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Back in December at the 8664.org Annual Public Forum, we had a chance to talk with distinguished guest John Norquist, former Mayor of Milwaukee who successfully removed a highway in his city and current President of the Congress for the New Urbanism. The CNU actively supports freeway removal as a viable tool for urban regeneration. Last year, the group ranked Louisville’s downtown stretch of Interstate 64 as the 7th worst highway in the nation in the Freeways Without Futures campaign.

The most destructive aspects of the KY-IN Bridges Project don’t occur over the Great Lawn, however, but a few blocks away in the heart of the city. With President Obama’s stimulus bill pending in the Senate, we decided to take a look at at an Oped written by John Norquist on the importance of the decisions facing us today. It’s well worth a read considering almost a Trillion dollars is about to be spent on our nation’s infrastructure. Here’s the letter John wrote to then President-Elect Obama about the stimulus plan:

There’s pain in today’s economy and it started with the built environment—the housing market, in particular—and many of the valuable solutions to our current problems will be centered there as well. Just as highly leveraged mortgage swaps were based on the slim supposition that housing prices could never fall, the conventional development patterns that came to define region after region assumed that gasoline would always be cheap. The design of our built environment leaves millions of Americans with no choice but to use their cars to get everywhere. When prices spiked, some families took food off their tables or clothes off their backs in order to put gas in their tanks. Others lost the roofs over their heads. The Driven to the Brink report by Joe Cortright for CEOS for Cities concluded that pressures of this type burst the housing bubble and set off a wave of exurban foreclosures.

As you have noted in your energy platform, too many of our land-use decisions and development patterns are organized around the principle of cheap gasoline. Too many of our transportation dollars go to serving drivers alone instead of making it easier for us to walk, bicycle and access transportation alternatives. If we wind up in this same vulnerable position when fuel prices soar again, we will fail at one of the biggest challenges before us.

The good news is that there are policies that will address our nation’s short-term needs while advancing our long-term competitiveness and national well-being. Replacing federal practices and policies that promote inefficient sprawl will actually save tax dollars by redirecting investments in far more strategic ways. These changes will have multiple and profound benefits. The right transportation investments will stimulate the economy now while building the foundation for our future clean-energy economy. Adjusting incentives embedded in banking standards and other fields will reduce both our dependence on foreign oil and our carbon emissions by helping to shift growth to neighborhoods new and old where a range of convenient destinations—school, work, stores, and places of worship—can be reached on foot, on bicycle or by transit. It will build on the hard work of members of the New Urbanism and Smart Growth movements to develop models for growth and development that strengthen cities and towns while promoting greater harmony between the built and natural environments. I offer these suggestions:

1) Yes, reinvesting in our crumbling infrastructure will stimulate the economy and create needed jobs while making the streets, bridges, and transit systems on which we depend safer and more effective. But not if we simply rebuild what we have.

The federal government must recognize that in becoming the largest force shaping our transportation systems, it has acted in a single-minded way. To a huge extent, it focuses on moving vehicles, rather than getting people conveniently where they want to be, whether the best choice is walking, biking, riding transit, or driving. And in focusing on car movement, it ignores the role successful streets such as Michigan Avenue in Chicago, 125th Street in Harlem, King Street in Alexandria, Virginia or Main Street in New Iberia, Louisiana play in their beloved locations, as the setting for vibrant public spaces and diverse and important economic activity.

Based on outdated and oversimplified performance criteria, these streets are judged as poorly performing despite their impressive ability to connect people with their destinations, often on foot or by bus, bike or train. Meanwhile, the criteria used by federal and state transportation departments reward projects that add and widen highways and arterials, improving their “level of service for automobile traffic. When car trips lengthen and grow more frequent and gasoline dependency and carbon emissions rise, the federal paving program is operating exactly as designed. When the resulting interchanges support a limited range of big-box and strip retail stores surrounded by parking lots, the federal paving program is operating as expected.

Better performance criteria for complete urban streets that support pedestrians, cyclists and transit can be found in the urban thoroughfares manual created jointly by the Institute for Transportation Engineers and the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), available for free download at http://www.cnu.org/streets. The manual provides designs for the multi-modal urban streets that will help us retool our infrastructure for a clean-energy future, as envisioned by both the T4America coalition and the transportation innovators at CNU’s latest transportation summit.

2. “Fix it first” is a good idea when it comes to dangerous structurally deficient bridges. But when existing highways are deemed “functionally deficient” merely because more moderate lane widths and ramp lengths prevent them from becoming raceways, don’t allow them to be lumped into the “fix it first” package. A better strategy for elevated highways in cities, especially with so many of them reaching the end of their design lives, is simply removing them and replacing them with urban boulevards, a strategy that has helped neighborhoods return to life and surface street networks function more efficiently in cities such as San Francisco, Portland and Milwaukee.

3. Where a previous era expanded airports, increasing our destabilizing reliance on imported fossil fuels and maximizing our carbon impacts, this one must make efficient high-speed rail the preferred route for intermediate trips of three hours or less. People traveling between cities such as Chicago and St. Louis or Houston and New Orleans should find rail their first and most convenient option, as is common between similar cities

4. Green the bailouts. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac may again be needed to ensure liquidity in mortgage markets, but now that the government fully controls them it should remove provisions that prohibit Fannie and Freddie from involvement in buildings that are less than 75 percent residential. That makes mortgages for McMansions in far-flung exurbs easy to write, but makes purchasers of condominiums in many mixed-use buildings scramble for non-conventional financing. A three-story building with condos upstairs and a small grocery store like Trader Joe’s on the first floor would be a godsend in a place like Iowa City or Philadelphia’s Manayunk neighborhood, but Fannie and Freddie need to make it easier to finance.

Similarly, if Detroit automakers are going to get bailed out after betting the farm that low-mileage SUVs were the vehicles of the future, then Washington should refashion them as full-fledged transportation companies, meeting a growing need for competitively priced public-transportation vehicles as well as high-mileage cars. If that’s not feasible, repeal the clause that forces all U.S. transit agencies to buy American-made rail cars and buses. Since there are no US-based rail car manufacturers, this just forces foreign makers to enter into expensive joint-production agreements on U.S soil and drives up the cost of public transportation projects.

5. Retool housing incentives to meet the coming demand for smaller, more affordable housing. The affordability strategy of the just-ending era of dependably cheap oil—which encouraged people to drive till they qualified for housing on cheap land in the exurbs—is no longer sustainable, either economically or environmentally. Top metropolitan demographer Arthur C. Nelson of the University of Utah has concluded that the U.S. already has more than enough large-lot single family homes to meet future needs but that it will need to build nearly 50 million new housing units in the next 30 years—apartments, townhomes, bungalow courts, and more compact homes in walkable neighborhoods—to meet the needs of a growing, aging and increasingly diverse population.

As the federal government seeks to get America producing housing again to meet the needs of the middle-class families as well as those who struggle to afford shelter, it should use the principle of location efficiency to guide its investments. Groundbreaking research from the Center for Neighborhood Technologies and the Brookings Institution shows that looking at housing affordability in a vacuum without considering monthly transportation expenses, the second largest item in household budgets, leads to costly decisions. Where people have access to transit and walkable neighborhoods, combined housing and transportation costs are considerably lower and give families a much-needed break.

At the first days of your Presidency approach, it is bittersweet to dream about all that you could accomplish during a halcyon era with the winds of a growing economy at your back. But steadying your leadership and giving us such hope is your unmistakable commitment to the idea that if there is a way to address the deep roots of our current problems, to meet today’s towering immediate needs, and to promote broader long-term opportunity and prosperity, you and your team will find that path and take it. We hope these ideas assist you in this quest to deliver the change we need at the time we most desperately need it.

Most sincerely,

John Norquist
President and CEO
Congress for the New Urbanism

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