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July 2014

Detroit’s M-1 Rail Streetcar: A Next City Explainer

Sandy Smith | Next City

An artist rendering provided by the M-1 Rail streetcar project shows the proposed 3.3-mile streetcar line in Detroit. (AP Photo/M-1 Rail)

Detroit has long been the city where rail transit plans go to die. That’s about to change: On July 28th, work begins on a new, three-mile-long modern streetcar line along Woodward Avenue, connecting the riverfront, downtown and the New Center-Midtown area. It’s not your run-of-the-mill modern streetcar, however.

What is the M-1 Rail Streetcar?
Let’s get this out of the way first: This is not a passenger version of the M-1 Abrams tank. The Boeing Vertol LRV debacle of the 1970s taught us all the perils of having defense contractors build rail cars.

The M-1 Rail Streetcar is a 3.3-mile-long central city circulator that will run on Woodward Avenue from Larned Street at the Detroit riverfront to Grand Boulevard in Midtown. It will have 11 stations and cost $137 million to build. It is projected to open in late 2016. At the same time, the Michigan Department of Transportation is rebuilding Woodward Avenue (also Michigan Route 1, hence the M-1 branding) at a cost of $35 million to $45 million.

That’s nice. But every city these days is building a streetcar of some kind. What makes this one such a big deal?
The M-1 is the first urban rail transit line in the country to be built and run by a private, non-profit organization, with most of the funding coming from private investors and foundations. According to the Detroit Free Press, the Kresge Foundation is the largest single funder of the line, donating $35 million of its cost. Another $9 million comes from the Downtown Development Authority. The Detroit Three automakers, Henry Ford Health System, Wayne State University, the Detroit Medical Center and other institutions located on or near the route have all chipped in as well. So has the Federal Transit Administration, to the tune of $25 million. Several local private investors have also contributed funds; the three most prominent are Roger Penske of Penske Corporation, Quicken Loans owner Dan Gilbert and Compuware founder Peter Karmanos.

Do any of these people stand to benefit from the line’s construction?
The members of the M-1 Rail board — Penske is its chairman, Gilbert its vice chairman, and Matthew Cullen of Rock Ventures, another company founded by Gilbert, is its president and CEO — would no doubt tell you that the city of Detroit and the entire Detroit region will benefit from this project, and they’d be right. But Gilbert especially would see his investments in downtown Detroit appreciate as a result of the anticipated redevelopment associated with the line. Gilbert has placed huge bets on Downtown Detroit’s future, moving Quicken Loans headquarters there and buying scores of buildings large and small; his property management firm, Bedrock Real Estate Services, lists 34 downtown Detroit buildings in its portfolio. Read more

South Sacramento to Build First Zero-Net Energy Apartments from Mutual Housing Grant

Environmental Protectionimage via Nexus Energy Homes

Mutual Housing California has received $40,000 from Columbia, Md.-based nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners, Inc., formerly Enterprise Foundation. The funds will be used to start the design and development process for a 7-acre, transit-oriented community on Stockton Boulevard that staff hope will have the first rooftop farm in the area.

The farm is intended to create employment opportunities for the residents. The development also will be the first zero-net energy apartment complex in South Sacramento.  The mixed-use center will have commercial office space, an organic community garden and a computer learning center.

“We are proud to seed the complete and ‘dark green’ community that Mutual Housing is innovating,” said Heather Hood, director of programs, Enterprise Community Partners. “A development like this exemplifies the kind of vision it takes to make a housing project grow into being a hub for a whole community’s life.” Read more

Nominate your city for the 2015 Sustainable Transport Award!

Rachel Jaffe | The CityFix

Nominations are open now and will be accepted until September 15, 2014.EMBARQ – the producer of TheCityFix – together with the rest of the Sustainable Transport Award (STA) Committee, invites you to nominate your city for the Sustainable Transport Award!

About the Sustainable Transport Award
Since 2005, the Sustainable Transport Award has recognized cities around the globe for profound leadership and vision in sustainable transport and urban livability improvements in the preceding year. These cities or major jurisdictions have shown throughout the previous year immense progress in implementing innovative transport and urban development strategies.

2013 winner Mexico City was recognized for expanding its Metrobús bus rapid transit (BRT) system and implementing the ECOBICI public bike-sharing program, while 2014 winner Buenos Aires transformed its city center into a pedestrian thoroughfare. Other cities from around the world have reduced greenhouses gas (GHG) emissions, improved air quality, brought in transit-oriented development (TOD) strategies, and nurtured healthier, more vibrant communities. Read more

Downtown Meriden project lands $6 million in state loans

Dan Brechlin | Record-Journal
The proposed 24 Colony St. development will have 64 housing units, including 56 that are considered affordable housing. There will also be about 11,000 square feet of commercial space.MERIDEN — A downtown housing and commercial development received a financial boost Friday when the state Bond Commission voted to support a $6 million loan to help construct the four-story building.

The development is estimated to cost $22.865 million. In addition to the $6 million loan, there will be other funding sources. A total of $12.74 million will come from federal low-income housing tax credits, $3.67 million from the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority, $158,000 from energy rebates, and $297,000 from a deferred developer fee.

Branford-based Westmount Management, doing business as Colony Residences LLC, is the project developer. The company is working closely with the Meriden Housing Authority, as about 25 percent of the housing units will be replacement units for Mills Memorial Apartments. MHA Executive Director Robert Cappelletti and Westmount Management Director Rick Ross could not be reached for comment Friday. Read more

Can Silicon Valley’s car addiction be broken? 7 ways urbanists want to improve transit

Lauren Hepler | Silicon Valley Business Journal

Between Silicon Valley’s beautiful weather, the region’s concentration of small cities and the Bay Area’s stereotypically “green” values, Santa Clara County theoretically has everything it needs to be a model for public transit.

Screen shot 2014 07 23 at 1
A new report by Bay Area urban planning group SPUR offers seven potential ways to diversify transportation options in car-dependent Silicon Valley.

In reality, however, just 3 percent of workers in the county commute to work using public transit, according to a new report by urban planning group SPUR. In addition to a trove of data on traffic, the report offered seven strategies to drive up the proportion of area workers ditching their cars to commute. The proposals are outlined in full at the bottom of this story. (And the very last one may be the most provocative.)

SPUR addressed its suggestions to the Valley Transportation Authority, or VTA, which orchestrates everything from buses to light rail to new highways. The report also adds a sense of urgency: Santa Clara County’s population is is expected to grow by 641,000 residents by 2040 — a 36 percent increase that could yield much more gridlock and pollution.

To implement the goals outlined below, however, VTA and groups like SPUR will run up against entrenched obstacles. Suburban land-use patterns have developed over the last half-century, and the region’s mismatch between where the jobs are and where people live ( illustrated in this dynamic Silicon Valley traffic map) contribute to long commutes. There’s also a lack of dedicated funding for big transit upgrades.

Perhaps most difficult to overcome, however, is the sentiment that urbanized, walkable, transit-oriented development is more planning pipe dream than viable market opening.

“The idea that we as Americans are going to pedestrian shop is a romantic notion,” Randol Mackley, senior vice president of SRS Real Estate Partners, told me earlier this year. “No one is going to buy a big screen TV and put it in a hemp tote and get on light rail.”

SPUR acknowledges the challenge and urges targeted, incremental change:

1. Build efficient public transit hubs

Entire swaths of Silicon Valley are dominated by sprawling, fragmented office parks and commercial strips that are far from ideal for centralized public transit. SPUR urges VTA to focus on improving transit in areas where buses and light rail have already provided an infrastructure backbone.

Specifically, the group calls for a focus on making ride times to popular destinations “competitive with car trips,” targeted investment in highly trafficked areas and “first and last-mile” solutions to link riders between transit stations and their final destinations.

2. Think beyond buses and light rail

Ride-sharing startups, mini shuttles for commuters and designated “car-light corridors” in areas with good walkability and access to public transit are three areas that SPUR suggests VTA might consider to diversify transportation options. Big Data also opens new possibilities, should VTA move to provide more realtime information for riders or look at new long-term planning options.

And then there’s the underlying need to better marry the transit options the region already has: “VTA’s services should have easy physical connections to one another and to services like Caltrain or BART. An effort should also be made to integrate operation schedules or hours of service,” SPUR notes.

3. Stop building new roads

Although Santa Clara County is currently studying new ways to ease traffic by building out area expressways, SPUR is on a very different page, asking VTA to stop “default(ing) to building new roads.” Retrofitting existing roads to better accommodate biking and walking is one alternative that could be paired with planning efforts to discourage reliance on cars when building new projects.

The group adds that, “There is not enough funding to maintain all the roads in the county, and current road pavement conditions are generally poor.”

4. Develop near transit

Since VTA owns portions of land around various transit stations, SPUR urges the agency to work with employers and cities to draft broader plans for transit hubs, rather than relying on fragmented development projects. Landing a few “large institutions or employers” around transit systems — like universities, well-known businesses or government agencies — could also help build critical mass and prove that transit-oriented development can be feasible.

Still, SPUR tips its hat to the complexities of working with private developers, saying “When market realities don’t allow for the suitable joint development for a station area, VTA and local partners can explore creative solutions or seek funding together.”

5. Set transit goals … and then meet them

Regional coherence in land-use planning has always been elusive in Silicon Valley, which is chopped up into a couple dozen small cities in the South Bay and Peninsula.

SPUR suggests new ways of measuring progress on transit planning, focusing on variables like per capita car ownership and lower annual household expenditures on transportation. Beyond that, the group asks VTA to put its money behind targeted public transit fixes instead of highways.

6. Listen to the public, don’t stagn ate

“Innovation” is basically a meaningless Silicon Valley buzzword at this point, but SPUR insists that a group within VTA focused on researching and honing creative transit plans would be worthwhile — not dissimilar to the private sector’s “intrapreneurship” trend where small teams push for more innovation within big companies.

To that end, the report also points out that VTA could better engage huge area employers and universities that could make use of their services.

7. Find more funding — somehow

In what might be the most controversial recommendation in the SPUR report, the urban planning group floats “user fees to rebalance funding to travel modes other than cars” — which, in general, means charging drivers to fund public transit. Similarly, the group proposes additional impact fees for developers building new car-centric projects.

More broadly, tax hikes for the general public could also help fund transportation projects like the extension of Bay Area Rapid Transit, as the Silicon Valley Leadership Group has proposed for a 2016 ballot initiative to increase sales tax.

Upgraded WiFi Coming to All MBTA Commuter Trains, Boats and 3 Key Stations

Nate Boroyan | City News

An upgraded WiFi system is set to expand coverage to all MBTA commuter rail lines, ferry boats and three of Boston’s busiest stations. But T-riders might have to wait until early-2016 to enjoy it.

MBTA General Manager Bev Scott dotted the line of a 22-year licensing agreement with inMOTION Wireless, Inc Thursday morning. Under the agreement, inMOTION will install a new $5.6 million WiFi system across all 14 commuter rail lines and extend connectivity to commuter boats and South, North and Back Bay Stations.

“This is a very exciting time for our Commuter Rail system,” said Scott in statement. “While the introduction of new locomotives and new coaches will continue to improve on-time performance rates, customer service initiatives like WiFi and eTicketing make the overall commuting experience an even better one.”

Installation work is expected to start this fall, and the full system is expected to go live within 18 months time. inMOTION Wireless will cover the entire bill, leaving the T and its customers off the hook.

inMOTION Wireless will install, operate and maintain the WiFi network on all passenger coaches and ferry boats. When activated, T-riders will have access to free WiFi and a live television feed. For $15 per month, T-riders will be able access a premium WiFi service, which will allow for data and video streaming.

The new agreement stipulates the T receive 7.5 percent of net revenue collected from the WiFi program.

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