Friday, June 12, 2009

WAMPOpalooza: WAMPO Open house

[For the curious, my post on the WAMPO-hosted Complete Streets webinar is here.]

Yesterday afternoon's open house was more sparsely attended than the webinar but, to my mind, more reflective of the city: one, for example, runs a business in Old Town and is interested in public transit; another is a bike commuter in west Wichita, which, as you know, has no paths or lanes of any sort. Perhaps because of this more eclectic mix, my mood this time was the reverse of my mood at the webinar: initial frustration but increasing optimism regarding the future of cycling/pedestrian and public transportation infrastructure in the area. There were two chief orders of business: to present the list of those projects eligible for inclusion in the 2010 fiscal year's Transportation Improvement Program (hereafter known as TIP); and to announce the beginning this fall of work on the Wichita Area 2030 Long Range Transportation Plan (LRTP--its process is here).

(Full disclosure: As you may have already surmised, this post will be flecked with acronyms of various sorts, some of which I was introduced to only yesterday. I do not pretend to be entirely clear as to the purpose(s) of all the entities indicated by these acronyms, just so you know; what follows is my best understanding of all this. When you find yourself getting confused, do what I do and visit WAMPO's website (though that place, too, is a bit difficult to navigate--perhaps fitting, perhaps ironic, for an office that manages transportation planning and funding.)

The list of eligible TIP projects presented yesterday does not yet appear on WAMPO's website; when it does, though, it should appear here. And keep in mind that literally all we saw was a list of projects--there was not even a summary description of the work each would entail. Even so, every single project listed was a road or bridge project; moreover, as Jane Byrnes (who was also in attendance there) noted, almost all these projects would, in her words, "promote sprawl": they are on the outer fringes of the city. None of them was explicitly bicycle/pedestrian/public transportation-oriented. It's possible that some of the road projects will include some sort of infrastructure feature such as an accompanying bike-path/sidewalk, as was done for the work done last year on 13th Street from K-96 to Andover, or maybe even bike lanes. But based on what we saw yesterday, I have no way of knowing.

But then again, as we were told, the listed projects were only the ones that people had spoken on behalf of. WAMPO's official role is that of a policy body--it facilitates the long-term planning process and determines what projects get funded with the (so far) approximately $11 million/year in federal funds allocated to the area covered by WAMPO's mandate (Sedgwick County, plus Andover and Mulvane). It has no say in what projects actually get submitted to it. That is determined by the elected officials of the municipalities in the county. Hence the futility of my polite but pointed unloading on Derek Clark one of the two WAMPO presenters at the event, about the absence of bike-infrastructure and public transportation despite the fact that the re-striping of a couple miles of streets downtown (WAMPO proposals in the about-to-expire master plan) would cost only a little over $80,000. He was a good sport about it, but he was clear: it's not WAMPO who is to blame for the promotion of suburban sprawl on the city's outskirts at the expense of smarter policies such as Complete Streets. As I noted in the webinar post, the city's hand on these matters will almost certainly be forced by government requirements. But it would be nice, would it not, to see something like Complete Streets at the forefront of thinking for all planning as a matter of policy (assuming we can't have it as a matter of principle).

Something we learned at the webinar is that people overwhelmingly want their departments of transportation to be more people-conscious (rather than car-conscious) in their planning; WAMPO's own survey last year (in which some of you reading this participated) shows we are no different. Yet, the projects that actually get built don't reflect those desires because people don't speak on their behalf at planning meetings, City Council meetings, etc.

And that leads me to the second part of the open house, a heads-up about the start of meetings leading to the producing of the 2030 LRTP. The first step in that has already been accomplished: the survey from last year whose results I linked to just above. Clark noted the overwhelming interest among survey participants in expanding and improving (via, in particular, connectivity) the current system of bike paths and bike lanes. Our task now is to make sure that interest is not only reflected in the LRTP but also, come the portioning out of monies for these projects, that we speak on their behalf to our district representatives and at council meetings.

The initial LRTP meetings haven't yet started but apparently will begin this fall. If you want to receive e-mail announcements of these, contact Kimberly Spielman at "kspielman AT wichita DOT gov" In the meantime, a good place to begin thinking about all this would be to have a look at these chapters (.pdf files) from the Regional Pathway System Plan, which was approved in 2007: A chapter that identifies transit corridors that should be used to facilitate cycling; and a prioritized list of so-called "missing links" in our area's cycling infrastructure. Some of these, it should be noted, have already been completed, are underway (the Mt. Vernon resurfacing), or soon will be (those described as being "actively planned"). But those that remain are very good, functional proposals that have the virtue of improving the connectivity of the existing system.

We're not at the point in Wichita where their merits are self-evident. We're getting there, but these arguments still need their advocates--they can't carry the day on their own.

In Mexico, there's a saying: "If people do not ask, God does not hear."

Time for those of us interested in these issues to get some religion.

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