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4/13/2008
News Journal Seeks Councilman Weiner's View: Mass Transit and Walkable Communities

Thom Remington imagines a Delaware that spends money on light rail, instead of on widening Lancaster Pike near Del. 141.

A state where a 15-minute car ride doesn't translate into an hour-long bus trip. Where roads are designed not just for cars, but for bicyclists and pedestrians.

How many mornings do you listen to traffic reports, only to hear about the "usual slowing at ..." asks Remington, a Wilmington resident who works in Dover. He ridicules the idea of a transportation "system." It's more like organized chaos, he said.

"We've come to expect delays," he said. "When was the last time traffic on I-95 at I-295 and I-495 didn't grind to a halt during evening rush hour? Wouldn't a system be more efficient than that? And then what happens when there's an accident or something else that blocks the flow, even just a little? We all know: miles of backups."

Like the rest of the country, Delaware is realizing it has outgrown its transportation system, one that is plagued with chronic congestion, an aging infrastructure, high accident rates and funding that is reliant upon gasoline consumption in an era when the public is more concerned with air quality and global warming.

The challenge is how to make a transit system of buses and trains a viable alternative while still balancing the need for more concrete and asphalt -- a challenge heightened by the state's dwindling cash flow and appetite for sprawl, public transit's worst enemy."

Our plans have to embrace transit," said Transportation Secretary Carolann Wicks. "Not as an afterthought, but as an acknowledgement that transit plays a role in solving the transportation problems of our state."

Delaware's transit system removes about 6.4 million vehicle trips from area roads each year, but officials know that even by expanding the service, transit alone will not be enough to solve all the state's transportation headaches.

"We have to take a look at where we want Delaware to be," said Dave Gula, Wilmington Area Planning Council senior planner. "We could all do with less congestion, but we have to train people to use transit and then provide better service."

Not all Delawareans will park their cars permanently and begin depending on buses and trains, Gula said. But as traffic worsens, gas prices continue to climb and the population ages, the state will have to expand its transit options, he said.

While big cities aim for about 30 percent of the public to use transit regularly, Delaware -- with a statewide population less than that of many metropolitan areas -- would be doing great if it could bump up its 2.8 percent rate of transit use to 10 percent or -- dream big -- 15 percent.

Of course, if 10 percent of the state suddenly decided to ride the bus, Gula said, right now, "we wouldn't have enough service for them."

State officials, policymakers, planners, even commuters rave about the benefits of public transportation: it reduces congestion and is better for the environment.

But when it comes to funding transit -- subsidizing buses and trains instead of road projects -- policymakers and elected officials balk, arguing the First State lacks the population density a successful mass-transit system requires.

After all, with the Delaware Department of Transportation half-billion dollars short for all the projects needed in the next six years, officials decided they could better justify spending $57 million for the addition of a fifth lane to relieve congestion on I-95 rather than putting the money toward expanded bus routes.

Frank Warnock of Ogletown said he believes the costs of a car-centric transportation system can no longer be ignored: hours wasted sitting in traffic, 40,000 motorist deaths a year in the U.S., the $67.6 billion annual cost of congestion nationwide, degraded air and water quality, and thousands of Delawareans stranded on weekends and evenings because of limited bus service.

"Anything Delaware does at this point to alleviate congestion is about equal to one loosening their belt to solve a weight problem," he said. "Widening of roads, the adding of roads, the addition of more auto-only infrastructure is the opposite course we, and pretty much the rest of this country, should be taking at this point."

Transportation problems, whether congestion, lack of funding or pollution, won't be solved without whole-scale reform of the system, said Robert Puentes, a fellow at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program.

A lot of states are attempting innovative ideas, but not every new concept will be appropriate for every state or city, he said.

"This is a big country and each metropolitan area has a unique set of opportunities and challenges, so trying to find the right mix is not easy," he said. "Until we stop thinking about transportation as separate modes, we won't be able to figure out the best mix of transit and highways to fix transportation problems."

Roads are DelDOT's priority

Delaware's bridges have a 97 percent satisfactory rating, and 90 percent of roads have a fair or better pavement-condition rating. With funding tight, officials have adopted the mantra of "focusing on core business," putting safety first.

Both this year and last, DelDOT's budget was about $725 million, not including the $75 million budget for Delaware Transit Corp.

The focus on roads over buses is no surprise, considering the number of commuters driving solo and going farther continues to increase, while the share of transit users drops. About 81 percent of Delawareans drive to work alone, according to 2006 U.S. Census data. The nationwide rate is 77 percent.

Slightly less than 3 percent use transit, just over 9 percent car-pool. But, in part due to Paratransit, actual transit ridership is growing, with DART providing more than 10.2 million passenger trips a year. It's estimated that without transit, travel delays would increase 27 percent.

Finding funding for transit and attracting riders is akin to the proverbial chicken-or-egg dilemma: people don't ride the bus because the service isn't convenient enough, but the service can't be expanded without funding, which requires more riders.

"The challenge with increasing ridership will always be funding, because transit doesn't pay for itself," said Stephen Kingsberry, executive director of the Delaware Transit Corp., which operates as DART First State.

In Delaware, transit really is set up only for the people who want to "go green," or for those who have no choice but to ride the bus, Gula said.

Miranda Brewer of Fairfax knows transit is a hard sell, but she became a DART convert last year after her hybrid car was broken into in a downtown parking lot. Between that and rising parking costs, she had had enough.

"I started taking DART, and it was so convenient and cheap and awesome," she said. "I wouldn't ever go back to driving" to work.

Still, she wishes DART were better funded and buses traveled to more places and ran more often.

"I wish elected officials would sit up and take notice of the fact we don't need to be dumping more money into fixing highways, but we need to focus on smart options like transit," she said.

Brewer, a paralegal, is afraid gas prices will have to get a lot higher and congestion a lot worse before anything changes.

DART funding hasn't increased alongside higher fuel and labor costs, Kingsberry said. The agency had to learn to be more efficient, cutting the programs that aren't successful to pay for those that are.

That means little service outside New Castle County, especially in Sussex County, where most people aren't necessarily thinking about transit, Kingsberry said. Of course, 10 years ago, no one thought buses would be needed in Middletown, and now that area has the fastest-growing ridership, he said.

The Citizens Coalition of Sussex County long has recognized that mass transit is insufficient to meet the needs not just of the seasonal population, but year-round folks, too, said Michael Tyler, coalition president.

"I think DelDOT is too auto-centric and would never establish service that we see in other tourist destinations or resort areas," he said. "Mass transit-challenged DelDOT has to begin planning and designing the network now to make any headway a generation from now."

Need for increased bus service

The state's 2000 to 2025 transit plan calls for adding weekend and evening bus service, bus rapid transit in busy corridors, and extending the SEPTA line from Newark to Elkton. Also recommended was studying a direct rail connection between Delaware and the Philadelphia International Airport, and the possibility for "high-capacity service," such as rail, rapid bus or monorail, from Wilmington to Dover and from Wilmington north on U.S. 202.

A yearlong weekend bus service pilot program is expected to begin in June, pending General Assembly approval. But the studies have gone nowhere.

Downstate rail was determined to have too little potential ridership for its $400 million cost, Kingsberry said. And installing monorail or light rail on U.S. 202 or U.S. 13 is cost-prohibitive without dedicated funding, such as a sales tax.

"The answer to congestion is ultimately rail," Kingsberry said. "We will get to the point that we will have to have more rail. The major impetus for spending money on rail will be congestion."

Meanwhile, Kingsberry said, DART will concentrate on improving what already works.

Instead of a light-rail connection between Wilmington and Rehoboth Beach or a subway system like that in New York City or Washington, D.C., the state is working toward adding rail capacity to allow 10 more SEPTA trips between Wilmington and Newark and building a new Newark train station that could accommodate eventual downstate rail.

Beyond expanding rail, officials said, bus routes already running at at least 40 percent capacity could be enhanced by adding more-frequent trips with higher-capacity buses. Roads such as U.S. 301 in Middletown or the buses that run to the Christiana Mall, they said, are a good place to start.

"We need to strengthen the core, what we do well, before we try something new," Gula said. "We need to fund the areas where we already have riders."

Next up would be to reserve lanes for buses and high-occupancy vehicles, like car pools. The new U.S. 301 bypass should be built with just such a lane, Gula said. Buses also could be equipped with technology to trip traffic signals, much like emergency vehicles, to get green lights.

Or when an extra lane isn't practical, allow buses to drive on the road's shoulder or median when travel speeds dip below a certain level.

That gives the bus an advantage over driving a personal vehicle, which transportation researchers say is critical to get people onto transit.While buses driving on shoulders might sound like a good idea, the shoulders -- many of which are used as turning lanes -- are in place for a reason, Wicks said."

Those shoulders are recovery lanes for cars that are disabled," she said. "So if a bus is there, where's the recovery if you need to pull over? There are safety issues to consider.

"It's being done in other states, Gula said, and Delaware could do it, too.

"It takes innovative leadership," he said. "We're not advocating for building major HOV lanes on every road. We can't take money we don't have to build special bus lanes. But why not use the shoulders? If you're sitting stuck in traffic and you see a bus going past you, it changes the way people think."

Researchers at the University of Delaware are exploring how the concept of bus rapid transit could be applied locally and will release a feasibility study later this year.

Under a bus rapid transit system, express buses could zip down high-traffic corridors, between Middletown and Wilmington or from New Castle County to the beach, without the frequent stops of a regular bus route.

"Commuters, business people, would pay to get off the congested roads, and they could know they would get to their destination on time," said Bernard Dworsky, an assistant professor at UD who is conducting the study. "This is reliable, effective and efficient."

Bus rapid transit is working well in larger metropolitan areas, but it's not clear how such a network would work in a smaller setting like Delaware, Dworsky said.

"We want to see how feasible this is for Delaware, because they would have to be very heavily traveled corridors," Dworsky said. "We might not be ready yet for bus rapid transit now, but we should be laying the basis for a future bus rapid transit network."

Sprawl poses challengesS

uccessful transit in Delaware is tricky because of its small, sprawling population. Mass transit requires residential and commuter density at one end of the line and job density at the other.

While Philadelphia and communities with high-density neighborhoods of 15 or more homes per acre and employment density of 20 jobs or more per acre can support transit, New Castle County averages only two to six homes per acre, with density falling off rapidly south of Wilmington.

"If we keep spreading out housing, we're never going to be able to solve our transportation problems," Gula said. "Land use and transit are inextricably linked."

Studies show that for every 100-foot increase in walking distance to transit, there is a drop in ridership. In 2004, less than 55 percent of people in New Castle County lived within the standard quarter-mile of a transit stop, according to the Wilmington Area Planning Council

"We live in a society where, clearly, car ownership is forced upon its citizens," said Warnock, of the Bicycle Coalition of Delaware. "Those unable, or unwilling, to drive are heavily disenfranchised."

It's easy to imagine a Delaware made up not of sprawling subdivisions of McMansions, but of smaller housing lots and villages, said Robert Weiner, New Castle County Councilman and Chairman of the National Association of Counties Land Use and Growth Management subcommittee.

In light of rising energy costs, clogged highways and lengthening commutes, many people are beginning to rethink the "American dream" of a big house in the suburbs, he said.

"Before the automobile, for 5,000 years, there was this model of walkable villages, and it worked well," Weiner said. "Then we went to the suburban sprawl model for 60 years, but we've found it was an abysmal failure. Where people live, work, shop and play are segregated. You've got to get on a highway and drive everywhere."

Officials point to the redevelopment of Claymont as a "walkable village" pattern for what housing and transportation could look like throughout the First State. With a mix of homes, shops and restaurants, all within walking distance, the Claymont "renaissance" includes providing transit links to Philadelphia Pike and other points in Wilmington.

Nearly 60 percent of the population would prefer to live in a walkable community, Weiner said, and developers are beginning to take note of the profit to be made from a mixed-use development instead of a typical subdivision.

"We can take I-95 and Route 1 and 301, and build villages at the exits," Weiner said. In the next 40 years, he speculated, the large-lot houses within a 10-minute walk of an I-95 exit will be torn down, or at least retrofitted, to accommodate mixed-use villages.

Shifting prioritiesF

ifty years ago, the nation prioritized the construction of the interstate system.

"There's no reason we can't reprioritize again," Weiner said.

But transit is not the answer to all of Delaware's transportation woes, said Beverley Baxter, Committee of 100 executive director.

While large urban areas such as New York or New Jersey might not be able to build their way out of congestion, that same philosophy doesn't hold true in Delaware, she said.

"Yes, we can use more transit, but even if we took all the people riding on buses today and doubled it, and a month later doubled it again, we still could not solve our problems," Baxter said. "Delaware is too sparsely developed for transit to be our solution."

Road, rail or bus improvements will never be enough to build the nation out of congestion, Puentes said. As the population continues to grow, additional infrastructure becomes less viable."

The approach states are beginning to take is to look at how to use the existing system better," he said. "How to spread out the rush hour, provide incentives to shift travelers to other modes, and by providing those other modes you can make a dent in congestion."

Walking, biking initiatives

The key to Delaware's future transportation system is that it needs to be multi-modal, and that means more than just cars, buses and trains.

With 40 percent of all trips less than two miles, state and local governments need to do what they can to improve bicycle and pedestrian routes so the cars making these short trips can be taken off the roads, Weiner said.

Tyler, who also is advocacy chairman for Sussex Cyclists, thinks DelDOT should establish a cycling/multi-use trail network to connect communities.

"Creating roads that prevent walking or cycling has been DelDOT's MO for years," Tyler said. "Look at Christiana Mall. How can you walk there or ride a bike there? Or if you are staying at the Hilton, how can you walk to Chili's? If you want to die, you can try it."

Whether it's driving, taking the bus, biking or walking, Delaware needs to provide its residents choices, officials said.

"Ten years from now, we're going to look back and say this is when the paradigm shift started toward transit communities, so that people have the option to not always have to use their car," Weiner said. "The new governor will have to make a choice about funding roads or funding transit. The most important choices we can make are to expedite this paradigm shift, because sooner or later, we won't have a choice."

Fixing the broken transportation "system" won't come without pain, Remington said.

"We'll have to change our expectations," he said. Stop thinking of transportation as people driving their cars everywhere. "Look at alternatives and what they might mean for our world."

Contact Summer Harlow at 324-2794 or sharlow@delawareonline.com.

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