Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Yesterday's WAMPO meeting: Notes, comments, and some musing

A glimpse of Wichita's future? Light rail did come up, sort of, in yesterday's meeting. More about that later. Image found here.

From one point of view, Monday's WAMPO meeting covered little ground beyond a (very) initial discussion of the committee's sense of the various scenarios to determine which projects would be approved for federal funding for this new master plan. From another--mine, at least--yesterday was valuable in that it led me to think about what appear to some basic truths about how transportation planning has been handled in the past in Wichita and how that probably needs to change.

First, something of a housekeeping note regarding the WAMPO survey seeking public input on the projects to be funded for the 2035 master plan: Those of you who took the survey may have noticed on the for the "Transit/Maintenance and Operation Scenario" that (at least so far as I could see) the only description provided was that it entailed the removal of 57 projects from the Initial List. At the meeting, I asked where one could find that list of 57 projects. Kimberly Spielman, the Public Involvement Coordinator, said that the link for the various additions and removels was on the page linked to up above but, as it happened, she had just that morning noticed that the link was well to the bottom of the page and was easy to overlook. She said that after the meeting she would relocate the link so it would be much more visible, and I'm happy to report that that indeed has been done. (Here is that link, by the way.) Again: If you've not visited and taken the survey, please do so. They seem entirely sincere when they tell me they want public input; Ms. Spielman seemed very pleased that I had posted a link to the survey on my blog. And: February 22 appears to be something of a deadline for participation in that survey, as it will be on that date that the committee will examine public input and make a final selection of a scenario.

BUT: before you visit the survey, some things came up in the meeting with regard to the various scenarios that you'll want to know. So: Wade with me a bit into the weeds of WAMPO wonkiness. I promise it will lead, Prufrock-like, to an overwhelming question facing not just WAMPO but all such advisory committees--and, for that matter, the municipalities they serve. So. Let us go and make our visit.

As occurred last week, there was another presentation of the various scenarios that are the subject of the online survey. Yesterday, though, Mitch Coffman and Chris Nazar, who are, respectively, the project manager and consultant (the folks who determine the extent to which how these scenarios and the addition/subtraction of specific projects affect traffic flow) provided more information about the Transit/Maintenance and Operation scenario and its 57 deleted projects. (Full disclosure: This is the scenario I chose--not that you should, of course.) They were deleted because they did not alleviate congestion enough to justify their expense. While that certainly sounds fiscally responsible, Nazar reported that among those deleted projects are several bridge rehabilitation/maintenance projects that, clearly, are important for reasons other than alleviating congestion. (Which would we rather have: slow-moving traffic across a bridge or a collapsed bridge?) So, Nazar said that the committee might want to consider adding at least some of the bridge projects back to the scenario. And, of course, the committee could tweak any of the other scenarios as well if it so chose.

Now: Here's where the overwhelming question arose (for me, at least) that made me strangely happy I had attended. Just after presenting the committee with this new information, it seemed clearly Coffman's and Nazar's desire to lead the committee to express at least an initial preference for one of these scenarios ((snark alert)That's what their PowerPoint slide says the committee needed to do, after all . . . (snark alert off) But, in their defense, they're just doing their job: by mandate, the committee has a deadline to meet for presenting the final list to both the government and the area municipalities who will then pick and choose from the list what projects they'd like to see built.) But Richard Schodorf of Wichita's Transit Advisory Board asked a pretty good question, which I'll sum up as follows: Does the initial list of projects or the various scenarios in fact reflect a coming future reality, or does it instead reflect the assumption that the future will look pretty much like the present, only with more people? Schodorf noted the present, less-than-adequate-but-improving state of bus service in Wichita (though--good news!--there's a projected increased ridership of around half a million for this year) and called attention to those cities in the region either building or considering light rail systems, not because it's the cool thing to do but because they are looking ahead to a future of growing metro areas, pressure on budgets due to the need for increased infrastructure and constrained revenues, higher gas prices, and the need to move people around efficiently. He noted the complete absence of light rail proposals from the initial list of projects and asked, quite passionately, whether that was a mistake.

Two responses to Schodorf emerged in the ensuing discussion, though they merged, to my mind, at the same place. The first response, coming from a member of the committee (I didn't catch her name) who was responsible for selecting the projects on the initial list, said that she and the others involved had a total of around 300 projects submitted by the municipalities in the WAMPO district and had done, to her mind, an excellent job of selecting only those projects that seemed especially valuable (there are around 120 projects on the initial list). The other response, articulated chiefly by Tim Norton, the chair of the committee, was two-fold: 1) That all the scenarios under consideration included a substantial funding increase for Wichita Transit that would permit a grid-route system (rather than the current hub-and-spoke system) and commuter service to outlying communities in the WAMPO district (basically, Sedgwick County plus Andover); the Transit/Operations and Maintenance option, in fact, includes enough money so that people would be able to ride the bus for free. Along with the fact that none of the scenarios calls for removing bike/ped projects from the final list, it's abundantly evident to me that WAMPO is very much in favor of mass transit and alternate transportation 2) Light rail systems need a vibrant urban core to make good financial sense, and Wichita, to be perfectly honest, does not yet have that. Once more people are living and working (not just playing) downtown, then it would make sense. In the meantime, though, WAMPO needed to see some evidence of not just the desire for light rail but also the need for it. (But that is also true, at least for this incarnation of WAMPO, of traditional road projects: the Northwest Bypass (project #366, on p. 9 of the initial project list) pretty much was eliminated from consideration for the final list during yesterday's meeting due to the fact that it does not serve any obvious need that anyone can tell. So, WAMPO will pour concrete, but it won't do so indiscriminately.)

In the back-and-forth between Schodorf and Norton, I learned that some initial research into light rail has been done, and there may yet be included some money for more. This is good to know. But--and this is crucial--WAMPO does not propose projects. The municipalities do that. WAMPO only decides which proposed projects are worthiest of consideration that comply with rules for federal funding and fall under budget; it's still up to the municipalities to decide whether to build those projects. So, WAMPO can at best adopt a passive-aggressive stance with regard to the selection process by deciding to prioritize projects that, for example, won't contribute to sprawl--which I think one can argue it is doing via nixing the Northwest Bypass and its protecting of the bike/ped projects and funding increases for Wichita Transit. But still: it can work only with what the cities in its area propose for consideration. Those of us interested in seeing WAMPO endorse more (and more kinds of) mass/alternate transportation need to encourage our cities' representatives to make decisions regarding land use that make such projects not just nice to have but really, truly practical.

We need a new status quo, in other words. It appears to be on its way. Let's help it along a little.

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