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Houston, Do You Have A Problem?

September 17, 2014

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I’m going to try to not make this a bashing blog — but everyone has to blow their top off once in a while.

So I can count this past Labor Day Weekend as one I spent outside of Atlanta, but for good reason! My cousin was playing his first game as a wide-receiver for the Wisconsin Badgers.  Turns out, their first game was against LSU in Houston, Texas.  Initially, I was excited because I had never even been to Texas, but have heard nothing but good things minus Rick Perry. After landing, I Ubered to my hostel in the always fabulous Montrose neighborhood, and upon first sight of riding I see….land. Lots of land. Not developed and I would even say well-kept. I start wondering if we were in Florida because it seemed like it.  I also noted their elaborate freeway system.  The HOV lanes were barricaded in the middle of the general purpose lanes and they had their own exits and toll displays between exits. TAKE NOTES, SRTA.

I also noticed random skyscrapers just anywhere, which brought to my attention their lack of zoning.  Chuckling, I immediately think of Buckhead, but let’s not blow the cap off of this pot just yet. Settling in, I walk around Montrose and notice that almost every multistory condo and mid-rise was gated. Even the single-family homes and duplexes. They even went to the trouble to fortify the carport. For why??? Maybe it’s because there were few streets with sidewalks and everyone considers unlocked property public property. Who knows?

So then, I wander off to find a three-day METRO pass for the bus and light rail.  This is where the trip went South. Literally. METRO, Houston’s Transit Authority, advertise that these passes can be purchased in various stores and convenience marts all over town.  It took me SIX STORES which I walked to all of them, until I came to a grocery store that didn’t make an excuse that the METRO was lying, or that the machines were down, or that they didn’t have a three-day pass.  As usual, METRO’s customer service was low on the assistance totem pole. Strike One.

The next day, I actually used the pass, but with a twist. It rained. And guess where I had to stand to wait for the bus?

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(sigh) Only one creep managed to drive into the puddle, though. That’s a highlight in Atlanta.

So I take this bus, which showed up twenty minutes late, to the Third Ward in search of a recommended chicken place that will be unnamed. It was terrible and not worth the return trip south of town because another bus showed up on time (for once) and me being a smart individual, thought that any bus emptied into a rail station.  The bus driver couldn’t recognize my frustrations clearly when she explains that I couldn’t ride the bus for fun. I have to pay extra. For what, ma’am? I arrived at the Galleria two and a half hours later. Strike Two.

Day three consisted of bike share and figuring out where this blasted light rail line went.  I kept wondering how does a city the size of Houston (which the city alone has over 2 million residents ranked fourth in America) have only ONE RAIL LINE???! It went straight up from the NRG Stadium through the Medical District, Downtown, across the river, through neighborhoods to a strip mall. I find out that there were two in construction, but if they’re anything like our streetcar, we’re dying to see a vehicle on them. I wondered through Downtown trying to find happiness, but it couldn’t be found on Labor Day. The one thing I really wanted to see was the underground tunnels that Houston kept active over the years with entrances to the offices and condos. All entrances closed. Offices look like they’re open for business, though. Strike three. I’m out.

Soooo, I don’t really know what to make of all this. It seemed the best thing about Houston was the Munchie Meal at Jack In the Box. If there’s a petition to bring that to Georgia, I will gladly sign it. A guy told me that Houston was basically a place where people come to make money. Plain and simple. That made since. NASA, Oil, low cost of living. I’ll try Dallas next time.

Insiders Baseball. Or why Clayton County is an experiment in political suicide

July 3, 2014
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In case you live under a rock, Clayton County Commissioners made a lackluster attempt at putting MARTA on the ballot and MARTA threw it back in their face and said, “Try again”. Again is Saturday. And Sunday is the deadline to making a deal work. Kyle over at the AJC has a great piece up on the game of chicken, but there’s a little more to that story. MARTA isn’t digging it’s heels in and saying my way or the highway; Clayton is playing a political game.

Three weeks ago the MARTA board was firm in it’s requirement for Clayton to come to the table with a full penny. Transit systems cost a lot more to operate now than they did forty years ago when the MARTA act was passed, and for Clayton to have a robust transit system that fully met the needs of its residents, there needs to be adequate funding. 

Then Norfolk Southern sent out their memo disagreeing with the MARTA estimates for commuter rail, throwing a monkey wrench in to the gears of a plan that was actually coming together for the first time in the four years since Clayton lost its transit service. Norfolk Southern is still willing to come to the table to negotiate; it just might not cost what we were expecting. Could commuter rail happen with the penny? Is it feasible? Should residents go to the ballot to fund a dream?

MARTA stepped up, put on her big girl panties, and looked hard at accepting a half penny should Clayton decide that’s what it could agree to in light of the questions around commuter rail. No one questions the desire for rail in Clayton, but no one wants to waste resident’s money, and certainly not MARTA. And the MARTA board decided it could accept a half penny, assuming that there was the possibility of moving forward with a full penny once the commuter rail plan and been fully flushed out.

So what happened?

A bad contract.

 The contract that the Clayton County Commissioners sent to the MARTA board for approval wasn’t one that MARTA could, in good faith approve. It wasn’t one that ensured that the tax revenues would go to be distributed to MARTA in a timely matter, or at all. In effect, the contract gave the Commission all of the control, didn’t provide for the full revenue stream to go to the transit service, and didn’t make an agreement to provide MARTA, leaving MARTA waiting with it’s hand out and hoping to get reimbursed for services provided.

It was a contract that could have left MARTA and the taxpayers in Fulton, Dekalb, and Atlanta holding the bill for Clayton’s services should the Commissioners decide in the future that they didn’t want to pay MARTA for services rendered and could mean Clayton would again lose service.

Now we’re left to ask why the Commissioners would submit a flawed contract? One that they knew couldn’t be authorized. Was their vote Tuesday night simply to postulate and pretend that they’re willing to work for the residents of Clayton? 

And the likelihood of the Commissioners showing up to the Saturday meeting where they could vote to fix these problems is questionable as we go into the holiday weekend. Sonna Singleton, Gail Hambrick, and Michael Edmondson have all indicated that they will not attend the meeting Saturday morning.

Clayton residents should be able to decide what’s best for them. All they’re asking for is the chance to vote. So Commissioners, will you give the people a chance to be heard?

Keep Your Friends Close, and Your Commissioners Closer

July 2, 2014
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Better luck next time, Clayton County.

 

That’s all this blogger can say after the heartbreaking vote to enact not a full penny, but a half-penny sales tax for Clayton County’s buy-in to MARTA last evening.  ClayCo has been without public transit for about four years, and not even the emotional utterances of the residents couldn’t convince the three-out-of five commissioners to put the full penny on the agenda instead of the half-penny; even though for months, the public has been convinced in public forums, by developers and commissioners alike, that the penny is the only way to go. However, we certainly don’t see eye-to-eye on issues like this with politicians.

This blogger was there as the decision was made, even when MARTA CEO Keith Parker and MARTA Chairman Robert Ashe made it clear to the opposing commissioners that running with the dogs would mean one penny or nothing at all. However, the commissioners in question, namely Gail Hambrick, Sonna Singleton, and can’t-keep-a-comb handy Michael Edmonson, couldn’t see a Clayton County where anything but groceries would be tacked with an 8% sales tax, even if it was for the good of those roaming the county not in a vehicle, but walking on an unpaved ruts on the side of Jonesboro Road to get to Walmart on the other side of the highway across from where the “would-be” commuter rail station would go. Instead, they’d rather keep the wanna-be wealthy types protected in their gated Lake Spivey communities to assure to the world that there is a little decency in ClayCo and that it’s not all about over-funded jails and underfunded school systems.

Now today in a not-so-surprising resolution, the MARTA Board of Directors ruled to decline ClayCo’s half-assed request to join the transit system. This goes to show the commissioners, you may think you’re doing a service to protect your constituents by going all Tea Party on the idea of public transit, but unless you have an better plan on how to magically send buses down to the badlands, your fights don’t mean the hill of beans you live on. Transit is not free. You have to make sacrifices and if that means putting in for the future, so be it. Yes, your economy may not do well on an 8% sales tax in your aired-out brain, but your county DEFINITELY won’t survive once the businesses who just located there decide to move out once they see that there’s nothing but tumbleweeds and for sale signs everywhere. That’s not attractive. Partly a reason why signs outside Southlake Mall tell you to shop in Henry County. Was that a read?

So these knuckleheads have until Sunday, July 6th to reconsider their decision, or transit in Clayton County is off of the table for at least another two years. However, in a recent turn of events, the Special Call Meeting is scheduled for Saturday, July 5th. So if you’re still in town during that time, pay your need-to-be-axed commissioners a visit at the Commissioners Boardroom at 10 AM. My advice to the residents of ClayCo, you better look to move to Southwest Atlanta before home prices goes up. If you want to call the commissioners before the holiday, their numbers are below.

 

Chairman Jeffrey E. Turner (D): (770) 477-3208

Commissioner Sonna Singleton (D): (770) 473-5770

Commissioner Gail Hambrick (D): (770) 603-4135

Commissioner Shana M. Rooks (D): (770) 477-3214

Commissioner Michael Edmondson (D): (770) 477-3216

 

New Frontiers

May 21, 2014

 

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2010 certainly has been a long time since our friends down in Clayton County have seen a local bus.  Ask the family carrying three grocery carts full of groceries from the Riverdale Walmart across the long-stretched State Route 85 Monday. Since then, so much movement has gone on northward, the residents are starting to feel some type of way on if the county can prove to be relevant again.  Well people, there IS hope, and the power is in the people! (and the Clayton County Board of Commissioners…)

 

These past week has been tremendous for transit all over the metro, as MARTA decreased its max wait times to 10 minutes during peak hours, the Atlanta Streetcar is only a doctor’s check-up from operation, and Clayton County is firing up the conversation for reinstating transit to their infrastructure. As of yesterday, reps from the City of Atlanta Department of Public Works and the Atlanta Streetcar announced the PROPOSED (used lightly) fare structure and schedule for the start of revenue service.  Let’s break it down.

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So if the Atlanta City Council approved the PROPOSED fare structure on June 2nd, the fare structure above will go into place around eh…October-November-ish (remember, the first three months will be free). Transfers to MARTA or GRTA will be free, and the council will also decide on reverse transfers.  Now, compared to other streetcar systems, this is pretty fair.  I wouldn’t go off the immediate jump to purchase a monthly pass, though (unless I really wanted to marry the Edgewood Bar District). You can use Breeze Cards as you do on the other systems, as well as purchase them from Breeze vending machines. Also noted to point out, the PROPOSED revenue service plan will be Monday through Thursday from 6 AM-PM, Friday from 6 AM-AM, Saturday from 8:30 AM-1 AM, and Sunday from 9 AM-11 PM. 

Now for the nonbelievers who still think it’s pointless and a waste of money, please take a look around you.  Do you see any streetcar in operation, and are you living in an area of tremendous investment?  As of now, the Atlanta Streetcar will serve as a very key last-mile connectivity tool for pedestrians navigating through Downtown from other systems, as well as the catalyst for a bigger blueprint for an extended streetcar network Downtown, Midtown, and the rest of the intown neighborhoods. They have literally taken every demographic into consideration who would utilize it from downtown business people, college students, seniors, pub crawlers, as well as the tourists. I have stressed long enough that if you don’t like what goes on in your neighborhood, then you haven’t talked loud enough. I can’t explain myself anymore for this, so all those asking me the point of the streetcar, stop. It will be revolutionary. Just wait. 

 

On to the other elephant in the room, ClayCo. Clayton County has been working with a firm out of Tampa to gather public opinion on what they would like to see as far as transit in the now car-dependent nook of the Southern Crescent. Monday, the group has released their Transit Vision for up to 2040.  While it comes to some head nods, it also comes to some clouded conversations with a few of the commissioners. Some people just shouldn’t talk to everyone.  Let’s break this down.

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Shown above is a draft of the 2040 Long-Range vision for Clayton County.  The blue lines represent the local bus which would radiate from the East Point and College Park MARTA stations outward to as far south as Irondale (or the between Jonesboro and Lovejoy part of Tara Boulevard). The restoration of local bus service will be the goal of the 2016 plan.  2020 calls for the introduction of Flex Shuttle service for seniors, those with disabilities, and those in far-stretched subdivisions. 2030 will call for increased headways for the buses, and if the Board and the people decide by November that this is worth sticking the red line in above, a heavy rail line along the Norfolk-Southern line to Clayton State University will bless ClayCo’s presence by 2040. 

Like I said before, the conversation is still a little cloudy.  Most residents still don’t understand how the county lost C-Tran in the first place, and some commissioners are going out of the way to sweep it under the rug and blotch this opportunity by lying. Some locals are also weary that it will increase crime, litter, yada yada yada. Listen here. Make your OWN judgment.  Just know that the State legislation ONLY calls for Clayton to join MARTA through the 1-cent sales tax, and that will be the minimum if ClayCo ever wants to see rail. Property tax won’t have anything to do with funding transit. No one does that, and the residents wouldn’t even go for that. Not even Seattle believes it’s a good idea. You also can’t steal a TV and bring it back on a bus. This endeavor would be not only a very wise economic development opportunity for the county, but a building block for uniting all of the transit systems into one and for us as a region and move forward on how we look at more efficient mobility options.

 

To join in on both of these conversations, please direct yourselves to the following:

Email the Atlanta Streetcar Team at: atlantastreetcar@atlantaga.gov. Comments will be welcomed until May 30th!!!

Comment on the Clayton County Transit Initiative at: http://transit.claytoncountyga.gov/  

Or go to the meetings tomorrow at:

      • Thursday, May 22, 2014
        6:00 pm – 8:00 pm
        6:30 pm Presentation
        Frank Bailey Senior Center
        6213 Church Street
        Riverdale, GA 30274
    • Thursday, May 22, 2014
      6:00 pm – 8:00 pm
      6:30 pm Presentation
      Fountain of Life Christian Church
      3372 Anvil Block Road
      Ellenwood, GA 30294​

Planner Nerdvana

April 30, 2014

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Whew! April has definitely been a whirlwind, and I’m not talking about those massive winds we were supposed to get from this recent storm! (Seriously, I walked around here with a dry umbrella expecting it to pour). Anyway, April brought us the second annual TranspoCamp as well as the massive week-long American Planning Association Conference.  If you were lucky enough to attend both, I hope you made lots of connections and joined in the conversation about transportation and why it is important not just here, but everywhere.

But, let’s touch on the important pieces. See the epic selfie above?  It was part of a session at TranspoCamp inspired by Lyle Harris, Chief Spokesman of MARTA on creating a culture of people who are not only willing to ride, but take ownership of MARTA, similar to other transit cultures in Philadelphia and San Francisco. We called ourselves the #MARTAARMY and we devoted ourselves to involve those who want to make a difference on the system to speak up and bounce ideas to Lyle on what this system should do and how it should function.

The American Planning Association (APA), while well established, was also welcomed to Atlanta just this past weekend.  Attended by engineers, planners, realtors, students, etc., it was also a think-tank for those who wanted to grab ideas and take them back to their respective city.  The student population was kinda here and there, so hopefully, Seattle’s conference next year will attract more students. Interesting sessions I attended included: Expanding Mass Transit in the face of Fiscal Austerity, The Creative Class & Downtown Development, Developing TOD Affordable Housing, and How Millennials Are Changing Planning (which is the standing room-only session above). There were outdoor workshops that took place in the Metro area, as well as a bookstore and expo to peep the latest planning technologies.

Overall, both of these conferences were wonderful, and if you haven’t been to either, I would suggest you find some money and get on that train.  I feel the biggest inspirations for transit planning will come from seeing what other cities are doing and if you have a chance to travel and do that, I’d advise you to make that move, chess master. I would start with the American Public Transit Association Conference in Houston in October and RAILvolution in Minneapolis in June if you’re interested.

This is important.

April 17, 2014

This is happening tonight. You should go.

Clayton County Democratic Meeting April 17, 2014p

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If You Build It, Will They Come?

April 1, 2014

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Shown above is a picture of two things Atlanta will soon have and not have.  I will leave it to you to guess the obvious.

Before I go into this opinion peace, I want to post a disclaimer:  I believe in all kinds of transit, no matter where it goes.  If it serves a purpose, turns a profit, and brings peace to whomever passes through or whomever arrives, I stand firm to welcome it. 

 

When Atlanta was nicknamed “The City Too Busy To Hate”, I don’t think anyone counted ‘argumentative’ as a offspring of hate.  That seems to be the case ever since the Atlanta BeltLine released its comprehensive Streetcar expansion plan to the streetcars that they don’t yet seem to uh…have. I say that not to be negative, but to really get everyone to look at this with a bigger picture of this burgeoning “Streetcar” Network in Atlanta.  Where did it come from? Where is it going, and why can we not agree on where to put it?

A big complaint from streetcar opponents (some of which don’t hold a City of Atlanta address) is that they still won’t go anywhere, even after east-west connector routes were put in for the 1st, 3rd, and 4th Phases of the plan.  Peachtree Street, they say; put it where it belongs on the main thoroughfare! Okay…let’s look at that.  I tout the Peachtree plan as the one the Feds didn’t think was worthy enough to debut in Atlanta or the one that doesn’t seem practical enough because A) There’s a huge heavy rail running right under most of it, B) The Peachtree Street corridor runs through 2 of Atlanta’s most walkable neighborhoods. C) The 110 Bus Route runs down the whole corridor, and D) In what way are we really ready to tear up Atlanta’s most famous street?

Another point against the Peachtree Streetcar is of whom will patronize it. Who do you think uses the one in the picture above?  Definitely not the guys or gals in suits but the ones in Bermuda shorts and fanny packs admiring how long the skyline goes on and on and on…It’s mainly a big reason everyone is counting against the current streetcar because it will just be an extension of the tourist bubble that covers pretty much the western half of ‘Downton Abblanta’. It’s going to bring other forms of change. Believe me. Sadly, those people who make the Peachtree argument didn’t like the Auburn/Edgewood Streetcar. Although they forget there’s a huge university, trauma center, and about 20,000 of my closest friends here. (not to mention an even growing neighborhood in the shadows who will soon receive the first phase of the next expansion). Who do they expect?  Most tourists are even scared to take actual MARTA, even though the residents probably share the same sentiment. So are you really going to step foot on that vehicle if it does go down Peachtree, or will you hear it from your distant cousin who visited that one time who swears by the streetcar?

I also look at much fault at putting a streetcar down Peachtree because it still does not create a vehicle for MOVEMENT.  The BeltLine is supposed to be about MOVING. That less than three mile trek won’t really put you anywhere else that you couldn’t get by any other MARTA vehicle, or better yet, by your own two feet! (I’ve done the walk. It’s not that bad.) But it does not do what the North Avenue/Hollowell Parkway line would do, what the 10th Street Line would do, and that is send you through different neighborhoods with a notion that you will end up in a place totally different then where you got on without having to switch vehicles. Point blank and simple. Just as an aside, because Andres Duany recommends something, it doesn’t always mean we should do it.

I want everyone to stop the arguing about the streetcar because the reality of it is that it won’t even be up until the late summer.  So we really don’t even know how this one will perform, or if it will.  Again, not being pessimistic, but realistic.  I will be excited for yet another mode of transport, but I have had it to here with the back and forth about something that isn’t even a reality yet.  You don’t know how excited I was to see the poles and lines being put up from my return from New Orleans.  Atlanta has to work on this idea of comprehensive planning again.  We still cannot grasp that concept.  Just like our addiction to tearing down fairly-new stadiums or erecting parking decks that look like actual buildings. Until we can evaluate this one, let’s calmly plan for the future, but in a practical sense.

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