Sunday, December 27, 2009

Old Ways Are Sometimes The Best Ways

I am not so simple as to think that the City of Lexington could fund a demonstration scale streetcar line, along the lines of Cincinnati or Charlotte, as a public project. In these uncertain economic times, I am not sure how any city can initiate these kinds of projects.

I have read the history of the streetcar system of the early 20th Century where the mule cars and eventually the electric powered cars operated by franchise within the street rights of way. This is the same method employed by the local utility companies today. They(the utilities) own the transmission facilities, the poles, the wires, the pipes and all, and pay for the privilege to use the public street space. Lexington's first streetcars were owned by a corporation which traded shares either publicly or privately, just like the utilities of today. Can someone tell me why this scenario would not work in this day and time?

In a day when a billionaire like Warren Buffet will buy a railroad, European rail companies are expanding into the U.S. and the President of the United States is pushing rail transportation services of all kinds, why cannot someone form a corporation to build streetcar systems for cities?

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Stakeholders vs. Shareholders

Is it just me, or are some of you also aware of the increasing number of street lights that are NOT lit at night. With the winter solstice now past us and a long, cloudy winter ahead, do we need to be driving around town with fewer streetlights to guide our way?

I was out the other night, driving along the older section of New Circle Rd. and realized that just about every other light pole was dark. I can now see why pedestrians take their lives in their hands in trying to cross this road at night. But worse than this is the outages in some of the older neighborhoods where, sometimes, two or three lights in a row are out. Or obscured by tree limbs, both summer and winter.

You do know that we the citizen taxpayers DO pay for these streetlights, whether they are on or not. Streetlights are a service that we are taxed for and KU is paid to provide, yet they are fairly lax in monitoring just what they provide.

Kentucky Utilities does have a page on their website that allows you to report a service outage. They take your name and address, your phone number AND your E-mail address(all are required) , then they want as detailed a description or address as possible of the outage. Yeah, right. I got all that while driving along at 45 MPH and dodging the other drivers on the road. I guess I shouldn't be doing this on an Iphone without pulling over. I wonder if they will call or e-mail me when they get the light repaired.

I see where KU can check to see if your air conditioning unit is overworking and will help you cycle it of during periods of maximum power generation, yet they cannot see the usage drop on their separate streetlight circuits. Maybe streetlight repair is one of those tasks which draws needed manpower from ice storm and other tree trimming tasks along the distribution routes. The utility companies have not fared well lately when it comes to any kind of storm damage repair.

The Kentucky Public Service Commission recently released a report on the responses of the states utilities to two natural disasters, Ike in late 2008 and the ice storm of 2009. To some extent, the utilities were exonerated due to the severity of the ice storm but it is pointed out that much more could be done to clear tree limbs from power lines during the summer months. Our latest December snowstorm in southeastern Kentucky has led the Judge Excutive of Letcher County to take the local utility to the Grand Jury over their handling of clearing the power lines and the restoration of electricity. And how will all of this play into the call for underground placement of utilities and power lines?

So how might all of this fit into the idea of a "smart grid" for the state of Kentucky? Will a "smart grid" replace the current grid, which we can't seem to make work well enough to please our existing customers? I was told, several years ago, that a major impediment to economic development is an insufficient power grid to go along with our transportation services. Will a "smart grid" be able to handle a complete switch to electric autos?(will our economy be able to do the same?)

The utility companies keep asking us to conserve(and from the people that I have talked to, many of us are) yet the bills keep going up. Services seem to be getting less and response times are taking longer. The last time I had to call for an power outage, the crew arrived from a community 30 miles distant and had no knowledge of the local layout or even where they were. When I called about a questionable water meter reading, I was told to request a "self administered" leak detection kit. If I am doing the work, what are the charging a service call fee for?

It is not the service person, I am sure that it is for the shareholder.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Look Local, But Not Too Local

I guess this goes to show that you just can"t find everything locally. A friend alerted me to this tidbit of information.
Rep. Ben Chandler, D-6th District, designated $2.5 million for foreign language programs in the Fayette County schools.

He also got $500,000 for the construction of a trail system in the Lexington area; $334,000 for the construction of a facility in Frankfort that will centralize all administrative services of the Kentucky National Guard; $325,000 for a domestic violence program in Lexington; and $300,000 for a study of mass transit alternatives in Central Kentucky, including light rail.
It comes from the Louisville Courier-Journal and was posted sometime Sunday evening after the final Senate vote. It was buried, way down at the bottom, but I would expect that from the Louisville paper. I cannot find it anywhere on the Lexington Herald Leader site nor do I remember seeing it in print. Not in print anywhere in Lexington.

Our 6th District Congressman, Ben Chandler has come through for us again in this funding bill.
  • $2.5 million for the foreign language programs in Lexington.
This is good. I can support this, and not just because my guys went through the Spanish program at Maxwell. I think that we are going to need to understand our foreign visitors while we still have them. It may also help with some of our more recent additions.
  • $.5 million to build a trail system
Not just any trail system, a multi-use system for walkers and cyclists. A system that connects our neighborhoods to the parks and schools nearby. If we can't get our developers to make the connections, then I'm glad that the Federal Government will help.
  • $.3+ million for a building to house the administrative services of the Kentucky National Guard.
We need to help out the guys in uniform if we are going to use them so much. GO GUARD.
  • $.3 million for a domestic violence program.
This is a violence PREVENTION program I am sure. We really don't need any more violence than we currently have.

Then, here we go, right here at the bottom. One of my passions(you know this if you have read me any time at all) is some money for transit.
  • $300,000 for the study of Central Kentucky mass transit. INCLUDING LIGHT RAIL
Right off the bat, I am not sure that $300,000 would do that much of a study. Then I wonder, who is going to do the study? Lextran? Oh I hope not, they don't cover enough of Central Kentucky. The MPO? I don't think so, I have not seen that much interest in regional transit or light rail from them. Bluegrass ADD? Tell me that is not right. We might as well give the money back for the kind of study that we would receive there.

Can we get Rep.Chandler, Gov. Brashear and Dr Dan Mongiardo together and make sure that this get done right? And maybe we can get a little press about it this time.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Some Of The Work Ahead For Lextran

Here is a quote for the day.
For the bulk of the day, and on quieter routes, the average city bus usually undoes whatever efficiencies are gained during the few hours a day, on the few routes, where transit is at its peak.
Unfortunately, this is how many people think of Lexington's transit system. The many times that we see these buses, moments when we can take the time to estimate the current ridership, they are nearing the ends of their respective runs, either downtown or out in the suburban areas. And, as the quote says, during the "off peak" hours.

To all of the above, I can agree. Yet all of the above points out, to me, the need for Lextran to alter its thinking on some of the "off peak" routes and maybe all of its routes in general.

The current thinking for all routes appears to be "to get people from home to work". To that end all routes NEED to run from residential clusters, past job locations(shopping optional), past transfer opportunities, to residential clusters in order to start the cycle again. In this scenario, one can live at either end of the route and avail ones self to multiple instances of the middle opportunities. This seems to be very efficient, or would be if EVERYONE worked shift work or flexible hours.

Then there is this need for the destinations that are different than work/shopping and home. Destinations that are not ON a Lextran route. These are parks, schools and other special interest locations and may include some of the smaller shopping areas. Places that people also go to, in the middle of the day.

All in all, Lextran's system is less than efficient and it may not qualify for being "green". But is it less "green" than the mass of private vehicles plying the roads of Central Kentucky?

The personal auto may be proven to consume far fewer BTUs per passenger mile than transit vehicles, as per an article in the Vancouver Sun, but a majority of these said autos will be daily traveling nearly three times the distance of transit.

Adding to that, the yearly cost of ownership of personal autos which, on average, are used only 5% of the time. The other 95% is spent in some sort of storage, a garage, a parking lot or on the street, and the cost of maintaining said space should be factored into the expense ratios to transit.

Considering the environmental, economic and land use factors involved, Lextran has a great deal of work to do in order to become as efficient as they can be.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Business Lexington and Urban Grocers

I am glad to see that Business Lexington has posted a link to the story about Urban Grocers from the New Urban News. I am even more thrilled that the first comments come from Phil Holoubek, one of the main players in attracting such an entity to Lexington. Mr Holoubek cites the three reasons given as to why the grocers have rejected the locations so far proposed to them.

His number one reason is the income levels of the population around downtown. This is and has been a problem since Lexington began growing in the mid '50, that is the 1850s. Those Lexingtonians with money, bought and built on what were called the "out" lots of the original town plat. They moved away from the squalor and congestion of the, then, "inner" city. This also happened on the south side of town on, estates known as Aylesford and Woodland.

These home places attracted other thriving businessmen as they were developed as subdivisions in the 19th century. And then gave way to lower and lower income levels as the wealthy and thriving businessmen continued to go farther and farther out of downtown. The households were replaced by offices, apartments and even a pair of growing universities that went along with an expanding downtown. All of this brought a decline in income despite the few pockets of upper income residents that remain.

My solution to this would require a change of attitude in both the retailers and the urban shoppers. One cannot come without the other.

A downtown resident and shopper should realize that he/she does not need to purchase everything at one store, or at the same time. One also need not shop for the entire week at this one time. One stop shopping is a myth that was told by the strip shopping center developers, expanded upon by the mall developers and then the"big box" retail developers.(This trend is slowly reversing itself with the rise of "lifestyle centers")

Downtown retailers should return to the style of having a multitude of storefronts and each having a separate speciality niche. That is not to say that someone like Kroger could not have a location downtown, but try to envision one of their Marketplace models where each section would have an individual outside entrance. All deliveries could be made from the rear and parking(should it be needed) as a garage level above the main retail level. A few levels of residential apartments/condos above that(to insulate them from street level noise) and you have built in demand with convenience. Two hundred and fifty thousand square foot footprint and a whole new way of living for Lexington's downtown dwellers.

The previous solution may also play a part in the second of the retailers reasons, the lack of rooftops( i.e. dwelling units). The Lex is currently building a model that could go a long way toward proving, or disproving, the above solution. Their residential concentration and that of others nearby, along with the planned residential of the Bolivar extension(aka. Newtown Pike), despite being mainly student population, may support an urban grocery.

The third, and last, reason is certainly one whose time has come. It may have been a mistake to make them a one way couplet in the first place, but the handwriting has been on the wall for a while. In that they were the last to be made one way streets, I fear that they will also be the last to revert back.

Mr Holoubek also mentions his collaborations with Steve Austin and the thoughts they have on other cities. Perhaps it would be nice to sit down with them some time and pick their brains for a while. But that is a thought for another day.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Mongiardo's 21st Century Public Transit Plan for KY

The Mongiardo camp has responded to last night's entry and is apparently willing to arrange a time for a presentation sometime after the first of the year.
...we have read your post regarding Lt. Governor Mongiardo's 21st Century Public Transit Plan for KY.

Daniel is interested in presenting his proposal to you and anyone else in Lex who are interested in public transportation and answering any questions you may have. ...

We may have to wait until after the Holidays due to fact his schedule is already pretty much set for the next 2 weeks - but he is definately interested in listening to your ideas and those of other folks interested in the issue.

Kim Geveden
Mongiardo U.S. Senate Campaign
Now I have a dilemma. This is my forum, my place to present myself and invite comments. So far there has been little dialogue and no face-to-face meetings. I now need to find a suitable location where we could either host Dr. Mongiardo's presentation or join a larger group to do so. I am exploring some other group options and am willing to entertain any of your suggestions. Hopefully we can keep the number over 25 or so.

Monday, December 7, 2009

What Does Mongiardio Think Of Lexington Transit

I don't endorse any candidate for office on this blog.

That is not its purpose, but I do bring some of their speaking points to the fore and would hope that they will pick up on some of the points that I bring up.

Last Thursday US Senate candidate Dr. Dan Mongiardo addressed a group of public transportation advocates at Louisville's Union Station. There he unveiled a plan for Louisville's multi-modal public transit system that his web site calls "very detailed". As a candidate running for state wide office, I hope that this is not his only public transit plan, or that this just his endorsement of someone's plan that he can really get behind. And particularly, can this plan be adapted for Lexington?

What really got my attention was the plan for a renewal of state-wide PASSENGER rail travel, see here. This plan does not seem as detailed, but this is more of what I think that a US Senator should doing for his state. Our two current Senators have done more than enough to try and kill what little rail travel( freight or passenger) remains in this state.

I am bringing this to your attention so that, if you are interested in public transportation as I am, we can find a way to get more details in the form of a presentation to some of our folks. So Dr. Dan, if you are reading this, will you give us a chance to get behind your passenger rail plan? Will you give us in Lexington a little help with our transit planning and keep some our tax dollars here in the state?

Is there someone else out there who has any better ideas? Let me know.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Will We Miss Out On The Money?

Is anybody here aware that the US Department of Transportation has $1.5 billion in ARRA funds available. These funds are multimodal discretionary funds, also known as TIGER grants, and are part of the stimulus package passed earlier this year. There is a small catch, this funding is to be used to support livable cities.

The criteria used to evaluate the projects that request this funding have livability right up at the top, along with safety and economic competitiveness. All we need now is the true meaning of "livability" or at least in the minds of DOT.

The deputy assistant secretary for transportation policy, Beth Osborne, gives the description as focused on mixed use, walkable neighborhoods, and pedestrian access to transit, jobs, stores, schools, and other public buildings. US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s definition is, “Livability means a community where you can take kids to school, go to work, see a doctor, go to the grocery store, have dinner and a movie, and play with your kids in a park, all without having to get into a car.” It is also felt that DOT will likely request funding for a livable communities program in the next surface transportation re-authorization

Any one of you who have read my last two entries will realize that I do not believe that Lexington would meet these criteria. Although our city officials have talked of it, I don't think that there has been near enough progress to say that we are moving into being a "livable city". There is so much more that we could be doing but we still come up short. We keep waiting for someone else to make the first move.

Earlier this year a Partnership for Sustainable Communities was formed in a collaboration involving, DOT, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Their aim, under the Obama administration, is to promote sustainable and livable cities.

HUD’s 2010 budget calls for $100 million for sustainable communities planning grants and $40 million for community challenge grants that could be used for zoning reform and other implementation tools for smart growth. How much of that will be looked at or requested by our administration?

While Lexington has not been hit as hard by the foreclosure crisis as others, HUD studies have shown that neighborhoods with a higher livability rating have a lower foreclosure rate. Can you imagine how we could have fared, had we been more transit and pedestrian oriented?

One last tidbit, it is estimated that if the US shifted just 10 percent of new housing starts to smarter growth development over the next 10 years, Americans would save about 5 billion gallons of gasoline and about $220 billion in household transportation expenses.

How much of that could be your share?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Thoughts On Lextran

A friend and I were talking the other day about some of the deficiencies of Lextran's service.

I have felt for a long time that there is not enough co-ordination between our downtown events and enabling our residents to attend via transit. He, on the other hand, was speaking about getting to some of our recreation areas(parks, etc...) and back by bus. This led us to consult a Lextran route map to test or confirm our thoughts and the most current one, we thought, would be online at their website.

I have been working with maps, particularly those of Lexington, for nearly 4 decades and I know my way around a map, but this one is a travesty. It would be bad enough if it gave no information to the reader but this one give out bad information-VERY BAD INFORMATION. I hope that they do something about it soon.

First, my friend asked about being able to take the bus to the park. This would obviously be a community park like Jacobson or Shillito, as the local parks are generally within walking distance of ones house, but the community parks are where Lexington has their larger get together's and widely advertised functions. Can someone ride the bus to the pool in the summer, without walking several blocks? Can we take the kids to Jacobson Park, to Kitefest, for the afternoon by bus? We can get to work, we can go shopping, but we can't go somewhere to relax-by bus.

Next, we looked at getting to school, by this I mean middle or high school. (I think that middle schooler's are able to use the public transportation to get home after school.) All of the high schools ARE on bus routes, but the middle schools are usually at least a block or two from a route.

And finally we talked about the city's continued efforts to have events downtown, sometimes in locations that severely disrupt Lextran's operations. Yet even if they did not pose any problem, there is no advertisement of park and ride to the event or shuttle trips from outlying lots for better attendance. From downtown to UK ballgames, yes, to the Art Fair, yes, from Beaumont or Hamburg for the Second Sunday, not a peep.

These are things that I think are reinforcing the public's impression that transit service is not a viable method of travel in Lexington. That "When they make it easier, then I will ride but right now, nobody is riding it" attitude is alive and well, and being fed by Lextran.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Case For Urban Grocery's

The New Urban News has an article posted about the rise in downtown urban grocers. Something that is happening mostly in the larger cities and places that understand the meaning of density. Washington DC has ten in the building or planning stage currently. Lexington has at least one in the wishing stage.

Urban-format grocery stores are built mostly in transit-served, walkable neighborhoods — often where new urban development is taking place according to one of architects involved with three of the DC stores. I guess that leaves Lexington out in the cold, as we have a dearth of walkable transit served neighborhoods. The closest that we would come is the Kroger on Romany(it lacks the transit) or the Kroger on Euclid(it needs to be up on the sidewalk and lose some of the parking).

Urban-format stores are also characterized by having the parking being reduced and placed below or above the store — or in the interior of the block. Lexington has nothing remotely like this scenario, nor does there appear to be a chance to have one. Such stores usually have street facing retail flanking either or both sides to give activity and avoid a blank wall to the pedestrians or passing traffic.

At least one entrance to an urban-format store must open to a quality urban environment. and usually there are two. One will face the active street scene and the other will lead to the parking. Suburban style developments will have all entrances leading to parking and be some distance from the street. One again, Lexington seems to be sorely lacking in this type of retail.
Until recently, supermarket chains focused primarily on the suburbs. The business model involved rolling out the same store with parking in front, again and again. When supermarkets did build in cities, they plunked down the same suburban box whenever possible. This approach worked as long as new growth was taking place primarily in the suburbs and the cities languished.

New Urban News
Safeway is one of North America’s largest supermarket chains with more than 1,700 stores is changing their urban strategy. “We are definitely focusing on stores in our urban core and will not be building stores in urban areas that are growth dependent,” says Craig Muckle. Kroger, a much larger chain and currently adding fuel centers and Marketplace big-box locations in Lexington, cannot be oblivious to this emerging situation but they don't show any evidence of jumping on the band wagon. On the other hand, Whole Foods pioneered this movement in the mid 1990s, just as there was the beginnings of a resurgence in downtown living.

Since an urban-format grocery is generally placed in a higher income area and walkable/transit enabled neighborhoods our Lexington residents will need to rearrange their priorities and actually move downtown before the stores will consider building there. The mindset of the shopper at an urban-format store is different, people often shop daily at urban stores instead of weekly, and purchase less food per visit. Less food per visit + a walkable neighborhood = less parking required per store. Also, fresher more wholesome food and less storage space in the kitchen or pantry.

So, our question now is, can our Lexington residents request, demand or encourage:
  • more walkable neighborhoods,
  • more transit-oriented development,
  • more downtown density,
  • less of what has been proven to be unsustainable and
  • progressive design for our city
I guess that we will see.

UK Blue To Go Green

The University of Kentucky is going to cut their utility bills. This should be great news for the Commonwealth and will probably be another financial burden for Lexington residents.

The University's Board of Trustees has voted to approve a $25 million energy savings performance contract in order to slice about $5 million from their annual utility bills. That would include approximately $2 million in savings in their coal fired electricity usage and that after they showed their support for all of those coal operators of eastern Ky.

One of the ways proposed for implementing the savings is what is called "behavioral modification." This is the same tactic used in clearing the air around campus by eliminating smoking from the entire campus, indoors and out. If you are going to smoke, take it off campus. Just like you did with drinking and partying. After four years of education these students will not be the smoking, drinking, partying animals they came here to be.

Another way of saving on utility bills is the installation of new plumbing facilities. Probably the "low flow" type that will trim their water usage and their sanitary sewer user fee. This will then cause the fee structure to be recomputed for the surrounding residential areas, compounding the existing neighborhood problems that we have seen lately.

What I see missing from this contract is the University making an effort to either reclaim energy from the normal loss points or to capture any solar or wind energy that is readily available on the campus proper. How many of their large flat roofed building are capable of handling solar panels and which of their campus breezeways could be fitted with mini wind generators?

This contract is only the first phase of what they say is an ongoing effort. We will see.