Can Mass Transit be Cool?

When did people stop saying “mass transit” in favor of speaking about modes – high speed rail, light rail, street cars, and circulator buses? Undoubtedly the present views about transportation result from a combination of factors including the price of gasoline, traffic congestion, concerns about carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, and a general willingness to discuss concepts like “multi-modalism” and “livability.”

Regardless of cause and effect the fact remains that while “mass transit” was always the poor step-child in the transportation world, light rail and street cars along with Complete Streets and transit oriented development, are now visionary and compelling. Transit is cool! 

 In cities like Washington, D.C., Portland and Boston, where subway and light rail systems are long established, the utility of moving people rather than cars was settled long ago. Even today in the District of Columbia the merits of a new street car system are not at issue. The debate concerns whether the overhead wires needed to power the system will diminish the streetscape. 

Far more interesting is the success of subways, street cars and light rail in auto-dependent places that were so often identified as classic examples of urban sprawl. In Los Angeles, for example, daily ridership on just the Blue, Green, Red and Gold rail lines (opened between 1990 and 2003) is almost 300,000. The Valley Metro in Phoenix, at just 16-months old, is already exceeding ridership expectations. 

Powerful trends are at work shaping decisions about mobility. It’s hard to know whether reduced petroleum costs for a future generation of plug-in hybrid electric cars will decrease ridership on existing light rail lines or on those presently under construction. Certainly there are risks for cities like Charlotte that are proposing a street car line as part of a strategy to revitalize the urban core. However, if the experiences of cities outside the United States are any guide, the possibilities for lots more street cars, light rail and circulators are absolutely worth the investment.

Still Time to Mail in the Census Forms

We are in the middle of the 2010 Census.  The forms have been delivered and the Census Department has been running ads and talking up the need for people to fill out the forms and mail them back.  At this point, the department says that 70% of households have already sent in their forms.  Tha’s a great response rate, but it needs to go higher. For every form that doesn’t come in, Census sends out a person to get the form filled out.  This adds enormous costs to the total of the Census.

A complete and accurate census is crucial for our states, cities, counties and towns.  In addition to determining the boundaries for Congressional districts, the population numbers determined by the Census are used in federal formulas.  These formulas are used by federal agencies and Congress to determine where to concentrate the resources of the United States.  Who should get certain kinds of federal grant money for parks, economic development and other key projects.

For more information on the Census, please go to:

Locals are Effective as Home Mortgages Collapse

Just-released figures from Treasury and HUD report that the number of homeowners who defaulted on their mortgages, even after securing lower payments through loan modification, nearly doubled in March. Relief efforts are diminishing rather than growing.

The Federal Reserve has ended its $1.25 trillion program to buy mortgage backed securities. The first-time homebuyer tax credit is about to end.  Oh, and by the way, Baltimore and Memphis are again in court over the mortgage loan and foreclosure practices of major banks. It’s no wonder families facing foreclosure feel abandoned. 

So, it’s not surprising then that city governments, county governments, housing nonprofits, judges, foundations and university researchers are investing so much time and energy on foreclosures. They know that the crisis is not over – 2010 may be just as bad as 2009 – and that continued action can make a difference for many households. 

This energy and commitment was on display during a two-day forum on home foreclosures hosted by the National League of Cities last week in Washington. Teams of officials from Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Riverside, St. Louis, and Tampa met together to share success stories, offer recommendations to peers in local government, and suggest policy reforms to the national government. 

Briefly summarized, the most important conclusion is that one credible leader makes a difference. In every city with significant progress on foreclosures a mayor, a judge, a county treasurer, a councilmember, or a grass roots neighborhood organizer spoke up and stepped up to define the issue, convene stakeholders, dispel myths, shape decisions, tell the story and scavenge for resources. Moreover, these leaders were concerned not only with the process of solving the problem of the moment. They took action keeping in mind a longer-term vision and plan for what their community could be. 

NLC will issue a longer and more complete report on this forum in the near future.

High-Speed Rail: Now or Later

In the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), $8 billion has been set aside for the development of a high-speed rail (HSR) network.  And, additional money is on its way in the form of a provision by Congress providing $2.5 billion for fiscal year 2010 and a request by the President for another $1 billion for high-speed rail for fiscal year 2011.

HSR – defined by travel of at least 150 miles per hour which would be specifically devoted to connecting areas 100 to 600 miles apart – would be a huge asset to this country in terms of road and air congestion mitigation, air quality and other environmental concerns, as well as being a huge driver for economic development and job creation.

But all these benefits won’t come easily.

Critics see HSR as an investment that won’t deliver on its promises.  Currently premiums for high-speed rail travel (in the very few places it exists) are very high and are expected to impact future ridership.  Additionally, the up-front construction costs are immense.  States and locals would need to procure funding outside of federal sources because the money set aside by ARRA and Congress so far is just a drop on the bucket.  And considering the nation’s current economic situation, is it smart to encourage governments to be spending on HSR now?

The answer is yes!  HSR must be viewed as a long-term investment; not a quick fix to some of the serious transportation challenges we face today.  Delaying any investment now would just increase costs later.  And it’s not just about looking for ways to move people and goods more efficiently through the transportation system.  It’s about creating a stronger infrastructure and leading this country to a better globally competitive position fiscally, environmentally, and socially.

No one said it would be easy and it certainly won’t be cheap.  But the longer we wait, the further it’s going to push us behind.

Do Tax Incentives Have Their Place?

The use of tax incentives to spur economic growth has come under scrutiny over the years.  There are claims that incentives allow businesses to play communities off one another, promote “zero sum” economic growth, and essentially do nothing to actually lure businesses (who in all likelihood have already decided on their location).

And from the practitioner side of things, there seems to be something to this.  In a recent study of site selection specialists, quality of life, efficiency of the municipal permitting process, and many other factors within the control of local government outweigh tax incentives in business’ location strategies.

Analysis by Good Jobs First of Pennsylvania’s use of incentives to draw high-tech companies concludes that broader forces, such as globalization, take the economic development game out of the hands of local governments and limit the realistic effectiveness of tax incentives to create jobs.

There are plenty of places that have abandoned tax incentives as an economic development tool in favor of more “entrepreneurial” strategies to create economic growth, such as business incubators, revolving loan funds, and foreign trade zones.

But in a weak economy where job creation reigns, and the competition for jobs is more heated than ever, do tax incentives have their place? Compounding this issue is persistent fiscal strain, placing local governments between a rock and a hard place.

Take Austin, Tex., for example, whose city council has recently debated its economic development strategy with the prospect of landing Hanger, a medical device maker, after losing some key deals to San Antonio.  Austin has a relatively strong economy and has traditionally relied on its quality of life, educational institutions, and strong workforce to support business growth. However, “a weak economy has made more companies aware of incentives and made more cities willing to up the ante to attract and retain quality jobs in desirable, growing industries,” reported

Austin has made a deal with Hanger, but key to the decision was a strategic analysis of the incentives:  What is the long-term economic and fiscal impact? What types and how many jobs will this bring to the community? Will this advance the city’s potential to build an industry, with suppliers, other similar firms, and linkages to universities?

Arlington, VA is now in a similar position with the recent announcement that Northrup Grumman will be moving its headquarters to the Washington, DC-region. But where- DC, MD or VA? Because of the extensive incentives on the table and fierce competition between communities for the HQ, Washington Post’s Steven Pearlstein and others are calling for a “financial disarmament treaty” and making a renewed call for regionalism.

Arlington, VA Economic Development Executive Director Terry Holzheimer defends Arlington’s use of incentives as part of a strategic approach to economic development. “At the end of the day, it is never smart to get carried away by the heat of the competition and make an offer that doesn’t pencil out. In Arlington, we know who we are, we want to work with those who buy into that vision and who want to be part of this community for the long haul.”

So, to answer the question, although greater cooperation between communities and less game-playing on the part of the private sector would be ideal, the reality is that the economic development game may sometimes call for the use of tax incentives, with some stipulations: they should be part of a broader place-based economic development strategy, contribute to longer-term economic and fiscal stability of the community, and be tied to intensive analysis and performance measures.

How are trends in public administration affecting your city?

A recent article in NLC’s Nation’s Cities Weekly summarized the “top ten trends in public administration.” From new leadership styles to e-democracy to generational change, these trends are affecting city governments, elected officials, and communities.

Antoinette (“Toni”) Samuel, Executive Director of the American Society for Public Administration, presented the analysis to the NLC staff at the most recent Staff Seminar speaker series. Her presentation was based on suggestions from James Svara of Arizona State University.

Here are three examples of the “top ten trends.”

New Leadership Styles. Facilitation and visioning approaches have emerged as effective styles of leadership across forms of government. These are seen as well-suited to situations where no one is in charge, as in cross-sector or multi-jurisdiction efforts. Top administrators rely less on formal authority and more on negotiating skills.

Generational Change and Succession Planning. The profession is preparing for waves of retirements that will accelerate over the next decade, producing a “brain-drain” and the challenge of finding the cash to pay for pensions. Concerns include attracting and retaining young professionals and anticipating and preparing for retirements. Though some retirement-eligible employees are postponing their retirements, governments will be re-focusing attention to succession and workforce planning. . The upside—young professionals bring great IT skills and strong public service values.

E-Government and E-Democracy. For many years, administrators have worked at incorporating information technology into internal and external processes. On-line forms of providing information and obtaining input have developed. More recently, there is experimentation with social media. Concerns arise about security and privacy/identity. In some places, there has been a rise in the stature of the Chief Information Officer (CIO.)

The other seven trends are labeled new governance, strategic management, citizen focus, reorganizing work structure and process, new thinking about service delivery, innovation, and ethics and transparency.

For the entire article, click here.

NOTE TO READERS: Do you see these ten trends happening in your municipality? Do you see other trends that seem just as important as these? Put your thoughts on the “Comment.”

Jump into Social Media

A recently released report from the Fels Institute of Government urges cities to get started in using social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.  It notes that all of the concerns about legal issues, increased workload, and potential for public criticism are manageable and unwarranted.

Through interviews with a mixture of public information staff, information technology directors, and mayor’s offices the researchers identified seven promising practices.   While the general theme is one of experimentation and finding what works for the specific locality, the importance of the enthusiastic participation of the mayor’s office, information technology staff and public information officers is critical.

Making the Most of Social Media, 7 Lessons from Successful Cities is a valuable early guide to this new strategy for getting information out to citizens.   It is one of the Promising Practice Report series.