Category Archives: Op Ed

Anne Arundel can escape its growth Ponzi scheme

Appearing in The Capital, September 18, 2016

Anne Arundel County has been fortunate over the years to have steady economic opportunities, due in part to our location near large metropolitan areas as well as a strong federal and state job base. These economic opportunities, along with a rich history, quaint historic areas and miles of coastline on the Chesapeake Bay make Anne Arundel an attractive place to live.

County residents want significant limits on growth to maintain their quality of life. They also insist on high-quality services like roads, public safety and education — along with low taxes. In the short term, the county can attempt to solicit more money from the state and federal governments, borrow more and promote land development to increase the tax base. But the federal and state governments have their own fiscal problems, and so are contributing less. Borrowing, such as with the recent lengthening of bond terms, has a limited effect. This leaves growth as the primary tool for raising the needed revenue.

Growth in and of itself is not bad. When done in a long-term, fiscally sustainable manner, growth builds wealth for residents, business and the county. The 2009 General Development Plan discusses balancing land use, growth and fiscal policies, but much of the development in the county continues to be auto-centric, even in the targeted growth areas like Parole and Odenton.

We often forget that auto-centric suburban development is an experiment that has never been tried anywhere before. We assume it is the natural order of things because it is what we see all around, and in our collective psyche is the “American dream,” a non-negotiable way of life that must be maintained at all costs. But it is only in the last two generations that we have scaled places to the automobile. What we are finding is that the underlying financing mechanisms of the suburban era operate like a classic Ponzi scheme, with ever-increasing rates of growth necessary to sustain long-term liabilities.

The root of the problem is that auto-centric development, in which residential and commercial areas are widely separated, requires tremendous amounts of land as well as infrastructure that is costly to build and maintain, while yielding very low tax revenue per acre. As long as strong growth continues and new revenue is generated to cover the short-term costs, we have the illusion of wealth because we are delaying infrastructure maintenance and personnel costs. This is the current state of Anne Arundel County.

Even with robust growth, we are starting to see the effects of these long term-liabilities, as indicated in the General Development Plan:

“Over the years, due to rising construction costs and other factors, the county has struggled to keep pace with the ongoing demand for maintenance, renovation and rehabilitation, and replacement of existing infrastructure and facilities that have been in place to serve the existing population and employment base.”

For citizens, this is most visible in the roads and traffic resulting from this development pattern. We cannot build our way out of congestion — we don’t have the land and most certainly don’t have the money. Yet we continue to promote development that virtually requires the use of an automobile.

The General Development Plan has goals, policies and actions to produce fiscally productive development, yet our specific regulations that developers must follow still produce the same patterns: greatly separated residential and commercial areas; big, dangerous roads; throwaway strip malls and parking lots. All this requires lots of driving. And it does not generate enough tax revenue to maintain the required infrastructure. We need to change these regulations to return to a traditional pattern of development in which neighborhoods are at a human scale with appropriate mixed use — places where people can walk or bike for many of their daily needs — while having viable transit options to connect these neighborhoods with the Baltimore and Washington metropolitan areas. There are still many places like this remaining in the country, such as the suburbs built before World War II. We should be emulating them for a fiscally sustainable future.

This essay was part of Becoming the best is a series of essays exploring the question of what it would take to make Annapolis and Anne Arundel County “the best.”

On Paint and Historic Preservation

The heat is increasing in the dispute between the City of Annapolis Historic Preservation Commission and property owners/artists in the”Arts District” (inner West Street). Good background can be found in articles in The Capital here, here and here. I am certainly not against historic preservation and it has been good for the city, but when it gets to the point of micromanaging (witness the past tussle over fiberglass columns), the balance has shifted too far. The city would be far better served with efforts like a form based code that dictates the general form – which we all love so much and which will last for a long time – instead of the minutia like paint color/design which can be very ephemeral. The City needs to concentrate on more important things. I think my paraphrase of Justice Potter Stewart’s infamous comment about pornography is à propos.

Time Lapse – Tsunami Mural Annapolis, MD from Power Play Creations on Vimeo.

——————-
Dear Mr. Mayor, Members of the City Council and Interested Parties-

I have been following with great interest the debate between property owners and the Historic Preservation Commission concerning whether paint color/design is within the purview of the Commission to regulate. While I understand and appreciate the hard work the Commission has done over the years to keep the town’s historic nature intact, I find the recent issue and potential litigation over the Tsunami mural distasteful at best and a waste of the city’s resources at worst.

Clearly the rules as written are ambiguous and in the words of Justice Potter Stewart in Jacobellis v. Ohio, paraphrased to whether murals of this sort are “architectural alteration”:

“…I know it when I see it, and the mural involved in this case is not that.”

With all of the problems the City has, especially vis-a-vis the budget, this seems to be a complete waste of time and money. Not only that, additional hurdles to utilization and revitalization of the numerous empty properties downtown are the last thing the city needs. Let’s concentrate on problems that really matter.

Why I Ride A Bike

A shorter version also appeared as an Op Ed column in The Capital on May 11, 2016.

Aerial view of Annapolis, Maryland

Aerial view of Annapolis, Maryland (Library of Congress)

Let me get this out of the way: I am a bike guy. I love bikes, all kinds – transportation bikes, off road bikes, racing bikes and classic bikes.

But that’s not why I ride a bike for transportation.

I currently reside in Annapolis, the capital city of Maryland, a smallish city of about 40,000 people. The dominant view of cycling here is that it is an athletic or recreational endeavor. You know, “put the bike on the car and drive somewhere to ride”. However, Annapolis is ideal for getting around by bike. It’s compact, only eight square miles, and you can pretty much get to any part of the city and even the surrounding areas that are experiencing a lot of urbanized growth with a flat two or three mile bike ride.

Annapolis Map

Annapolis is very compact.

This is easily within the ability of most people. I ride my 1972 Schwinn around town because it’s a convenient and economical mode of transportation to accomplish my daily business of getting to the DC commuter bus stop for work, shopping, and socializing around town. But there are too few of us and we often feel like lone voices in the wilderness. Thankfully, many cities around the world and a growing number of cities in the U.S. are proving that bicycles can easily be a part of a modern transportation system. What’s missing here to make transportation cycling appealing for more than just the “Strong and Fearless” – or those who have no other choice – are the connecting off-road paths and bike lanes called for in the city’s excellent, but mostly ignored, bicycle master plan.

Bikes are cheap and save money. Despite this area having a very high median income, many residents in the city pay a disproportionally large portion of their income to own and operate a car, never mind multiple cars. Using a bike for around town trips can easily decrease the number of vehicles a family needs to have and saves wear and tear by using the car only for those trips that require it. Riding a bike for my daily needs saves thousands of dollars per year in my family budget. Relatively inexpensive bikes can easily haul a surprisingly large amount of stuff, require very little maintenance and avoid the city parking costs. And, bike riding if viewed as something regular people do, provides equity of access to our streets as Bike Law’s Peter Wilborn writes about in Charleston SC.

Bike towing a moth sailboat.

Yes, bikes can do real work. Extracycle makes great hauling bikes (I do not own one or have any financial interest in the company) and some awesomeness from a local Moth sailor.

Bikes are cheap for the city, too. A lot of the auto-based traffic here is short trips around town, which can easily be done on bikes. The city is geographically constrained by two rivers and the Chesapeake Bay and as a result land is extremely valuable. While the city is in reasonable fiscal shape overall, it has neither the means nor the land to widen roads for more cars. Development is a hot topic here, and the general opinion is we need to lock the door in the Party Analogy. It inevitably conjures the traffic “boogeyman” as the assumption is that an additional person equates to an addition car. But, it doesn’t have to be that way. There are many small bike projects the city could do that would have a high return on investment in mobility. We often hear that Annapolis is not affordable. With a good cycling infrastructure, we can support additional development and can attract younger people who will likely choose bikes for a significant portion of their transportation needs. It doesn’t take much of a shift to bikes to have a large effect on traffic congestion and amount of needed parking.

And finally, there has been a lot of discussion recently in various forums here about rampant speeding in the city. I believe much of this occurs because people spend so much time in their cars in traffic that they have become chronically frustrated, often expressing that frustration as impatience or even road rage towards other drivers, walkers and bike riders. Spending time on the other side of the windshield brings the perspective of non-drivers into clear focus. Everyday riding makes me appreciate the luxury when I do use the car, especially if the weather is bad or I am tired. As a result, I am much more relaxed and courteous behind the wheel when I drive.

May is National Bike Month and we should celebrate transportation cycling. If you are a recreational rider, throw a basket on your bike and make a few trips to the store; if you haven’t ridden in a bike in a while, dust off that bike in your garage or grab an old beater from Craigslist and give it a try. The more people ride, the safer it is for everyone and the more apparent it will become to city governments that bikes can perform real work.

alex_pline_bike (1)That’s why I ride a bike.

Alex Pline is Chairman of the Annapolis Transportation Board, Vice President of Bicycle Advocates for Annapolis and Anne Arundel County and when he jumps out of a telephone booth in spandex, rides with the Annapolis Bicycle Racing Team.

Guest Column: Thoughts on outer West Street development

Appearing in The Capital, July 28, 2014

While the Chinquapin Round Road, West Street, Admiral Drive intersection needs to be reconfigured for sure, what I am worried about is the drive-through restaurant development discussed in a recent article.

This kind of auto-centric development will continue to reinforce the “highway” nature of outer West Street. This is exactly the wrong direction for the livability of the Homewood/Germantown area.

An auto-centric drive-through restaurant with its suburban strip mall setback, parking lot and access requirements is bad for the area from fiscal, transportation, planning and environmental standpoints. Auto-centric development is terrible for pedestrians and bicyclists, a significant issue for outer West Street because it is the only direct corridor between downtown and Parole.

The “street” nature of inner West Street is clearly popular with consumers and fiscally successful for the businesses and the city. As a result, the city needs to promote that “street” character westward as far as possible.

As the car dealerships wane in the area and other large parcels of land such as the old Whiskey location become available for redevelopment, the city must carefully consider the kind of development it should encourage. Case studies show reducing auto-centric development of roads and buildings benefits residents, municipalities and businesses. For example, an analysis by the nonprofit Strong Towns in Minnesota showed the fiscal productivity (tax revenue to the city) of the traditional main street development pattern versus a strip mall type drive-through restaurant was 30 percent higher (http://bit.ly/1tJGYeP).

Additionally, it shows this traditional pattern is significantly more resilient to economic changes because there are multiple tenants rather than relying on the success of a single business for the same amount of land. New York City published the results of changes to streets that included upgraded pedestrian and bicycle facilities and reduced auto speeds (http://on.nyc.gov/1pRKn8P). These changes resulted in significantly lower injuries to all street users, increases in retail sales and decreases in speeding, outcomes that benefit everyone.

There are a few encouraging signs of the type of redevelopment that should be emulated on this part of the West Street: 1901 West has been successful because it has incorporated “smart growth” ideas of mixed use residential and retail and simultaneously the additional density has not created “carmageddon” as was initially feared. The new commercial development at 1738 West St. also incorporates similar ideas such as the building fronting the street with parking in the back.

The traditional development pattern in these examples creates places that are oriented toward people, not cars, and is what makes places such as inner West Street so wonderful. In fact, these ideas are entirely consistent with the objectives for the Outer West Street Opportunity Area as specified in the Annapolis Comprehensive Plan, while a drive-through restaurant is decidedly not.

Outer West Street is at a crossroads: We can either have an area where people will enjoy living and working like inner West Street or we can slavishly follow auto-centric dogma that is so prevalent in other parts of the county and creates fiscally unproductive and unsafe environments for everyone.

We need to encourage more people-friendly development and convince the State Highway Administration (who owns this part of West Street) that we want a pedestrian/bicycle friendly “street,” not a “highway” as they consider changes due to any development along this corridor. The city should not let the desire to reconfigure the intersection at a developer’s expense result in a step backward for the area.

And, to be explicit, these comments have nothing to do with the purveyor of the food in the proposed development. As long as the development configuration is done in a positive way for the area, throw in a Burger Barn and a Doughnut Dive too.

Guest Column: Annapolis should join the Regional Transportation Agency

Appearing in The Capital, March 21, 2014

By BILL NEVEL AND ALEX PLINE

Both Annapolis and Anne Arundel County are at a crossroads for improving transit in their respective areas with the proposed Regional Transportation Agency.

A regional transit system would put this area on comparable footing with scores of major urban areas in the U.S. We understand County Executive Laura Neuman is very close to signing the agreement, but that Mayor Mike Pantelides has some concerns. We believe these concerns can be overcome and urge both to sign the agreement and join the RTA.

While there are shared reasons for joining the RTA for both the city and county, there are distinct advantages for each. Building on the city’s existing transit system, Annapolis and its transit employees have the opportunity to create the core of a regional system that could provide access to employment centers, schools, libraries, hospitals and other facilities throughout the county and surrounding jurisdictions. For the county, the RTA will provide an entity that has the ability and expertise to tailor public transportation services to support underserved and unserved areas in low density and high density areas.

One of the key service areas is BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport with an Amtrak station and surrounding businesses. Wouldn’t a fare of, for example, $3, be a much better option for employees that work at the airport or Fort George G. Meade/NSA, and for some travelers, than the current $60 plus cab fare from Annapolis? Only a regionally based system will be able to provide this type of service.

Additionally, the 21-member Anne Arundel County Transportation Commission, in its soon to be released report, indicates the county must find alternatives to its auto centric two- and three-car homes and resulting increased congestion on our highways. Quality alternatives need to be offered to reduce the number of single-occupancy vehicles, especially during peak commuting periods. The RTA is part of that solution.

Yes, there are concerns about dealing with other jurisdictions in creating this agency. Howard County’s interest is obviously Howard County and service to its residents. However, Howard County’s rider destinations, just as for riders from Annapolis and Anne Arundel County, don’t end at jurisdictional boundaries. The RTA will require these entities to work together to provide improved and much more attractive transit services that cross these boundaries. We believe this can be accomplished.

The Anne Arundel County Transportation Commission recommends jurisdictions create in advance many of the key terms of the RTA in the Memorandum of Understanding in order to minimize contentious issues for the appointed RTA Commission. The Memorandum of Understanding should establish sufficient safeguards to protect everyone’s interests when creating and operating the RTA. These include equitable appointment of commissioners from each jurisdiction, voting powers, powers to amend the bylaws, and selection and oversight of the contract manager. These safeguards should be spelled out and automatically rolled into the RTA’s bylaws, which can and should be adjusted as the RTA gains experience.

We believe these concerns can be resolved, ultimately resulting in an upgraded, equitable regional transit system with reasonable fares to places people need to go. This is the future of transit in the central Maryland region. If city residents are to have a transit system that connects Annapolis with other employment centers throughout the region to provide mobility and access to jobs, then Annapolis must sign the agreement and begin to work with the transit employees, the union, the transit operator and the other jurisdictions to establish the RTA.

Bill Nevel and Alex Pline were co-chairs of the 2013-2014 Anne Arundel County Transportation Commission.