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MSTIP and TIF

Posted by Peter W on November 27, 2007

I have some ideas about MSTIP and TIF in Washington County, and I’m putting them here for everyone to consider.

MSTIP (Major Streets Transportation “Improvement” Program) is basically a program where the county takes a bunch of property tax money from county residents (regardless of how much you might drive) and builds fatter roads that make it easy for people to continue to drive more and more in our increasingly sprawled out region. TIF (Traffic Impact Fee) funds essentially the same big-road projects, but with a fee developers pay (essentially regardless of how bike/pedestrian friendly–or car unfriendly–the development is).

Now, the County seems to think it is friendly to bicyclists and pedestrians when really it tends to just provide the bare minimum that is required by law (sidewalks and bike lanes). Currently the County is planning to collect $420 million over 6 years and of that, will spend a total of $20 million on ‘special’ projects, including bike, pedestrian, and bridge projects.

The County wants people to believe they are working toward a balanced transportation system, but thats just not true:

You can get anywhere you want to in the County by car – the road system is more than complete (there are even places like 185th in Tanasbourne where you’ve got your choice of as many as 8 lanes). That is hardly true for cycling or walking – there are huge gaps in the bicycle and pedestrian transportation system. There are 211 miles of roads without sidewalks, 46 miles (43%) of county arterials without bike lanes, and 73 miles (96%) of county collectors without bike lanes [1].

Most people would probably agree that the start of a balanced transportation system is having a complete network for all modes of transportation, but when the county puts $400 million to auto-improvement projects and bike/pedestrian projects compete with bridge projects for the remaining $20 million, there is clearly a pro-car bias. At the current rate, it will be almost *70 years* before we have a complete bike/ped network (and by then, all the roads that go anywhere, like 185th, will be so big no one will want to be walking or biking anywhere near them) [2].

I believe that the County’s actions may not be in agreement with their plans. If they were paying attention to their strategy as laid out in the introduction to their 2020 Transportation Plan (below), they’d focus on supporting cycling and walking first, and focus on auto-congestion last:

Most broadly viewed, the Plan’s strategy for meeting future travel
demand is three-tiered:

  • First, Plan policies, strategies, and systems reflect approaches
    that provide and support multiple modes of travel, both to provide
    Washington County residents with travel alternatives and to reduce the
    need to provide additional roadway capacity for auto travel;
  • Second, the Plan includes strategies for transportation system and
    travel demand management, which ensure that the system is operating
    efficiently and that steps are taken to manage and reduce travel
    demand; and
  • Third, to identify system improvements and programs necessary to
    improve system safety and to maintain an acceptable level of service
    for system users.

Also if the “level of service” mentioned in point 3 includes bike/ped or transit level of service, they might find that they’d have a long way to go to improve the “level of service” for non-auto modes.

OK, so something is messed up. What should they do?

1) Change the name. MSTIP should be “Major Surface Transportation Improvement Program” instead of “Major Streets Transportation Improvement Program” to reflect the fact that the program needs to focus on something besides streets that look like highways if they want to serve *all* transportation users.

Change their criteria. Currently their selection criteria for projects is biased towards cars (it’s a point system, and bike/ped/transit projects that don’t also improve conditions for driving are scored less). Instead, they should consider the following criteria:

a) Does the project decrease auto traffic (e.g. Vehicle Miles Traveled)?

By focusing on relieving congestion (instead of traffic, the actual number and distance of trips made), the answer has been to build bigger roads – but by increasing auto capacities and speeds we make it more convenient for people to live further away from where they work, which leads to exactly that: more people living further from where they work (or shop, or eat, or play, for that matter). That in turn leads to more traffic which will eventually bring the level of congestion on the road previously widened to its original level of congestion, requiring yet another expensive road-widening project. All the other roads in the area will be adversely effected in a similar manner, and although the level of congestion returns to its original level, the people who have moved further from their jobs (and newcomers who move into new houses far from their workplaces) will find it even more difficult than before to use alternative modes of transportation (widespread low density development is less likely to support transit, and people are less able to walk or bike the increased distances they must travel).

You cannot build your way out of congestion, but you can work on projects or policies that decrease distances you need to drive and decrease the need to drive.

One very cheap way to reduce lots and lots of trips would be to support Safe Routes to Schools (since parents driving kids to school make up 25% of all morning traffic).

b) Does the project decrease emissions of global warming gases?

Climate change is a reality covered nearly every day in the newspaper now, and if we don’t want Seaside or Cannon Beach to be flooded by rising Ocean levels, we need to start considering this. Anything that makes driving slower, less convenient, or more expensive (or makes the other modes faster, more convenient, and cheaper) would get points here.

b2) Does the project decrease our reliance on oil for transportation?
Considering that we’re running out of oil, this should be important [3].

c) Does the project promote cycling?

If a 3 lane road with bike lanes is widened to a 5 lane road with bike lanes, that would actually make people less likely to bike, since no one likes biking near cars, and lots of cars going fast is much worse than some cars going slow. Such a project should get negative points, but a project like building connections between neighborhood streets and doing signing to create a bike boulevard would get positive points. Actually building bike boulevards that are well used should even get points under the old system for increasing capacity on arterials by converting many car trips to bike trips and freeing up road space.

d) Does the project promote walking?

Adding sidewalks promotes walking, while building road capacity makes walking less attractive.

Supporting Safe Routes to Schools would get lots of points, since kids living near schools are the easiest people to convince to walk (or bike, so it gets bike points too).

Another simple project would be setting up traffic lights so that hitting a pedestrian walk button would make the pedestrian signal go green within a few seconds (unlike now, where walkers might wait minutes to cross a street).

e) Does the project promote transit usage?

Extending MAX to Forest Grove would promote transit, so that would get lots of positive points [4].
Widening a road could make bus service faster for a while due to a temporary decrease in congestion, but people who were taking the bus might choose to drive instead now that driving is more convenient, and the bus service would just get bad again in the future as the bigger road allows more traffic which leads to the same level of congestion as earlier. So widening a road is neutral at best, so it gets 0 points. However, if a large road, like Hwy 26, got a paint job to turn one lane into a 3+ carpool, motorcycle, and bus lane, this would get positive points since it makes those modes much more convenient (at the same time as making driving alone less convenient).

Putting in bus shelters, adding sidewalks, and making crossing streets near bus stops easier would get positive points.

Helping TriMet buy cleaner, quieter buses could get some points here and under the climate change criteria.

f) Does the project increase connectivity, which gives cyclists, walkers, and buses more options for how to get from one place to another?

Connecting neighborhoods to other neighborhoods, businesses, or parks can also decrease the distance people need to walk, and allow cyclists to travel on low traffic streets instead of busy roads. Note that retractable bollards could also be used to allow buses and emergency vehicles (but not private autos) to take shortcuts between places to make trips faster.

New connections made by adding new collector streets is also a much more preferable way to increase auto capacity in a more bike/ped friendly way, since it 1) makes distances shorter and gives more travel options and 2) adds auto capacity without making bike/ped conditions worse on other roads. Of course, for promoting cycling and walking, well marked trails are best.

g) Does the project promote density and variety of land uses that make walking or cycling more viable?

Widening roads makes it more convenient to live further from regional centers, so that would get negative points.

Building road connections to make regional centers have more of a grid layout would make them more attractive to developers and businesses.

Hillsboro had a plan to turn the OHSU/Amberglen area into a mini-city with lots of offices and condos and a streetcar. Projects which implement that plan would get lots of points here.

h) Does the project promote carpooling?

One possibility would be funding a program that works to promote carpooling. Also, supporting denser development would make carpooling easier.

Note that in some places, ‘project’ could be a program; for example, a Safe Routes to School project might include funding a program that has staff people who work to promote walking for school kids.

Those are all ideas for MSTIP. TIF could be changed in ways that would promote alternative modes as well, since it could have an effect on development patterns. Right now the fee developers pay is based on Institute of Transportation Engineers estimates about how many trips a certain development (like a house) generates, but 1) I don’t believe their model is accurate since it doesn’t factor in location and things that promote alternative transportation modes and 2) with a change in the fee structure, the fee could not just help increase capacity but could promote alternative modes as well. The County has goals for the percent of trips they’d like to see by alternative modes, but the fee structure totally ignores that.

The following criteria should be evaluated when determining the TIF development fee:

Parking.

A house with 1 parking space is less likely to produce as many trips as a house with 2 or 3 or 7 parking spaces (think about garages plus driveways plus on street parking). Also, with fewer parking spaces per house, that extra space could be used for housing more people, and with more people living there, there is more potential for transit use.

Land Use Variety.

A development that contains or is near a variety of destinations (grocery store, businesses, parks, etc) is less likely to send auto trips onto the regions arterials, so that development should get some
credit for that. Basically the higher the walk score (see walkscore.com for an example) the greater the amount that could be deducted from the TIF fee.

Access to land uses by alternative modes.

A credit should be given if the development builds or is near trails, bike lanes, sidewalks, or transit service.

Distance from centers.

The further the development is from regional centers, the higher the TIF should be.

Density.

Higher density means more trips, but also means greater potential to support transit. Because people are willing to pay more for more space, the TIF should be higher for lower density developments.

Other things that reduce auto trips.
If the developer can make a compelling case for why their development encourages non-SOV trips they should be given credit for that.

Finally, perhaps as part of this MSTIP initiative, I think the County should hire a bike and pedestrian planner who can focus on promoting those modes (in addition to transit, since transit and those modes go hand in hand).

1: Source: Washington County 2020 Transportation Plan

2: Based on System Funding and Financing Element of the Plan, table 8:
$170 million for standalone bike/ped projects plus $50 million for ‘other’ and a 6 year MSTIP cycle with $20 million / year for bike/ped/other.

3: Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,,2196422,00.html

4: between 1990 and 2000 the biggest thing that changed transportation demographics was building the MAX in Washington County. The percentage of people taking transit was the biggest single change, while there was
slightly smaller change in the amount of people who drove to work, but unfortunately in many areas there was actually a decrease in the percentage of people who got to work via bike or foot.
Source: US Census

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