Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Notes and observations from Tuesday's WAMPO meeting

Catch WAMPO MPT 2035 planning fever!! Here is a PSA intended to stir your inner transportation wonk.

Tuesday afternoon's meeting of WAMPO's Metropolitan Transportation Plan Project Advisory Committee (MTP-PAC) was informative and thought-provoking in ways I had not anticipated. There was a fair amount of wonk (which I'll go light on in this post) presented via PowerPoint slides and 3-ring binders that can hold two reams of paper, but I was able to step back and see a larger picture of the future--one that, compared to how things are now, looks pretty good for cyclists, pedestrians and advocates of public transit and, if certain other things come to pass (as they appear they will), will look even better.

First of all, a quick word about how all this works: WAMPO in essence serves as a kind of mediator between, on the one hand, the Federal government and its rules governing the allocation of monies for transportation projects and, on the other, the various municipalities in the immediate Wichita area with their wish lists for projects. WAMPO seeks to prioritize these projects, but it's ultimately up to the communities to build them. Thus, I learned, when I asked during the public comment segment, why there are no on-street bike lanes among the projects despite the fact that bike lanes are dirt cheap compared to the proposed off-street 10-ft.-wide multi-use paths (which cost about $1 million per mile to build): As of now, federal money will fund these streets' construction only if those paths are included. If the Complete Streets Act becomes law, the rules will change. Until that time, the decision to incorporate bike lanes is up to individual cities.

As my friend Jane Byrnes (WAMPO's cycling and pedestrian rep) put it to me, this meeting was all about pouring concrete. It's unfortunate that many of the projects on the initial list (all of which, by the way, are still under consideration) either deal with or will encourage more sprawl. But it's also the case that a lot of that concrete will be poured on behalf of cycling and pedestrian infrastructure. Moreoever, as I'll explain a little later, it may yet come to pass that for various reasons, there's a good chance that less of that automobile-centric concrete will get poured.

Kimberly Spielman, WAMPO's Public Involvement Coordinator, in addition to being responsible for drawing my (and thus your) attention to the PSA linked to above, made a couple of announcements of interest to most people who've read this far. The first was that the next WAMPO open house will be on Thursday, February 18th at the Water Center (101 E. Pawnee) from 4-6. Citizens can look at the list of proposed projects, ask questions, and offer comments. Despite the rather awkward meeting time, I recommend trying to attend if at all possible. At last summer's open house, I was able to meet other like-minded folks; and if my experience at yesterday's meeting was any indication, the WAMPO folks do indeed note--and appreciate--who shows up and who speaks up. Spielman's second announcement was that WAMPO will soon be posting an online survey that will allow the public to express its preferences for projects on the initial list. When that appears, I'll be sure to point you its way.

The next and longest segment of the meeting was a discussion of five or six travel demand models whose intent is to gauge the efficacy of the implementation of all, some, or none of the projects with regard to decreasing congestion and drive times. Apart from the various proposals for bus routes out to outlying communities, none of the models took into account alternate transportation or variables such as increased gasoline prices, federal mandates to reduce pollution levels, etc. Be sure you notice this: The results of the various models was that there would be no appreciable difference in reductions of congestion and drive times, no matter what projects were or were not done, or even if none of them were done. I'm sure you're thinking exactly what I thought as I sat there: Why do any of the road projects at all, then? Why not, instead, invest in trying to encourage more people to stay off the roads? A partial answer is that some of these projects need to be done for maintenance or safety reasons: bridge repair, the re-engineering of intersections and on- and off-ramps, etc. But by no means do all of the projects fall under that category.

As I alluded to above, other factors may come into play, some sooner than others, that will make less urgent the need to increase road capacity for cars. All that the model creators took into account was expected population growth; other members of the Committee, though, asked them to revisit their models to take into account such things as increased fuel costs and the fact that, with the EPA's new air quality rules, Sedgwick County will be found to be non-compliant and will therefore have to take steps to improve air quality through, chiefly, reducing the number of automobile trips made in the county. In other words: though buses were figured into the models we saw today and showed a modest increase in actual numbers of daily riders even with free fares figured in, it seems all but certain that traditional transportation projects will be de-emphasized, and public transport, ride-sharing programs and (in conjunction with ordinances that encourage high-density development) walking and cycling will, in the coming new decade, play much more prominent roles in the area's transportation future.

As I have noted many times on this site, I believe cycling can play a more vital role in that future through a combination of more on-street bike lanes (especially east-west routes and any routes at all west of Sedgwick County Park) and linkage between existing bike paths. None of the bike/ped projects on the list are located west of the park. Linkage, though, is another matter: The two long-promised projects that will link up paths, the one that will run from McAdams Park to Grove Park to link the Canal and K-96 paths, and the one that will run from Garvey Park to Plainview Park to link the Arkansas River and Gypsum Creek paths, are on the initial list and, several people told me, are all but certain to make the cut (Federal scoring of projects prioritizes bike-infrastructure these days). Also proposed is the conversion of the abandoned railroad right-of-ways between Andover and Wichita. I also chatted after the meeting with Dan Squires, a city engineer with the city of Derby (which, some of you know, has been building a pretty extensive bike-path system), and he mentioned plans for Derby to link its paths not only with some paths proposed to be built south of McConnell (thus, via Oliver and Mac Arthur, there'd be connectivity with the both the Gypsum Creek and Arkansas River paths) but also with Mulvane's paths.

So. Changes are coming to this area's transportation. Some of it will be forced on us, but I sensed no resentment of those facts among MTP-PAC members. Jane Byrnes confirmed that impression, in fact, that WAMPO recognizes the importance of a robust alternate transportation system to this area's future development and health. This may sound as though interested parties need do nothing, but though funding for bike and pedestrian projects is more certain than it is for other projects, it's not certain that all of them will be. That's where public input is needed: the Committee and, later, the various cities need to know which projects are important enough to people that they'll make time in the middle of a work day to speak up on their behalf.

The next meeting is on Monday the 25th at 1:30 on the 10th floor of City Hall. See you there?


Anonymous said...

Thanks John for taking the initiative here and asking some pretty important questions. Thanks also for the update. Gordon

John B. said...

Thanks, Gordon. I'm glad to know others are reading this and benefiting from it.