NLC at 90: Advocating For Our Nation’s Transportation Infrastructure

NLC is celebrating 90 years of making cities better place to live. Read the anniversary kick-off letter from NLC President Chris Coleman, and the first blog in this 90th anniversary series.

Transportation_BlogAs NLC continues to celebrate its 90th anniversary, this week we focus our attention on transportation. From the ISTEA in ’91, to TEA-21 in ’98 to SAFETEA-LU in 2005, to our current transportation legislation, MAP-21, NLC has been a staunch advocate for local interests on transportation legislation.

How cities plan for transportation has greatly evolved over the past several decades. NLC has seen several cities move from an approach that focuses on road construction to one that favors more dense development. Transit, bike lanes and better sidewalks are being incorporated into a more alternative approach to community development – and local governments are realizing environmental, economic and social benefits to this.

Recognizing the central importance of transit to communities across the country, NLC has been a consistent champion for policies that reflect local needs and  include local voices in planning and project selection. For example:

  • Cities saw a victory in ISTEA as it preserved an intergovernmental partnership between all levels of government, maintained local government authority on federal dollars being used for local transportation decisions and upheld an intermodal approach to transportation development.
  • TEA-21 sustained many key features from ISTEA that protected cities but also came with increased funding – the largest federal commitment to transportation since the Interstate system was built.
  • NLC continued its aggressive lobbying approach with SAFETEA-LU which contained several important provisions for local governments by defeating a program that would have carved out a portion of core transportation program funding for congestion-relief activities. This would ultimately have given state departments of transportation the authority to control these funds by allowing them to define what would constitute a “congestion-relief activity.”

The Time Has Come For a New Plan

The current federal surface transportation program authorization, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21), signed in 2012, funds highway, transit and other surface transportation programs through the end of fiscal year 2014 (FY2014.)

However, the law did not address long-term funding challenges facing federal surface transportation funding. The Highway Account of the Highway Trust Fund is expected to encounter a shortfall before the end of FY2014, coinciding with the expiration of the current transportation spending program.

Any delay in solving the funding shortfall will be harmful to local economies. The time has come for Congress and the Administration to authorize a new, lasting transportation plan that includes local decision making authority, invests in long term equitable transportation solutions, supports sustainable multimodal choices and maintains a strong federal role.

NLC advocates for the federal government to continue its role in shaping the nation’s transportation goals and priorities. A national program needs to focus on sustainable solutions to mobility and safety, maintain the national role as leader in data, adapt successful technological approaches and promote innovative transportation solutions.

Investment in local infrastructure creates jobs and boosts local economies. With adequate funding and innovative financing solutions, local leaders can train and hire thousands of workers to carry out both immediate fixes and long-term road, bridge, transit and rail projects. A comprehensive funding solution will allow local leaders to make the long-term investments and planning decisions their communities need.

To learn more about NLC’s current efforts on transportation, access the Transportation Funding Advocacy Toolkit and register for NLC’s next transportation webinar “What’s Walking Got to Do With It? A Look at the Social and Economic Impact of Walkability.”

JuliaPulidindi

About the author: Julia Pulidindi is a Senior Associate for Infrastructure at the National League of Cities (NLC). Her work focuses on identifying local challenges and solutions to transportation and telecommunications infrastructure issues.  Follow her on Twitter at @JuliaPulidindi.

Building Effective Partnerships: Strategies to Increase Digital Access and Literacy, Part 2

This i s a guest post by Delano Squires, and the second in a series on how cities can improve digital literacy in their communities. Read the first blog here.

Digital-Lit-2

DC resident receives help using a computer on Connect.DC’s Mobile Tech Lab.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray has taken a number of steps to make the District of Columbia an attractive location for tech companies. In November 2012, he signed the Technology Sector Enhancement Act of 2012 to expand the benefits and incentives for tech companies looking to locate in the District. The City has also supported business incubators and recently created Digital Commons—an 11,000 square-foot tech center equipped with a 3D printer, 80 computers, collaborative spaces, and other resources for entrepreneurs.

This atmosphere of entrepreneurship and creativity is exactly what a city needs to compete in a global economy. But what about all of the people in a city who aren’t running tech startups or creating the next app that will change the world? What about the people who, in 2014, still don’t have access to high-speed Internet service at home? There are approximately 150,000 households in D.C. that fall into this very category. Unsurprisingly, these homes are in the City’s most economically vulnerable neighborhoods. So what can a city do to address the growing chasm between the haves and the have-nots? One way is to invest in technology training for its most disadvantaged residents.

The first step in that process for D.C. was to use federal grant funding from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to make critical investments in broadband infrastructure, digital literacy training, community coordination, and public technology resources. The investment in public infrastructure helped the city upgrade computers in libraries and other public facilities (e.g., recreation centers) that later served as digital literacy training sites.

Libraries are critically important resources in any serious efforts to bridge the digital divide. Libraries in D.C. offer resume workshops, clinics on how to use e-readers, and classes on building basic computer skills. One of our local nonprofit partners, Byte Back, teaches digital literacy classes in libraries across the city. Byte Back serves thousands of low-income residents each year and offers three levels of classes: computer literacy classes for students who have never used a computer, Microsoft Office classes for students seeking an office job, and computer certification classes for students interested in entering the IT field.

Connect.DC didn’t limit the City’s investments in training to digital literacy for residents. The City also used grant funding to create an 8-month pilot program partnership with the Latino Economic Development Center (LEDC) to train almost 200 entrepreneurs from some of the city’s most underserved neighborhoods. LEDC held sessions that taught small business owners how to get their businesses online, use social media, and improve efficiency through technology. At the end of the program a group of 21 participants received tools that helped them improve their business. Of that group, 20 of the businesses are minority-owned and 15 are women-owned.

This model—expanding public technology access and offering digital literacy training in the areas hardest hit by the digital divide—is one other cities can follow. The key is to find partners that have the resources to deliver sustainable programs that can scale to meet the needs of target communities. Potential partners also need to understand the social and economic factors affecting low-income communities. For example, we’ve partnered with local government agencies to use our 48-foot Mobile Tech Lab—equipped with seven computer workstations and wireless Internet access—to sign residents up for affordable health insurance and register teens for a summer youth employment program. By investing in access and training in underserved neighborhoods, local policymakers lower the types of barriers to digital access that have nothing to do with technology, whether the cost of transportation or the availability of childcare.

Another factor that also creates a barrier to digital use and access is a lack of information. That’s why Connect.DC created a Tech Locator that residents can use to find training and access in their neighborhood. This information is also accessible through our text messaging platform and a new mobile website created specifically for smartphone owners.

Digital literacy and public technology access are a worthwhile investment and a critical step in ensuring access for every person in your city, regardless of income, education, or age. Through our nonprofit and government partners, Connect.DC has delivered more than 272,000 hours of training to almost 8,000 D.C. residents. This training is one way to help the most vulnerable residents compete for jobs in an information economy that can help lift families out of poverty. For policymakers who are constantly looking for ways to maximize resources as cities deal with tightening budgets, these investments can pay serious dividends.

For more information about digital inclusion efforts in the District of Columbia, visit connect.dc.gov.

Delano Squires Headshot (Digital Literacy Blog 2)About the author: Delano Squires leads Connect.DC, the DC Office of the Chief Technology Officer’s (OCTO) digital inclusion program. Connect.DC works to “bridge the digital divide” in the District by making technology easier to use, more accessible, more affordable, and more relevant to the everyday lives of DC residents and community institutions.

Connecting Your City: Strategies to Increase Digital Access and Literacy, Part 1

This is a guest post by Sheila Dugan, and the first in a series on how cities can improve digital literacy in their communities.

Dig-Lit-Blog-1

EveryoneOn worked with Best Buy, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development and the DC Housing Authority to provide training to D.C. residents.

Cities across the United States are innovating. From Boston to San Francisco, they are leveraging technology to improve the delivery of social services, increase transparency, and better communicate with their constituents.

Using customized web applications, residents can now apply for library cards, request public records, communicate with councilmembers, and request for a pothole to be fixed online.

These are promising initiatives but many residents cannot take advantage of these new services designed to forge stronger connections between them and their government. One in four households do not have access to the Internet at home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This rate increases for low-income and minority households, as well as those lead by seniors.

Without finding a way for all households to have reliable, high-speed Internet access at home, our nation is at risk of isolating some of our most vulnerable communities. As a national nonprofit devoted to closing the digital divide, EveryoneOn works with cities to help them become more digitally inclusive as local leaders strive to find ways to better communicate with residents. The following strategies can help cities create a more connected, digitally literate population.

Educate yourself.

Many city officials and community leaders aren’t aware that help may be available, making it unlikely that they will direct their constituents to resources that will help them get online. It’s important to know what services your community is already providing through libraries, schools, and other community anchor institutions.

So that efforts aren’t duplicated and resources can be equally distributed, it is important to have this information aggregated to ensure that new resources can be distributed equally.   EveryoneOn features a zip code locator to discover low-cost Internet service, WiFi access, public computers, and training courses.

Bring your local stakeholders together.

The first step in closing the digital divide is to understand your community’s resources. Do you know where an individual should go to use a computer? Where can a senior go to learn how to use Skype to connect with their grandchildren? Where are the public WiFi hotspots?

In April 2014, Oakland, CA opened their City Hall to groups interested in closing the digital divide in their community. City workers, community activists, and nonprofit leaders gathered to understand how to sign up their constituents for low-cost Internet service, purchase discounted computers, and locate digital literacy trainings. Workshop participants emerged energized, empowered, and ready to tackle their community’s challenges. This could not have happened without the City creating a space to discuss how to tackle this challenge.

Make strategic financial investments.

Devoted to making technology easier to use, accessible, and affordable, Connect.DC, Washington, D.C.’s digital literacy initiative, set aside $25,000 to subsidize home modems, Internet service and computers. The organization also devoted itself to connecting 1,000 D.C. households and distributing 500 computers with EveryoneOn. This allows them to aggressively pursue the neediest populations and overcome one of the largest barriers to broadband adoption – cost.

Collaborate with non-profits and other community-based organizations.

This work cannot be done alone. Connect.DC and EveryoneOn are leveraging their partnerships with nonprofits based in the District of Columbia to identify households that could benefit from Internet access. Nonprofits in your community can help you determine who is eligible for your new technology program and distribute subsidized devices.

Cities can play a key role in closing the digital divide. This includes getting the right people around the table to assess the community’s needs and develop targeted solutions. Cities can also set specific, measurable goals to improve access to broadband and make modest investments to lower the financial burden to connect households. By focusing on connecting all residents, cities will be able to fully harness the power of new online tools designed to better connect people with their government.

To learn more about working with Everyone On, visit EveryoneOn.org.

Sheila Dugan Headshot (Digital Literacy Blog 1)About the author: Sheila Dugan is the Marketing and Communications Manager at EveryoneOn, a national nonprofit organization that aims to eliminate the digital divide by making high-speed, low-cost Internet, computers, and free digital literacy accessible to all unconnected Americans.

TIGER Helps Orlando Connect Neighborhoods with New BRT Line

This is the third in a series of blogs that will explore the impact TIGER grants have on local communities by helping them better leverage financing options, meet transportation safety goals, and increase overall quality of life by introducing alternative modes of transportation.  Click here for the first and second blogs in the series.

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is an innovative, high capacity, lower cost public transit solution that can significantly improve mobility in urban areas.  By using buses on dedicated lanes or special roadways, BRT offers the flexibility of buses with the efficiency of rail.  The result is less congestion and more passenger movement.

The City of Orlando’s existing BRT system, LYMMO, was 2.5 miles and consisted of 13 stations which connected various parts of the city.   Orlando recognized the benefits of expanding their BRT system to create regional links with the existing BRT lines, increase intercity and multi-modal transportation options, and expand accessibility in various neighborhoods. In particular, the BRT expansion would provide increased access to employment and educational opportunities to residents of Parramore, a low-income neighborhood just west of the city’s downtown.  The city applied for and received a $10 million TIGER grant to implement these changes.

According to the Federal Transit Administration, BRT is able to operate at faster speeds, provide greater service reliability and increase customer convenience.  Many communities are picking up on this as other forms of transit prove to be too expensive to invest in.  The Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority received a TIGER grant to enhance BRT services with priority signalization and to provide real-time bus arrival information to customers on bus signs.

The Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada also received a TIGER grant to improve transit service by converting breakdown lanes to bus-only lanes in the 12-mile corridor of Sahara Avenue, a major road running through the heart of Las Vegas.   The project improved mobility along one of the city’s most important corridors and helped support local economic activity by creating or sustaining nearly 600 private-sector jobs.

Orlando’s planned BRT expansion, undertaken in partnership with LYNX, the Central Florida Regional Transportation Authority, will be a free bus service to downtown Orlando, estimated to be operational from the Parramore neighborhood beginning in 2014.  Service will also be provided within the Parramore community as well.  The service will be funded through Orlando’s Downtown Development Board and Parking Division, and receives contributions from a variety of sources including federal dollars through TIGER.

To learn more about Orlando’s Bus Rapid Transit and other TIGER grant programs, register to attend NLC’s Congress of Cities conference in Seattle, WA, November 13-16, 2013.  The conference will feature solutions to local challenges in the areas of infrastructure development and investment, environmental sustainability, and economic development.  For more information on bus rapid transit, please visit NLC’s Sustainable Cities Institute.

About the TIGER Grants

In 2009, the US Congress dedicated $1.5 million for the first round of the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER Discretionary Grant program which was created under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).  The overwhelming popularity of the TIGER grant program has sustained this resource for local governments for 5 years and counting now.

Through the program, U.S. Department of Transportation provides competitive grants to local governments to invest in a variety of transportation initiatives that meet community needs while contributing to national transportation goals.

JuliaPulidindi

About the author: Julia Pulidindi is a Senior Associate for Infrastructure at the National League of Cities (NLC). Her work focuses on identifying local challenges and solutions to transportation and telecommunications infrastructure issues.  Follow her on Twitter at @JuliaPulidindi.

Fresno Leverages TIGER Grants for Complete Streets Planning

This is the second in a series of blogs that will explore the impact TIGER grants have on local communities by helping them better leverage financing options, meet transportation safety goals, and increase overall quality of life by introducing alternative modes of transportation.  Click here for the first blog, which explores Seattle’s Mercer Corridor Project.

According to the Best Complete Streets Policies of 2012 report, complete streets policies lay out a community’s plan to design and maintain streets so they are safe for users of all ages and abilities, and can accommodate pedestrians, bicyclists, public transit users, motorists and freight vehicles.

Typically, complete streets initiatives are developed to ensure that pedestrian and bicycle options as well as other alternatives to the personal vehicle are included in in an area’s transportation planning. In the case of Fresno, CA’s Fulton Mall Reconstruction however, the city sought to do the opposite – reintroduce car lanes into an area that had been without them since the 1960s.

Fresno’s 18-square-block downtown area is home to the city’s historic main street area, but its disconnected design has made it difficult for people to easily navigate the area.  Fresno is using TIGER funds  to reintroduce vehicle traffic lanes while improving the bicycle and pedestrian facilities in the area.  Business leaders and city planners believe that reintroducing driving capacity will help increase access and visibility to businesses in the mall, thereby helping improve the economic potential of the downtown area.

In Fresno’s 2013 TIGER grant application, they cited a statistic from a national survey which found that 90 percent of downtowns with pedestrian malls become more successful when the reopened the malls to vehicle traffic.  This highlights the importance of having  multimodal transportation options in downtown areas.

This is an extremely important project not only for the city but also for the region.  Fresno is being considered for a high-speed rail stop by the California High Speed Rail Authority, so the more the city can to do increase its economic competitiveness and attractiveness, the greater impact the investment will have for the state.  Fresno Mayor Ashely Swearengin noted that “This grant is a significant moment in Fresno’s history…The message that Secretary Foxx and the federal government are sending to us today is loud and clear: They believe in downtown Fresno, and they believe it will be the vibrant economic center for the entire region.  Our opportunity now is to carry this momentum forward to realize that vision.”

The total cost of the project is $20 million and the city’s $16 million TIGER grant will help fund a large portion of it.  The state and Fresno County will contribute other financial resources, leaving the city’s budget largely untouched for this project.

For more information on Fresno’s Fulton Mall Reconstruction and other TIGER grant programs, register to attend NLC’s Congress of Cities conference in Seattle, WA, Nov 13-16, 2013.  The conference will feature solutions to local challenges in the areas of infrastructure development and investment, environmental sustainability, and economic development.  And for more information in complete streets initiatives, please visit NLC’s Sustainable Cities Institute.

About the TIGER Grants
In 2009, Congress dedicated $1.5 million for the first round of the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER Discretionary Grant program which was created under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).  The overwhelming popularity of the TIGER grant program has sustained this resource for local governments for five years and counting now.

Through the program, the U.S. Department of Transportation provides competitive grants to local governments to invest in a variety of transportation initiatives that meet community needs while contributing to national transportation goals.

JuliaPulidindi
About the author
: Julia Pulidindi is a Senior Associate for Infrastructure at the National League of Cities (NLC). Her work focuses on identifying local challenges and solutions to transportation and telecommunications infrastructure issues.  Follow her on Twitter at @JuliaPulidindi.

TIGER Grants Help Clean up the “Mercer Mess” in Seattle

This is the first in a series of blogs that will explore the impact TIGER grants have on local communities by helping them better leverage financing options, meet transportation safety goals, and increase overall quality of life by introducing alternative modes of transportation.

The Mercer Corridor has been one of the City of Seattle’s most significant transportation challenges for over 40 years. Dubbed the “Mercer Mess,” the corridor’s circuitous one-way routing created major congestion, while restricting easy access to one of the city’s fastest growing neighborhoods, South Lake Union.

From its initial construction in the 1950s, the corridor was supposed to be a temporary solution to provide access to Interstate 5 while it was under construction.  However, it’s vehicle-based design cut through neighborhoods in such a way that it’s resulted in increased traffic and unsafe crossings for pedestrians.

The need for serious changes to the corridor was obvious to both residents and city officials for years. Some 80,000 vehicles, along with growing numbers of pedestrians and bicyclists, travel the corridor, making it a critical east/west route for moving people, goods, and services.

With substantial community buy-in, the city is in the midst of the Mercer Corridor Project. The goal of the project is to create an integrated system of freight, transit, pedestrian, bicycle, and car improvements that make the area a more livable, functional community with easy access to the downtown area.

This project is creating access from neighborhoods in the region to the growing biotechnology hub in South Lake Union, connecting a number of urban centers to a major interstate and helping facilitate improved freight movement for goods between the Port of Seattle and their other shipping facilities.

It is estimated that this project will positively impact commuters traveling to the region’s 245,000 existing jobs and the 50,000 additional jobs expected by 2024 by creating a more efficient and safe traffic flow.  The project also includes bike lanes, better pedestrian facilities, and improved connections to transit.

With a total cost for the first phase of the project of $190 million, the city financed the project with help from a $30 million TIGER grant, and other sources such as city funds and private contributions.

In 2012, the city received a second TIGER grant for reconstruction of the western portion of the corridor.

This second phase aims to connect the nearby interstate highway to a local street and is projected to create 1,000 direct and indirect jobs through its construction.  Additionally, it continues to build on the first phase of the project by further alleviating traffic, facilitating better freight movement, and supporting economic growth in the region by both creating jobs and improving access to them.

For more information on Seattle’s Mercer Street Corridor and other TIGER grant programs, register to attend NLC’s Congress of Cities conference in Seattle, WA, Nov. 13-16, 2013.  The conference will feature solutions to local challenges in the areas of infrastructure development and investment, environmental sustainability, and economic development.

About the TIGER Grants

In 2009, the US Congress dedicated $1.5 million for the first round of the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER Discretionary Grant program, which was created under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).  The overwhelming popularity of the TIGER grant program has sustained this resource for local governments for five years and counting.

Through the program, the U.S. Department of Transportation provides competitive grants to local governments to invest in a variety of transportation initiatives that meet community needs while contributing to national transportation goals.

JuliaPulidindi

About the author: Julia Pulidindi is a Senior Associate for Infrastructure at the NLC. Her work focuses on identifying local challenges and solutions to transportation and telecommunications infrastructure issues.  Follow her on Twitter at @JuliaPulidindi.

Fine-Tuning Broadband Adoption Strategies

At a Broadband Summit at the FCC last week, national experts, academics and community program leaders discussed our country’s progress on where people are when it comes to taking advantage of broadband access.  The major challenges to broadband adoption have been having access to broadband services, how and why to use that access once you have it, and cost.  Presenters at the Summit discussed their research and how they have discovered subtle nuances to these challenges based on a variety of social and economic factors and how to strategically address them.

Dr. John Horrigan, Vice President and Director of the Media and Technology Institute at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies talked about the state of play in 2009, when the FCC’s Broadband Task Force provided an interim report to the FCC on the National Broadband Plan.  Some of the key lessons learned in the past 4 years echo Dr. Gant’s findings that challenges are very specific to communities.  While access, digital literacy and relevance still remain barriers to adoption, there are other reasons as well.  Not all adopters are the same.  In 2008-2009, the understanding was that non-adopters tended to be older populations who didn’t see the need for it.  Since then, research has shown that most non-adopters, regardless of age, can become adopters as long as strategies to increase adoption cater to their needs.  This shows that the non-adoption problem is much more complex and requires specific, case-by-case attention.

Dr. Jon Gant from the University of Illinois, School of Library and Information Sciences talked about the importance of public and private stakeholders to jointly create strategies that are specific to community needs.  Broadband adoption solutions can’t be developed in a vacuum; success of adoption programs rely very much on what community needs are and then even drilling further down, the needs of individuals.  He discussed how day-to-day priorities for potential users—such as ensuring daily childcare or rigid job schedules—can impact how a person utilizes broadband.  As with any kind of learning and education processes, sustained practice and use is vital for increasing knowledge and development.

Community leaders understand this and are taking it into consideration as they work to bridge the digital divide in their communities.  The Massachusetts Broadband Institute has developed an online portal for veterans which is essentially a one-stop shop for information on veteran’s benefits.  The need to access this information quickly and efficiently is what is driving broadband adoption in the veteran community in Massachusetts.  The Hmong American Partnership is an organization that provides support and resources to the Hmong and other refugee communities in America.  Employment and training is their biggest department and they are working to ensure that digital literacy is built into the programs they administer to their users.  The College of Menominee Nation has deployed broadband throughout the reservation to provide access not only to students for higher education, but also to the community to create an interest in what they could do with broadband, which will then drive adoption and usage.

The broadband challenges of yesterday are still the challenges we face today.  Cost is a huge deterrent to disconnected populations realizing the value of broadband to their everyday lives.  We still face digital literacy obstacles.  What we know now, though, is that these problems can be successfully met by knowing who you are working with and understanding what their needs are.  Broadband adoption still has a way to go in this country but we are on a stronger path to ensuring we are connecting citizens to what they need to be connected to.

Gigabits Around the Country – Part 2

This is the second in a two-part blog exploring gigabit connections around the country.  The National League of Cities’ Center for Research and Innovation partnered with Next American City to develop a case study, Gig City, U.S.A.: Bringing Google Fiber to Kansas City, which looks at the developing partnership between Google and the Kansas Cities.  The first blog identified some of the benefits of locally created and managed fiber connections and reviewed Chattanooga, TN, which boasted the country’s first gigabit connection.  This week’s blog looks at other efforts around the country and the hallmarks of a successful municipal fiber network. 

Danville, VA

At a recent economic development conference in Danville, VA, stakeholders from both the public and private sectors came together to look at the challenges and opportunities that exist with municipal wireless networks.

Danville, VA once had the highest unemployment in the state.  Their low-skilled, poorly educated population created a digital divide that made it difficult to attract the types of industry that would sustain development in the region.  But today the city is able to attract and retain business to create jobs and improve the quality of life for their citizens.  This is not an insignificant feat for an isolated, industrial community an hour and a half away from any major metro area.

While general communications access (telephone, cable TV and internet) was adequate for the home consumer, it was not optimized for businesses.  Building a network that would help expand business opportunities was one of the key features of Danville’s approach to local economic development.  The best service would be a “fiber to the premise” model but this was costly and would require a critical mass of demand to be able to provide it affordably.  Additionally, this was a prime opportunity to be able to wire public anchor institutions such as schools, so figuring out how to do that successfully was also important.  Finally, understanding what role the city should have in this (to be an infrastructure or service provider) would be key to their success.  Some of the other hallmarks of their approach:

-       Learn from others: the benefit of local governments is that there is no proprietary interest on solutions.

-       Understand what they were working with: they had adequate telephone, cable tv and internet access but there was nothing readily available for robust business use.

-       Do the research: findings from a community study showed that they needed a shift from their manufacturing economy to something more forward and progressive;  this is what spurred the need for more robust broadband capabilities.

-       Understand the differences: Danville knew which different types of connectivity would be most appropriate for home and business uses.

These strategies helped create a system for Danville that relied solely on local funds (no federal or state grants) and kept the city debt free.  The result—nDanville—is an open access multiservice network, operated by private firms that allows the city to provide direct service to schools and other city buildings.  It is financially self-sufficient and has not created an unwanted burden on tax or utility payers.

Keys to the Success of Municipal Wireless Networks 

Danville, and Chattanooga, both worked to ensure that their fiber optic networks had staying power.  Much thought, planning, and stakeholder input went into the creation of a solid business plan which was the first step into determining if this was truly a viable option.  Click here for a business plan from Kirkland, Washington’s municipal broadband network.

Secondly, access isn’t enough to attract business; there are other components such as a strong workforce and an infrastructure to support that workforce.  Community involvement was a key part as well.  When Bristol, VA created their network with the Bristol Virginia Utilities Authority, they city made it a point to speak to community groups about the need for broadband access and how it would impact community development.  Chattanooga followed a similar process of engagement buy educating the community on what a fiber network could do for them and charging community leaders to help raise awareness about the network.

Municipal networks are not a one size fits all tool to increase local economic development and address other challenges cities face.  It involves substantial planning with input from key stakeholders, a business plan that can prove its sustainability, an engaged community that can harness the power of the network and a business community that will use the network to drive development.  While strategies to develop these components will vary from city to city, local leaders are in a position to take advantage of what has and has not worked and use those  lessons to create their own designs for increasing and enhancing access in their communities.

Gigabits Around the Country

The National League of Cities’ Center for Research and Innovation has joined with Next American City to explore how cities are developing innovative models for tackling complex urban issues and strengthening their local economies.  NLC is featuring a series of case studies on foreign direct investment, fiber connectivity, and immigration. This blog highlights the second in the series, Gig City, U.S.A.: Bringing Google Fiber to Kansas City, which takes a look at the developing partnership between Google and the Kansas Cities.

The Google Fiber initiative taking place in Kansas City, Kansas and Missouri is an innovative approach to the way cities are collaborating with the private sector to provide robust Internet access to their residents.  Not only are they offering a transformative product but it’s being done with input from all stakeholders, ranging from the local government to the residents.  As Google Fiber still yet to be deployed in Kansas City, KS and MO and stories and lessons learned are yet to be gleaned from this initiative, there are several other gigabit initiatives that already exist around the country.

Chattanooga, TN, Bristol, VA, Lafayette, LA, Morristown, TN, and Burlington, VT have all built their own (municipal) fiber networks and are advertising universal gigabit availability.  What is important to note here is not only the revolutionary impact these speeds can have to local economies but the leadership at the local level to build a sustainable, self-sufficient system.  This two-part blog will look at some of the benefits of city-created and owned networks and then some successful examples of municipal fiber networks.

Why Cities Develop Their Own Networks

Because the private sector may be unwilling to connect everyone in a community, a city-owned network may be the only way to ensure everyone has fast, affordable and reliable access to the Internet.  And the benefits of a city-managed network go beyond universal access.  Many times municipal network speeds can faster and more affordable, comparably speaking.  Other benefits are that these networks can lead to improved and more efficient public service delivery, as with the case of Chattanooga’s electrical utility (see below) or delivering gigabit access to schools at affordable rates (Danville, VA in the next blog.)

Ultimately, the goal with broadband access is to allow people to take advantage of the potential it has to improve the user’s quality of life whether it’s through business development, improved healthcare, education or recreation.  This is a trend we are moving towards but there are some big obstacles to successfully implementing municipal networks ranging from state preemption to the lack of effective planning and business models at the local level.

Chattanooga, TN

Chattanooga is not the only city with citywide gigabit availability anymore, but they were the first in the US.  Their story is a compelling one to highlight as it was largely driven by the city’s desire to provide improved electrical utility services in the community.  Chattanooga’s Electric Power Board (EPB) consists of a 600 square mile service area which is now entirely connected by Chattanooga’s fiber optic network.  This network provides access to 170,000 businesses and homes to Internet speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second.  An important feature to note here, is that access is provided to all areas, regardless of geographical location or income.  Construction of the network did not rely on self-selection by neighborhoods, such as the Google Fiber initiative, but on the premise of enhancing an existing service needed and used by all residents.

EPB provided a variety of telecommunications services to local businesses but in 2007, decided to develop a 10-year plan for the construction of a fiber optic network which would create a more intelligent system for managing their electrical services.  Some of the features included more frequent meter readings and sharing that information with ratepayers real time in addition being able to reroute power in case of storms and disruptions to power services.  The below diagram chronicles the long process of updating their “business model” of electric utility provider to internet provider coupled with a variety of legal issues for the city.

Source: “Broadband at the Speed of Light: How Three Communities Built Next-Generation Networks”, the Benton Foundation and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, April 2012

The transition from a utility provider to a multi-service provider came about because of the robust quality of a fiber network and the need to find a way to translate it’s benefits beyond just smart meter readings.  In the laying of the fiber conduit, cities saw the benefit this could be for improving other aspects of community development such as in healthcare, small businesses and jobs creation as well as being a service provider to households in a sustainable way.  These are the forward thinking measures cities are leveraging to not only improve services but to reap benefits that far reaching in their economic development goals.

To learn more about these Chattanooga and its gigabit connections, please visit the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and their report “Broadband at the Speed of Light.”

Please visit CitiesSpeak later this week to learn of other cities that have built their own gigabit connections and what it has meant for them.

What Makes a Good Transit System

I am a daily transit user and I generally like the system in the DC metro area.  I don’t live far from a station, there is ample parking (this is a HUGE deal as this wasn’t always the case) and I don’t have to transfer lines when I’m on the train.  For me, these are factors which make public transportation more attractive than driving because it’s easier, cheaper and faster, hallmarks of a good transit system and features which make it desirable for others to use.

As not only a person who uses public transportation to get to work but also works on the issue as it relates to local governments, this recent article in the Salt Lake City Tribune, that touts the region as one of the best in terms of connection people to places of work, caught my eye.  The Utah Transit Authority’s approach to their transit system was a well thought out one.  In addition to expanding their rail lines, they took the opportunity to redesign their bus service system so that the two could complement each other – making transit even easier to use.

This finding comes out of a Brookings report that found that Salt Lake City’s system connects 64 percent of its population to jobs via transit.  To give some reference, the report states that the typical job is accessible to about 27 percent of commuters via a 90 minute or less transit trip.  But according to this follow up article in the Salt Lake City Tribune, a set of assumptions were made about a rider’s travel habits and propensities in the Brookings study which may not necessarily be valid.  For example, that people were willing to make a one-way 90 minute commute and that they would be willing to walk up to ¾ of a mile to a transit stop were a few.

As a consistent transit user for the past 7 years, I can personally vouch for some of the criticisms the follow-up article poses.  I use transit because, for the most part, it’s easy for me to use but I don’t think that is the case for the majority of people out there, thereby validating the position of the follow-up article.  However, the Brookings report shouldn’t be discredited because their assumptions are based on a set of best case scenarios given a city or region’s current state of constraints and opportunities.

Rather than focusing on the Brookings report or the critique, it’s important to look at what seems to be working for the Salt Lake City region and it’s that there is a common understanding between policy makers and other stakeholders, coupled with a demand from end users, that a better public transportation is the way to go to move the region forward.  And because of that, the Salt Lake City region has had the highest per capita investment in transit of any region in the country over the past 10 years.  The implication is that it’s not only dedicated to investing in a system that is trying to meet current demands but that they are also trying to sustainably plan for future needs.

So while the follow-up criticisms are valid and perhaps the Brookings study could be tweaked to make more realistic assumptions, Salt Lake City is doing something right.  Because according to General Manager, Michael Allegra, of the Utah Transit Authority, 80% of their riders are choosing transit over their cars.