. Her bumper did hit me mid-calf though. I was uninjured, thankfully, but I did miss the UM shuttle by 30 seconds.

Anyway while I seem to have gotten off scot free, many people don't. According to the National Safety Council, almost 6,000 pedestrians are killed by cars every year in the United States. Another 84,000 are injured in similar accidents. Indeed, every hour 10 pedestrians are killed or injured in the United States.

Speed is a major factor when it comes to pedestrian fatalities. For a vehicle traveling at 20 miles an hour, the chance that a struck pedestrian will die is only 5%. At 30 miles per hour, the rate climbs to over 40%, and vehicles traveling 40 miles an hour are 85% likely to kill a pedestrian in an accident. This has a lot to do with reaction time in addition to kinetics. Every time speed doubles, stopping time quadruples and so does the kinetic energy absorbed by the object collided with.

The State of Maryland requires that drivers stop for pedestrians in a crosswalk on their half of the roadway or approaching their half from an adjacent lane. Drivers are also prohibited from passing anyone stopped to allow a pedestrian to cross the street. This is not a blank check for pedestrians, though. For instance, pedestrians only have the right of way in crosswalks; they must yield it to other vehicles at all other times. Even when a crosswalk is present, though, pedestrians must follow any signals present. And state law prohibits pedestrians from entering a crosswalk if a driver does not have sufficient time to stop. For the safety of all involved, pedestrians and drivers have an obligation to be responsible.

When accidents occur, people are wont to point fingers. And while someone is usually at fault, the perspective of context should be considered, especially for planners. In order to reduce pedestrian-driver conflicts, planners must address street design. For instance, wide lanes encourage higher speeds, reducing the ability of drivers to see or stop for pedestrians. Similarly, wide turning radii (especially for right-hand turns at intersections) encourage drivers to keep moving, which makes it especially difficult for pedestrians to enter intersections. Additionally, a general lack of sidewalks and crosswalks can make getting around without a car difficult. If we restrict pedestrians to crosswalks, we must make sure that adequate crosswalk placements are made.

A large problem with current traffic planning in the United States is that design sends mixed messages. For instance, I have encountered many instances of a sidewalk intersecting a roadway and continuing on the other side, but with no crosswalk present. In this case, pedestrians are often left to fend for themselves. In many cities, while the automobile signals function all the time, the ped signals only operate if a pedestrian pushes a button. Often times this means that pedestrians get to the light a second after it turns green, but have to wait for the full cycle to get a walk sign. Fort Worth, Texas was the first city I encountered where every signal automatically generated a walk signal when a traffic signal turned green.

One of the current efforts of planners focuses on traffic calming. Traffic calming means making context the foundation for infrastructure design. In the realm of pedestrian design, this can include crosswalk treatments like speed tables, islands, or bulbouts. Traffic calming can serve many different interests, like keeping through traffic out of neighborhoods or lowering speeds around congested areas. Another national initiative is the concept of designing streets so that they work for all users, drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users. This idea is called Complete Streets. Of course, complete streets are grounded in context, and each instance of is a unique solution tailored to the needs of a particular community.

These efforts are apparently making a difference. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, there has been a reduction in pedestrian fatalities of 35% since 1975. Today, pedestrian fatalities represent only 11% of all crash deaths (down from 17% in 1975).

So America is moving in the right direction. The last several years has shown increasing pedestrian warning and safety devices appearing across the country. This region is no different. The District of Columbia leads the nation in its use of pedestrian countdown timers (like the one top left at E Street and 17th NW). Late last year, Montgomery County, Maryland Executive Isiah Leggett announced a pedestrian safety initiative. The initiative hopes to reduce the number of pedestrian and bicycle related crashes through a variety of efforts from inclusive planning to physical changes in the (sub)urban environment.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Riding on the 'Mane' Line

As reported earlier, America added one more rail transit system in November of 2007. Charlotte, North Carolina is home to the newest rail line in the United States, and in my opinion, they've done an excellent job.

A friend and I went to visit Charlotte last week, and we were impressed not only with the Lynx Light Rail, but with Charlotte itself. Until August, I had lived near Atlanta for over 22 years, and even though Charlotte is only four hours away, I never did more than pass through. Of course, a transit system changed all that.

My colleagues were amused but unsurprised to hear that I drove four hours one-way "just to ride a light rail line." Of course, the mini-road trip that my friend and I took was a scaled-down version of what I'd hoped would include Nashville as well. Nashville is home to the only remaining major rail system in the Southeast that I haven't ridden, the Music City Star. The Star, as a regional rail service, is quite different from Lynx and would have been a wonderful part of my trip. It didn't work out though, so I'll just have to hold off until my next visit to Georgia. At any rate, there was just no way that I could pass up an opportunity to visit America's newest transit system while it was fresh out of the box. Since I was in Atlanta for three weeks, a visit to Charlotte was high on my agenda.

Aside from Lynx, Charlotte struck me as an undiscovered must-see. Both my friend and myself wondered aloud why no one had bothered to tell us how nice the Queen City really is. Honestly, even without the fog, I think the place would have reminded me of Seattle (which is, incidentally, constructing its own light rail system, the Link Light Rail, set to open in 2009).

Even though the metropolitan region is just over half the size of Atlanta's, Uptown Charlotte's streets were full of pedestrians and street life. Apparently the city fathers have poured many resources into streetscapes and public art, but even without, I am convinced that Charlotte's streets would have been more vibrant than I was used to in the hub of the South.

Since I was only in Charlotte for five hours, I didn't get the opportunity to visit neighborhoods outside of the central business district, but some of the new transit oriented developments along the Lynx Blue Line suggest that they are also in good shape.

All in all, I like Charlotte. I have put it down for further visitation. Perhaps I can stop over for a night or two while I'm on my way between Atlanta and Washington. Charlotte is definitely on the right track when it comes to growing in a more responsible way. The Lynx is an excellent aspect of Charlotte's plan to reduce dependence on the automobile. And if plans are to be believed, it is only the first step.

The Lynx Light Rail line is currently 9.6 miles long, traveling from Uptown Charlotte at 7th Street to the Beltway south of the city. The trains serve 15 stations along the way. Lynx parallels South Boulevard using a railroad corridor to penetrate the urban core. The line runs in a dedicated right-of-way for its entire length, though it does have many grade crossings, all of which are signalized. Several major streets were bridged by the Blue Line to avoid traffic congestion.

More experimenting with the video function on my camera. Here, Lynx crosses Carson Boulevard just south of Uptown Charlotte.

Eventually, the Blue Line will be extended toward the University of North Carolina at Charlotte on the north side of the city. The line will reach the Beltway 11 miles to the north between 2013 and 2018. Additionally, plans call for a streetcar circulator connecting to radial lines and at least one commuter rail line to the northwest. A bus rapid transit line will be constructed to the Airport and other points west.

And no, the Lynx (or Bobcat) does not actually have a mane, but this post's title does fit alongside the feline theme running through the QC. The operator of the Blue Line is, of course, CATS (Charlotte Area Transit System), and Charlotte is home to the Panthers (football) and Bobcats (Basketball) as well.

Friday, January 11, 2008

The More Things Change....

Change, it seems, is inevitable. I grew up in a little community dominated by pastures. For my entire life, there was a barn over on East Cherokee Drive that looked a little shaky. Even so, this barn withstood a tornado and years of age. After I went off to Georgia Tech, it started to lean further and further, but I always said that nothing could knock it over. Apparently, I was wrong. Shortly after I moved out of state, it fell over.

The collapse of this rickety old structure symbolizes for me the change which is besieging my home county. Even when I was living only a 45 miles away in Atlanta, each of my visits home showed me farms turned into tract houses, forests turned into shopping centers, and hills turned into buildable lots.

Historic Gresham's Mill on Sixes Road

A rural stretch of East Cherokee Drive in Hickory Flat

And while it's true that not all change is bad, some of it makes me sick. At some level I wonder how many resources we will waste on the sprawl which will become untenable without cheap oil. Perhaps another factor in my feeling of distaste comes from seeing so much of what I knew disappear.

The Appalachian mountains are a backdrop for sprawl east of Canton

New tract housing in South Canton

Shopping and Parking just off of Interstate 575

But, as I said, not all change is bad. The city of Woodstock, about ten miles south of Canton, for many years was the second largest city in Cherokee County. With increasing suburbanization Woodstock's proximity to Atlanta caused it to surpass Canton in population. But even in the midst of the sprawlscape, a ray of hope can be seen. Centered on the old Woodstock train station on Main Street, is a new new-urbanist development. Hedgewood Properties is developing a mix of lofts, offices, and shops. The development will complement Woodstock's Main Street businesses and is adjacent to a proposed commuter rail station on the Atlanta-Marietta-Canton line. While the state has yet to fund even the first leg of Georgia's commuter rail program, this development makes the Canton line's construction even more likely.

Historic Main Street in Woodstock

The central park in Downtown Woodstock

The old Woodstock railroad station and Hedgewood redevelopment

Main Street, old and new

At any rate, on the eve of my return to Maryland, I have mixed feelings about the change that my four months of absence has wrought on Cherokee County. On the one hand, I am hopeful because of the downtown redevelopments under construction in Canton and Woodstock. And I am also disappointed in the continued reliance on sprawl to increase the tax base of the local governments here. I also wonder what my hometown will look like when I next return.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Hiding in Plain Sight?

I think that old saying about not being able to see the forest for the trees doesn't apply to cell towers. A few years ago, maybe during my high school tenure, this particular cell tower was erected, about 3 miles from my home. As it was in a wooded area, one of the conditions of its zoning approval was that it be disguised.

Let's see a show of hands. Who thinks that this is a tree?

I think I'm more offended by the fact that they added branches than I am by the presence of the tower. Of course, that might not be a fair statement, because I'm not really offended by the idea of cell phone towers. It's not like the rolling hills of East Cherokee are Denali or anything. If any words could be used to describe this ZIP code, they would be 'Atlanta's next suburban frontier.'

Ignoring my opinion about the intelligence of that development pattern, it seems to me that if we are going to erect cell towers (or radio towers, for that matter)--and we are--we might as well be up front about it. Especially, when hiding the fact makes it more obvious. There are plenty of other towers in the area which chose not to be species-confused. This tower, however, is at least three times the height of the next tallest Longleaf Pine in the immediate vicinity.

Really now, what was the point? It just seems absurd to try to dress up a cell tower for Halloween (all year round).

Of course, this exercise in futility might give us some other ideas about how to disguise LULUs (Locally Unwanted Land Uses). For instance, we could disguise the controversial proposed aerial guideway for Metro through Tysons Corner as telephone lines. We could just add some fake transformers and no one would notice, right? How about billboards? My hometown has virtually banned them. Why not just add some pretend Dogwood blossoms, then people will think they were just shrubs (and they would remember to shop at Q-Mart, too).

Jokes aside, though, there are good reasons to hide less than attractive uses. When it makes sense to do so, hiding things like subway vent shafts, power substations, and even transformers, can protect the urban fabric and land values. WMATA uses shrubs to hide their vents and emergency exits, I've seen house facades used to hide substations, and rock-like covers are used fairly frequently to hide transformers for underground utilities. Church steeples, water towers, and high rises make good hiding places for broadcasting antennas. A few particularly creative instances include using tall, free-standing restaurants/observation decks to hide these facilities (like the CN Tower or Fernsehturm).

Sometimes, though, we should just call a spade a spade.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

"More Than A City?"

Maybe there's something to those "Southern Nights," as Glen Campbell so affectionately refers to them. I spent many nights under those southern skys and I sometimes find myself wanting to return to my hometown. Perhaps part of that is from the perspective of a planning student who sees so much going right and so much going on in the traditional exurban fashion. Regardless, I doubt that I will ever become more than a brief holiday visitor ever again.

I grew up near the town of Canton, and since I am spending my holiday there, it seems appropriate to report back on more than just my visit. It's becoming harder and harder for me to recognize this place where I spent my entire pre-college life.

Canton only dates back to the 1830s when the Cherokee Indians were forced off of their land. The city was incorporated in 1834 as the county seat of Cherokee County. The name comes from the original aspirations of some early settlers to cultivate a silk industry here. The climate, of course, didn't support that production, but Canton was destined to stay in textiles. The town mainly served as a trading center until after the Civil War. In 1864, Union troops under the command of General William T. Sherman burned Canton in the Atlanta Campaign.

Nevertheless, Canton rebuilt and the future was much brighter with the arrival of the Marietta and North Georgia Railroad in the 1870s. In 1899, the Canton Cotton Mills Company opened Mill Number 1. Canton continued to grow, and the textile industry dominated the economy. In 1924, Mill Number 2 opened and included a mill village about 1 mile north of Canton proper.

Mill Number 1, 1899-1967

Mill Number 2, now loft apartments, SR 5 Bus. in foreground.

Canton was largely a factory town for many years. Until 1981 the textile mills were just about the only game in town, but cheap labor in Asia put an end to denim manufacture in the Georgia foothills. Were we to take a look at Canton at the beginning of the 1980s, then, we would find a town of several thousand, mostly removed from the economy of far away Atlanta.

By the 1990s, however, spurred on with the 1985 opening of Interstate 575, a housing boom was beginning to show Canton as an exurb of the far-flung metropolitan region. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Census showed 7,700 residents. That estimate had almost doubled by 2005, and the construction of housing and retail is transforming this city, 40 miles north of Atlanta, into something barely distinguishable from the identical schlock which characterizes the hinterlands from Los Angeles to Bangor.

The sprawlscape, however, has not yet swallowed all of the uniqueness of the place that has been home for my predecessors since the Great Depression. And while it would still seem a bit far-fetched to think of Canton as a potential setting for "It's A Wonderful Life," that image might not be too inaccurate either. The cotton fields and verdant woodlands might have been converted into vinyl siding and striped asphalt, but the heart of my little hometown beats yet.

Downtown Canton, as the locals (and the Highway Department) call it, is doing well. The first round of decentralization, which hit in the mid-70s took much of the business away from the Town Square, but public monies and a resurgance in support for anything unique in the "Mass Production Zone " (as the band Rush calls it) has helped keep a coronary at bay.

So the few square blocks centered on Main and Church, just across the Square from the Cherokee County Courthouse remains, for me, recognizable. Recent streetscape improvements give Downtown a luster I've never seen. Now, instead of serving as a makeshift office park for law offices, restaurants, shops, and residences are beginning to return life to the quiet streets.

The historic Couthouse dates from 1928 and is made of white Georgia marble

The newer Courthouse dominates the town Square

One thing that has helped to keep people in the older part of Canton is the government. In this respect I don't mean subsidies, but rather the administration of the government. As Cherokee County's seat of government, the Courthouse bring residents to Downtown Canton for every reason from auctions to traffic tickets. Still, the massive Justice Center takes away valuable land that could be used for housing or commerce. While the tradeoff is the presence of many daytime only workers and other visitors, I'm not sure that opportunities are not being missed. At any rate, the administration of the county will likely continue in its role of securing Downtown Canton as the governmental seat of the county.

The Square was at the center of the county for many decades

Looking east from the Square on Main Street

Looking west from the Square on Main

Looking north from the Square on Church Street we see the old First UMC

The area immediately adjacent to the Square is a great place to people watch. The lunch crowd is pretty strong here during the week. With all of the county government workers, jurors, lawyers, and other businessmen, the sidewalks stay pretty busy. There are a few restaurants and shops within walking distance, but there is a lack of some of the essential needs to foster a walking community. A corner market would be a major asset to the neighborhood, as would a pharmacy. Another need for downtown is housing. Many Main Street houses have been converted to other uses. Recent efforts, however, by the Economic Development and Planning Departments have led to increased residential construction immediately adjacent to the central business district.

The Canton Theatre, center of redevelopment efforts

Canton has put significant resources into rebuilding Downtown. The first major step in these efforts was the renovation of the old Main Street moviehouse. Now a stage theatre, the Canton Theatre has injected life and monies into the older part of town. It has been spruced up with the subsequent streetscape project. Continued investment will only further this part of the city.

Recently, East Marietta Street, one block east of the Square, has seen redevelopment, including one condo-above-restaurant building.

Looking down East Marietta Street from Main

The new condo building, one block off Main

Looking north along East Marietta toward Main

One step that could be taken to improve the number of people living Downtown would be to convert the existing upper levels of commercial buildings into apartments and condos as they were in days past. Even without that, however, some good housing stock stands within a few blocks of the Square.

The Gault House stands majestically at the end of the East Marietta streetscape

A beautiful house on East Marietta

New townhouses a block from Main on West Marietta Street

Another asset of the older part of Canton is the ease with which one can walk to wonderful parks. The Square, is of course, one that has already been mentioned. Brown Park is also a beautiful green space. Now fronting City Hall (which only moved there about a year ago), the park stands on what had been Joseph Brown's home site. Joseph Brown was governor of Georgia during the Civil War, and had been a resident of Canton for some time. The city has also made a major addition to the city's parklands with the construction of a riverfront park known as Heritage Park. The park is the first section of what will eventually become a greenway along the length of the Etowah River through the city. The city's recreational services have been further bolstered with the construction of a community center just across the river from downtown. It is adjacent to the new Heritage Park.

Brown Park, the arch is the Civil War and World War I memorial

The new Heritage Park, the Waleska Street bridge in distance, new community center at right

Perhaps one day Canton's Main Street will again be the main street. One day, Americans will realize the value of the hearts of our many varied and unique small towns. Even though Canton's policies seem to indicate a preference for redevelopment, its zoning changes show that the strip shopping mall and the tract house are the preferred method of growth. As long as this bias is present, Downtown Canton will suffer. Only a true Smart Growth initiative--one that eschews sprawl--will be able to bring the glory days back to what used to be the center of this county.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Water, Water...Anywhere?

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 2007 was Atlanta's second driest year on record. Even so, the 10 days of rainfall over the last 13 days of the year left Atlanta's main source of drinking water, Lake Lanier, at its lowest level ever. Even more alarming is that the 1954 drought had only .05 inches less rainfall. Atlanta is quite a different place today than it was two years before the passage of the Interstate Highway Act.

I visited the reservoir closest to my parents' house today and snapped a few pictures. Lake Allatoona is in the same boat as Lanier when it comes the lack of water. Here, boat ramps reach unsuccessfully for the water line and docks rest sadly on terra firma.

Metro Atlanta is not alone in the dire straits of this dry spell, but it is the largest city being affected. The drought has made national headlines and at one point one could easily keep track of how many days of water Atlanta was estimated to have. The recent rainfall has extended the deadline, and it was never as simple as naming the date when Lanier would be empty, but the popular attention being paid to this situation shows that Americans are beginning to put more consideration into environmental and planning issues like these.

And what will happen once Lanier runs dry? I think it's safe to say that no one in Atlanta really wants to contemplate the answer to that question, but someone must address it. If it is a real possibility, the threat has never been greater than it is now. For as far back as I can remember, outdoor watering has been restricted, if not banned completely, for parts of every year. So the idea of conserving is not new, but rationing or shortages will put a significant crimp on living in Atlanta's almost-tropical climate.

Despite prayers for rain and calls for shorter showers, Georgia and the rest of the Southeast faces a crisis. While it is true that the drought has put undue strain on the water system, it alone cannot be blamed for the problem.

In 1950, the year construction started on Buford Dam (which impounds Lake Lanier) metropolitan Atlanta's population was 727,000. The year after impoundment was completed, 1960, the population had just surpassed one million. According to 2006 Census estimates, metro Atlanta is now approximately 5.1 million. Statewide, the population has more than doubled its 1950 level. Furthermore, the Atlanta Regional Commission expects approximately two million new residents in the area by 2030.

With all of this population change, it's no wonder that the faucets are about to run dry. For almost 60 years, Atlanta has relied on little more than minor changes to keep up with population growth. The explosion of the Sunbelt seems, however, to be overwhelming any efforts to maintain Atlanta's water supply. How long will this problem be allowed to fester before public officials make real efforts at creating sustainable solutions to Atlanta's water problems?

Water officials must have known for years that this day would come. Indeed a major theme of political discourse between the states in the Chattahoochee basin (Georgia, Alabama, Florida) has been in regards to what has become known as the Tri-state Water War. While southern Georgians and the states of Alabama and Florida want to maintain water for agricultural and environmental purposes, metro Atlanta continues to request more and more water for its own use. This situation alone is enough to indicate that crisis is imminent. Were our officials planning on creating a strategy to increase the total amount of available water, or was the sole strategy based on endless appeals to the Army Corps of Engineers?

There are few "right" answers in planning, but there are many questions. One such question should be used to spark the debate about growth and resource depletion. We must ask whether there is a point at which Atlanta should stop growing. Is it ethical for metro Atlanta governments to continue to allow new houses and businesses to be constructed when there is currently a water shortage? While I will not attempt to answer the question, the implication is clear: the status quo is no longer a given. We must begin to consider alternatives to our normal modus operandi when it comes to Atlanta growth.

There are measures that can be taken, but even if we do solve this crisis, we must recognize that many resources are finite. In order to survive in a world of ever increasing population, we must find better ways of planning how to discover, conserve, and manage those resources. Hopefully, Atlanta can still become a model in that regard, but the row will be hard to hoe and the efforts must start immediately.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Running on Empty?

Spending several weeks back in one of the sprawl capitals of the nation has reminded me of why I like Washington so much. Of course it wouldn't be entirely fair to overlook the DC area's own moonscape of suburban and exurban development. Still, Atlanta seems a bit on the extreme side of the vinyl and stucco craze.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran quite a bit of material today on oil and its effects on the suburbs and national economy. This coverage comes on the heels of Wednesday's oil prices topping 100 a barrel. While the price of crude dropped back to the double-digits before the close of the markets, $99.62 is not particularly reassuring for those businesses reliant on cheap oil. There is some debate on the cause of this particular spike, but it seems that hitting the triple-digits is indicative of a broader trend which will likely continue to have ramifications throughout American society.

At any rate, the news service MSNBC suggests that the holidays may have increased market volatility, thereby exaggerating oil prices. But there's more to that volatility than a lack of traders on the market floor. The International Herald Tribune reported that two major causes for the early January increase was due to an attack by Nigerian rebels in Port Harcourt and storms in the Gulf of Mexico, but the run up to $100 a barrel is not a recent phenomenon. Of course at the same time, $100 is a shocker. In 2003, oil was under $25 a barrel and even as recently as 1998 traders could buy a barrel for $11. But a decade's worth of change has revealed many differences in the price Americans see at the pump.

The front page of this morning's AJC wonders if the expense of oil is indeed fleeting. Essentially, the main issue with oil prices in the world today are simply economic. While political unrest, terrorism, and hurricanes have helped to drive price increases, more important is the inability of oil companies to keep up with demand. Even aside from the fact that oil supplies are finite, the growth of China and India in particular are tightening supplies. Factoring in the peak of oil supplies--which some argue we have passed and others argue is still decades away--reveals the recipe for skyrocketing oil prices.

The debate about oil even spills onto the opinion pages. One op-ed, by Joel Kotkin, reassures us that America will emerge from these oil shocks just as we did after the 1970s when President Reagan declared it "Morning in America." But there are significant differences between the oil shocks of the Arab Oil Embargo and the persistent oil price highs of the early 2000s. This time, America won't find excess supplies abundant even if a recession reduces oil demand. In the 1970s the oil shortage was a supply-side problem. Today, we face demand-side issues. Now, three decades after America's oil production peaked, the United States consumes 25% of the world's energy, and contains about 5% of the world's population. China's population is 1 billion more than America's, accounting for around 20% of the world population. India, with 17% of the world's population, and the US with just under 5% round out the top three. As China and India continue to industrialize, less and less of the energy pie is up for grabs.

While Mr. Kotkin assures us that there will be a Silicon Valley awaiting us at the end of this recession; I think it's only fair to note that even the computer chip capital of the nation has a light rail system today. It is time for America to face the music. We can no longer afford to live in an auto-dependent society. This is a point argued by Cornell professor Eduardo Penalver in the adjacent column. He opines that high gas prices combined with the collapse of housing market are undermining the basic tenets underlying American suburbanization. Based on cheap oil and an insatiable demand for housing, the American suburb was at the mercy of forces pushing development further and further away from downtown. But oil prices are making clear the relationship between gasoline prices and the cost of living. As a result, houses intown are holding their value better than those on the fringe. As energy costs continue to rise, it is likely that demand for traditional neighborhood development and transit oriented nodes will also increase.

Of course, if this really is the end of cheap oil, America has many issues to deal with; not the least of which, is figuring out how to cope with a culture as dependent on gasoline as it is on water. The last six decades of infrastructure investment has put everything from schools to hospitals beyond the reach of transit and pedestrians.

While no one really knows when the oil will run out, conservation still makes sense. If we have 500 barrels of oil left in the ground we can consume that at 100 barrels per year and run out in 5 years or consume it at a rate of only 50 barrels per year and extend the sunset by five years. We need that time to develop alternatives and to reshape our society. The end of oil is inevitable. Just because we don't know the exact moment of impact, we cannot fall asleep at the wheel. The high oil prices of today are not a disease, but a symptom of a much greater illness--an addiction to oil. Simply put, we are oil junkies, and if we don't get into rehab soon, we will be well over our heads in debt.

Suburbia was for many years the cheapest alternative for many. Now we are entering an era where we will pay dearly for every gallon of gasoline we consume, and that will take its toll on the suburbs as usual. Planners have the unenviable challenge of figuring out how to deal with this structural change. Regardless of our chosen course of action, the sooner we choose the better.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Sunset on the Sunset Limited?

Passenger rail service in the United States is a shadow of what it was during the golden age of railroading. As author James Howard Kunstler says, "America has a rail system the Bulgarians would be ashamed of." While his statement is a bit extreme, it is clear that the few routes makes travel by train difficult at best. As I have reported before on this blog, there are various reasons for this situation, not least are Amtrak's conflicting goals of profitability and nationwide service.
However, one particularly egregious gap in the Amtrak system is apparently the result of disrespect for the moral and legal obligations of good government. According to Amtrak, service on the Sunset Limited between New Orleans, Louisiana and Orlando, Florida, has been suspended due to damage resulting from Hurricane Katrina. While it is true that this storm was particularly devastating, the damage has long been repaired to the tracks.
New Orleans' Union Passenger Terminal

The Sunset Limited is a train which historically operated between New Orleans and Los Angeles. There were complimentary services connecting New Orleans to Florida, although for several periods, no service was available between the mouth of the Mississippi and Florida's Atlantic coast. This all changed when in April of 1993 Amtrak extended the Sunset Limited to Miami. The route was later trunkated to Orlando. This route became Amtrak's only transcontinental service. Without the Sunset Limited, passengers on America's east coast must travel to Washington or New York and then travel to Chicago before boarding a Pacific bound train. Only on the Sunset Limited was it possible to travel, without transferring, from Atlantic to Pacific.

Now, more than two years after Katrina, Amtrak still has not restored trains to Mobile and the Florida Panhandle. On August 26, 2005, all rail service into New Orleans was suspended due to the storm. Now, only the Sunset Limited's eastern leg remains to be restored. This denial of service only adds insult to injury for the recovering communities along the gulf coast. According to the National Association of Railroad Passengers, CSX, which owns the tracks, finished repairs along the corridor in April 2006. In fact, the tracks were in better condition at that time than they were before Katrina. Now, more than a year and a half later, passenger service is still halted. NARP claims that some 41% of passengers on the Sunset Limited began or ended their trip in the suspended section. Even so, Amtrak has not made any attempt to put the Sunset Limited back on the rails.

Since there is no logistical barrier to restoration of the full Sunset Limited, it seems that Amtrak has elected to permenantly discontinue this section of the route, if this is the case, Amtrak is breaking the law. Amtrak is legally required to give six months of notice before terminating service. Using a natural disaster to achieve policy objectives is not only in bad taste, it's just plain wrong. This service interruption puts an unfair and untenable burden on Amtrak passengers. Indeed, in this time of increased ridership, Amtrak should be increasing its rail routes, not cancelling them.