APTA | Passenger Transport
October 25, 2010

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Livable Communities Boost Economic Development
BY KJ FIELDS, Special to Passenger Transport

The goals behind the creation of Rail~Volution—to espouse sustainable residential and transportation planning ideas, strengthen communities, improve quality of life, and showcase light rail as a system that can help define a community’s future growth—largely have been accomplished and now have become the critical, urgent public policies of our time.

That was the opinion of Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), founder of the livable communities conference, when he addressed the Oct. 19 Opening Plenary Session of the 16th annual Rail~Volution at home in his congressional district of Portland, OR. Approximately 1,200 participants attended the Oct. 18-21 event.

“We have seen how sustainable, well-planned communities with balanced transportation choices can avoid being hollowed-out shells in the aftermath of real estate bubbles,” Blumenauer said, noting that these communities are “resistant to disaster, both natural and human-caused.”

The congressman pointed to such features as streetcar lines, safe bicycling routes, and farmers’ markets as the basics of livable communities and elements of a new sustainable economy that connect people, coax increased value, and spur investment. “It’s the quality of the urban experience that brings people together,” he said. “Every community is starting to recognize those streetcar neighborhoods, that mixed-use development, that historic district that they’re proud of—coming back in terms of revitalization and green building.”

Passage of a federal surface transportation authorization bill is necessary, Blumenauer said, but so is a comprehensive approach to what he called “greenfrastructure,” which includes sewer, water, energy, and broadband.

He cited policy changes at the federal level, such as the partnership among DOT, the Department of Housing and Urban development, and the Environmental Protection Agency to consider livable community initiatives, as well as the investment in high-speed rail spearheaded by $8 billion in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. But Blumenauer also challenged the federal government—the largest landowner, landlord, and employer in the nation—to lead by example.

Despite the current negative political climate and hyper-partisanship, Blumenauer called for all communities to pursue a better federal partnership, build regional consensus, and heal the political process. “We need new partnerships to create, capture, and use the value that comes from doing this right. Do not fall victim to the notion that we can’t afford to do it right,” he urged.

In closing, he emphasized the power of bringing people together, stating: “Perhaps the greatest contribution is to being able to get back to the grassroots, to build the citizen infrastructure that spawned Rail~Volution.”

Porcari and Other Speakers
Deputy Secretary of Transportation John D. Porcari agreed with Blumenauer's comments on the important role of transportation in economic development when he addressed a subsequent plenary session on Oct. 21. He noted that the U.S. population is estimated to increase by 70 million in the next 25 years, mostly in urban areas--meaning that public transit planners will have "a great opportunity to address a modality imbalance" between bus and rail. "The leadership of this process is at the local level," Porcari emphasized, "and much of that is in this room today."

Joining Blumenauer at the opening plenary were Carlotta Collette, acting council president for Metro, the Portland regional planning organization, and its councilor for Portland, Rex Burkholder; City of Portland Mayor Sam Adams; Ron Stewart, principal at Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Architects and chair of the Rail~Volution Portland Host Committee; and Gordon Price, program director of The City Program at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC.

Stewart welcomed the audience “home” to Rail~Volution, citing the high attendance as a banner year for the conference. “This is a reunion of 1,200 of your closest friends...and you are now part of the Rail~Volution family,” he said.

Adams talked about the higher purpose of transportation, asserting that transportation planning must be part of a holistic approach that renews entire neighborhoods and corridors. “Yes, it is about getting people from point A to point B, but it’s also about the trip not taken,” he said. “It’s about making the kinds of investments and implementing the kinds of strategies that allow for growth and change, but in a way that also protect the existing single-family neighborhoods.”

Price examined the impact of Portland as a place that provides a living experience for light rail, streetcar, trams, and development density in his presentation “Why the World Needs a Portland.” He explained: “In politics, we are always dealing with reports, analysis, delegations, people talking to us. [Portland] provides a place to come and make a judgment about it. Once they experience it, once they integrate it into the life of the city, into their mental maps, that’s where change comes from.”

Among the other topics presented at this year’s Rail~Volution were “Fresh Starts for New Starts,” “The Last Mile: Can You Get There From Here?,” “Building Community Support for Transit-Oriented Development,” “Introduction to Design Guidelines for Livable Communities,” and “Transit and Community Planning: Who Are the Right Voices?”

Photos by Thomas Ngo, TriMet

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