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Commentary: A way to fund much-needed public transportation improvements

By George H. Miller
Monday, September 6, 2010; 15

The ongoing budget problems at Metro illustrate the need for Congress to pass the Public Transportation Preservation Act, which would provide $2 billion in emergency operating funds to beleaguered transportation agencies forced to raise fares or cut service to close budget gaps caused by the recession. A healthy Metro is essential, given the fundamental shift from a suburban sprawl model that has fueled much of the American housing market growth for the past half century to transit-oriented development (TOD).

Once viewed by many cities as cost prohibitive, public transit has become an economic imperative and growth catalyst, as America continues to urbanize and cities discover a limit to the roads, highways and parking structures they can build and maintain. As more young professionals and even senior citizens opt for living closer to transit hubs and access, TOD has become part of the vernacular in the mainstream policy debates here in Washington and across America.

In the D.C. region, projections by the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University indicate that the area's population could jump by as much as 1.7 million by 2030, making up 694,000 new households. To meet that projection, the center estimates, a record 35,000 new housing units must be built annually for 20 years. For many of those residents, transit will be a necessity.

Indeed, a 2007 market study by the Center for Transit-Oriented Development found that in 2000, about 246,000 households in the Washington region lived within walking distance of transit. By 2030, the study forecast, the number could soar to 689,000.

Still, a mass transit system is not complete without attention to development around it. That's where the design expertise of architects matters.

Locally, the city of Alexandria recently asked David Dixon, a colleague of mine at the Boston firm of Goody Clancy, to work with the community around the Braddock Road Metro station to develop a plan that demonstrates the wide range of options connecting transit to development. The result was that the community supported significant increases in residential and office densities within a five-minute walk to the Metro station because studies showed that development near transit stations did not generate significant new traffic.

The community chose to tap into the value this development would create to transform public housing into mixed-income housing with sufficient density to still accommodate existing residents, create a new retail-lined public square fronting the Metro station, convert a post office distribution facility into a new neighborhood park and add trees and public amenities to promote walking to the Metro station. The region will need many more projects like this around Metro stations if we are to avoid an onslaught of car traffic.

A recent report from the American Institute of Architects and partner organizations documents the irrational patchwork of credits and handouts in our tax code that support cheap, sprawling and disposable buildings. The last authorization bill, in 2005, continued 1960s thinking in unnecessarily expanding our highway system.

But we can still right our course. Congress can vote to support the Public Transportation Preservation Act, introduced by Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), before the November elections..

Local officials have an obligation to plan communities that meet the changing needs of their populations. Improving the mass transit system is the answer -- not building more highway guardrails.

George H. Miller is president of the Washington-based American Institute of Architects.

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