How three cities are solving big problems

While Seattle plays around on the margins, LA, Cincinnati, and San Francisco are taking big bites out of big apples. Their secrets: fast timetables, cross-sectoral coordination, and steamroller centrism.

LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa

LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa

Seattle may end up indulging itself in three votes on the embattled waterfront tunnel, or at least three skirmishes over whether to hold those votes. One referendum vote is coming in August (maybe), concerning the City Council's procedural punctilios; there might be another on Initiative 101 in November; and a third next year (echoing the first) on the council's "final" vote on going ahead, sometime this fall.

Is this extreme? Is this harmless? Is Seattle fiddling while its economy and its competitiveness burn? Is there any way to get the important issues (funding highway and transit improvements, job growth for non-tech sectors, re-financing the University of Washington, unfunded liabilities, the impasse over taxes) back in the foreground?

Impossible, you say? Well, consider the tales from three cities and how they are pulling together for impressive action on some big problems. In each case the resources mobilized and the broad political bases are commensurate with solving big challenges. These examples, in turn, may be harbingers of the kind of swing back toward concerted political power that could be heading for this region if the pendulum swings back sharply from the stalemated, insurgency years of Mayor Mike McGinn.

Start with Los Angeles, where the urgency of the meltdown of the California economy and its feckless politics have given marching orders on transit funding. Led by Mayor Antonio Vallaraigosa, the city leadership has put together a plan to build 30 years of transit projects in the next 10 years. It will use a new half-cent sales tax, passed in 2008, as collateral to sell long term bonds and secure a low-interest federal loan. It will then take these billions of available funds and accomplish 12 transit projects in 10 years. Construction bids are coming in 15-30 percent lower, given the current economy. And the projects are a modern mix of extending rail transit, bus rapid transit on bus-only lanes, and a way to link three downtown rail lines.

There are other advantages to this speed-up. It means more construction jobs sooner. It means a project like the Westside "subway to the sea," expected to be done in 2032, will be ready in a third that time, spurring quicker transit-oriented development. The urgency(and the need to present a common front to the feds) helped get important players, like Hollywood, on board.The federal government has agreed to accelerate environmental reviews, hoping the 30/10 plan will become a national model.

And then consider this, from Victoria Broadus, writing on the blog CityFix:

"Dedicated local leaders who are willing to put their reputation on the line by backing such public transit overhauls are always crucial players in the most promising transit improvements in cities around the world. From TransMilenio in Bogota, Colombia to a new high-tech bus system from an innovative public-private partnership in Indore, India to a bus rapid transit (BRT) system in Amman, Jordan, influential local leaders with a passion for improving public transit were critical to the success of new systems.

"One main hindrance to political support for transit is the time it takes for projects to be completed and gain public acceptance; traditional transit systems take so long to complete that many politicians don’t see any point in backing them. But busway improvements like New York’s Select Bus Service, BRT systems around the world, and now LA’s innovative 30/10 plan have provided leaders with models of sustainable transport that can be quickly implemented, allowing them to reap political returns from the projects they support."

That last sentence is a key argument for speed, as opposed to endless process, Seattle-style. Politicians like to vote for things that might happen while they are still in office.

Next city in our survey: Cincinnati. Leaders in this city and two neighboring cities in Kentucky are working together on a comprehensive approach, "cradle to career," on education. What began as scattershot approaches turned into a highly coordinated approach to the full education continuum. All the parties and funders agree on common goals, shared ways to measure success, regular high-level communication among the entities, and a "backbone" organization that manages the partnership, called Strive Together.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Jun 2, 3:01 p.m. Inappropriate

"Led by Mayor Antonio Vallaraigosa, the city leadership has put together a plan to build 30 years of transit projects in the next 10 years. It will use a new half-cent sales tax, passed in 2008, as collateral to sell long term bonds and secure a low-interest federal loan. It will then take these billions of available funds and accomplish 12 transit projects in 10 years. Construction bids are coming in 15-30 percent lower, given the current economy. And the projects are a modern mix of extending rail transit, bus rapid transit on bus-only lanes, and a way to link three downtown rail lines."

Contrary to what this piece asserts, "the 2013 mayor's race" isn't going to improve the abysmal governance and performance shortcomings in transit around here.

Metro and Sound Transit are hauling in 1.8% sales tax, property tax, and a car tab tax. They do FAR more direct regressive taxing of individuals than in LA. Despite that, when you compare what LA has worked out (above) it makes what's going on here look like a sick joke.

During that same two years Sound Transit has been sitting on its hands. Why hasn't it worked out a good financing deal with the feds like LA has? Why hasn't it even hired a quality engineering firm to tell it (and the public) if converting the I-90 Lake Washington crossing to a rail bridge would be safe and feasible?

Here's why: bad management.

Sound Transit's leadership is not in any way accountable to people, so it does not perform in a competent manner. There are no limits on the taxing or bond selling, so the leadership there just sits on its hands and lets the excessive and regressive tax revenue roll in.

That's how it was set up by Nickels, and it's what the supreme court abused its power to ensure would continue. Can't blame McGinn for that . . ..

Sound Transit taxes FAR too heavily, and if you compare it to any peer bus and train services provider it does a terrible job. LA is just one example where competent managers build far more useful infrastructure at a far lower cost for the people they serve.

We are living with a lousy vestige of Nickels and Sims, as sanctioned by the dirty politicians on the highest court of this state. A new mayor in 2013 won't change anything for the better in terms of megaprojects.

crossrip

Posted Thu, Jun 2, 7:58 p.m. Inappropriate

Yes, let's have more "accountability" at Sound Transit like we have at Metro -- the people who brought us 40-40-20 and heaps of politically-influenced bus routes that perform terribly because they're collateral in political deals, rather than intelligently designed routes put together by professional planners. Given the local examples of Pierce, CT and Metro, it's contemptibly stupid to say that "accountability" like you suggest will give us anything better.

Moreover, your comments has blatant factual errors that discount you as a worthwhile source of information or intelligent opinion. Of course there are limits on ST's (and Metro's) taxing authority -- they are currently both maxed out, except for an employee head tax that ST has chosen not to put before voters.

ST taxes heavily because it is building a BART-style regional transit system that just happens to use light rail technology, rather than a typical light rail system such as Phoenix's or SF Muni that's basically a fast bus or a long streetcar, running in the street; we are building a subway between downtown and Northgate that is costing a fortune -- it has to, building subways is expensive, and worth it for us.

This cretinous ranting about ST's supposed lack of accountability is a stalking horse for those who want to kill ST's efforts to build a decent regional transit system by turning ST's governance into a political sideshow.

bjan

Posted Thu, Jun 2, 9:55 p.m. Inappropriate

Could folks please talk about the issues raised in the article, rather than trotting out the old arguments against Metro and other transit agencies???

Posted Fri, Jun 3, 7:43 a.m. Inappropriate

Idea for a Crosscut story: outline every single unfunded liability, including pensions, at all levels of government including all the local cities, schools, ports, fire districts and so on up to the state level.

sjenner

Posted Fri, Jun 3, 9:40 a.m. Inappropriate

Los Angeles has 4 respectably operating LRT lines and a greater need that justifies accellerated expansion. Seattle's Link LRT & Streetcar line are rated as the nation's worst and it's transportation system as a whole is below national standards for walking, bicycling, transit, highway and roadway network. Washington State's shady shadowy DOT agencies are principally to blame for this failure. The flippant characterization of Mayor Mcginn as an insurgent is at best a laughably weak defense from a corpulently corrupt establishment.

The DBT & MercerWest are such abominable screw-ups, the current delay in the planning process is little more than a hasty exit plan for DOT directors and department heads to avoid "criminal" prosecution. Enlisting a nationally reknown landscape architect to pose impractically grandiose waterfront ideas is sure to embarrass the elite who won't care to admit being made fools by their Highway Robbery chums.

Wells

Posted Fri, Jun 3, 10:03 a.m. Inappropriate

"The flippant characterization of Mayor Mcginn as an insurgent is at best a laughably weak defense from a corpulently corrupt establishment"

I agree entirely..... And we've had 8 years of Gregoire. Maybe the King County Democrats were wrong and we should have elected Dino.

fgruben

Posted Fri, Jun 3, 10:19 a.m. Inappropriate

With one exception the transportation part of this article praises what decisive cities are doing for transit, not strongman tactics to build more out-of-date, out-of-scale urban highway. San Francisco and some other cities are getting rid of their urban highways. Not Seattle.

We have strong leadership in the mayor's office advocating transit and other solutions instead of more highway, but with one exception our City Council is going along with the Rebert Moses notion of progress imposed on it by a strongman state highway department. Getting the current highway plans done, especially a Brutalist higher, wider SR 520 through beautiful neighborhoods and waters plus the widening of I-5, would be a travesty of urban progress. Seattle will continue to be a contentious "do nothing" city until city government catches up with the modern transporation ideas and projects its citizens want. Our mayor did get a majority of votes for a vision he seemed to offer in place of more of same. Until our city grovernment catches up, let's continue to temporize and dither and insist on better, our only defense against bad ideas.

Posted Fri, Jun 3, 4:37 p.m. Inappropriate

Note that San Fransisco is increasing it's bicycling network:

http://www.streetfilms.org/reconnecting-the-city-stephanies-story/

http://www.streetfilms.org/marin-countys-cal-park-tunnel-finally-opens-to-much-fanfare/

http://www.streetfilms.org/san-francisco-celebrates-bike-to-work-day-2010/

http://www.streetfilms.org/bay-area-street-portraits-sal/

http://www.streetfilms.org/bay-area-street-portraits-terri/

http://www.streetfilms.org/making-a-better-market-street-in-san-francisco/

and encouraging walking:

http://www.streetfilms.org/san-francisco-walk-to-school/

changing priorities:
http://www.streetfilms.org/san-francisco-carves-a-park-from-the-midst-of-its-pavement/
http://www.streetfilms.org/piazza-saint-francis-a-proposed-urban-park-in-san-francisco/

and tearing down their waterfront roadway:

http://www.streetfilms.org/lessons-from-san-francisco/

Seattle... not so much.

GaryP

Posted Sat, Jun 4, 7:57 p.m. Inappropriate

So, David, these cities have leadership. They see a problem and then decide to do something about it. You say they then actually do something. Tell me more. They must have their own "gadfly" lawyers suing everything that moves. How do they just move forward?

Mr Baker

Posted Sat, Jun 4, 8:37 p.m. Inappropriate

"So, David, these cities have leadership. They see a problem and then decide to do something about it."

You don't get it. Everyplace else has competent leadership. We do not.

Forget lawyers, Mr. Baker. They're irrelevant.

Sound Transit got even more taxing power in 2008 than the transit services provider in LA obtained that year.

-- Want to know why Sound Transit did not secure low-interest loans from the feds?

-- Want to know why Sound Transit did not leverage that new regressive and heavy tax stream to obtain lots of new federal grants (as was done in LA)?

-- Want to know why instead of shortening a (far larger) transit buildout plan from 30 years to 10 because of cheap contractors and good financing practices (the LA method) we're hearing the updated Sound Transit plans are to cut back on what voters were told to expect in both 1996 and 2008 AND there will be significant delays in bringing new light rail on line?

Bad Management.

crossrip

Posted Sun, Jun 5, 10:37 a.m. Inappropriate

I think we do need to move on big problems too-- like, how will we eliminate carbon pollution in just a few decades? How will the money we spend now help free us?

Bentler

Posted Wed, Jun 8, 12:48 p.m. Inappropriate

Reader's Picks to Erin and Bentler. Erin: best, though, not to stretch the truth about what "citizens" want. But for the discussions that Crosscut manages to "tolerate," there is little going on around here to grow an informed citizenship by dragging in pieces of the truth and together arriving at a shared understanding of genuine "progress," upcoming challenges, and the commitment it takes to test even a well thought-out strategy if it challenges conventions currently in force.

afreeman

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