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Detroit (Bob Lutz, at Least) Hints at Need for Gas Tax

The blunt and effective Robert Lutz of General Motors, an executive who inspires both love (he’s a product genius and calls things as he sees them) and hate (he bluntly calls things as he sees them, even when unpopular, as when he ridiculed the idea of global warming), again seems to be suggesting what many analysts have been recommending for years – that a gas tax would be good for US automakers.

As gas prices have dropped, Americans have again rapidly forgotten about $4 per gallon gas and automotive fuel economy. Hybrid sales, for example, are down more than 50%, far more than the overall market drop of about 30%. The automakers, scolded just weeks ago by a Congress who said Detroit was out of step in not having enough fuel efficient vehicles, has rushed such products to market and is now getting killed in sales for having too many of them.

Lutz, understandably frustrated, uttered what had to be two of the best quotes of last week to the NY Times, essentially calling for a gas tax by not calling for one:

Far be it for me to be the first auto executive to call for a gas tax… But right now, it’s like fighting obesity by requiring clothing manufacturers to make nothing but small sizes… Every six months we get called stupid for having the wrong products.“

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Rumormill: J&W to ProJo?

Ian Donnis on his Not For Nothing blog drops a little rumor in his first of a series of posts on the News Apocalypse.

Btw, a ProJo source called me yesterday, confident in the belief that J+W had bought the Journal Building and its related properties. Lisa Pelosi, speaking for J+W, says it ain’t so.

If I were a betting man, I’d put my money behind Lisa’s comment. Though J&W from all I’ve heard has weathered the economic downturn better than most colleges, and though their near future plans seem to have them refocused on expansion here at home in Providence, the Journal Building’s location seems to not fit in with those plans.

As reported in the Providence Journal in June and discussed on UrbanPlanet Johnson & Wales is looking toward the land soon to be made available by the removal of Route 195 to form a more cohesive Downcity Campus on the border of Downcity and the Jewelry District (Providence Journal Graphic ).

Far from buying up buildings on the far side of Downcity, Johnson & Wales (according to the June ProJo article) will be getting rid of a couple properties on Westminster Street as they expand into the 195 land. Of course things could have changed, though J&W has reportedly weathered the economy well, a change in strategy from new construction toward collecting existing buildings is not out of the question (total speculation here). What if J&W were to change the ProJo Building into a dorm like RISD did with the Old Hospital Trust Building at 15 Westminster Street? Would something like that be a welcome addition to the area, or should we hope for more for the future of the ProJo Building?

* Oh, and I’m looking forward to more of Ian’s News-Apocalypse series.

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ProJo property tour

Providence Business News reports on the properties that ProJo parent Belo is selling in the capital city. Through the magic of Google Street View, let’s take a little tour of the properties up for sale.


View Larger Map

First up is the ProJo headquarters building on Fountain Street, built in 1934. The PBN story says that the Fountain Street building is 160,000 square feet, however a slimmed down Providence Journal only needs 60,000 square feet of that space. It is unknown at this time if the ProJo intends to maintain their headquarters in the Fountain Street building and lease back the space from a future owner, or if they will seek to move to new smaller offices. This will determine how much the building is worth to a future owner.

One thing that could change with a new owner of the Fountain Street building is the one story garage addition at Emmettt Square.


View Larger Map

This garage was originally attached to the building for delivery trucks to pick up papers. With printing now taking place on Kinsley Avenue, this garage is no longer needed. Removal of this garage could help open up Emmett Square for proposed changes which would formalize the square, detangle traffic in the area, and allow for better pedestrian crossings between Downcity, the mall, Capital Center, and points to the west.

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Blueprint America

In the above video Rachel Maddow speaks with PBS’ David Brancaccio about Thirteen/WNET’s new project Blueprint America.

Blueprint America is a precedent-setting multi-platform initiative - developed and produced by Thirteen/WNET, and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation – that will harness the power of public broadcasting’s most prestigious programs, primetime documentaries, community and educational outreach, and the web to shine an unyielding spotlight on one of the most critical issues facing our country, yet one that has been under-reported by the traditional news media: America’s decaying and neglected infrastructure. We hear about infrastructure only when it results in a catastrophic bridge collapse or levee failure, but in fact, it is placing our quality of life and our ability to compete in a global economy at risk.

Over the next year, we at the Blueprint America team at Thirteen/WNET hope to create a unique portfolio of dramatic and compelling programming on this critical subject, including:

  • Individual reports produced in partnership with PBS’s most prestigious and most-watched news and public affairs programs, as well as public radio
  • Original, high profile documentaries produced for national broadcast on PBS
  • Educational and community outreach to integrate study and debate on this subject into schools and community groups

Here’s what we have scheduled so far:

  • The NewsHour will present a five-part series on how infrastructure issues affect every region of country, reported by Senior Correspondent Ray Suarez, beginning the week of September 22nd.
  • NOW on PBS will present a report on how transportation infrastructure impacts working families with David Brancaccio as correspondent, currently scheduled for October 10th.
  • Worldfocus: Our new internationally-focused nightly newscast will air a series of segments on how our global competitors treat infrastructure. Likely air dates are shortly after its launch, in October.

Looks to be an interesting project, and there is already a lot on the Blueprint America website. I’m sure we will be discussing some of these programs in months to come.

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REBOOT: East Side Rail Tunnel (Part I)

ProvidenceApproach

Click image to enlarge

REBOOT is an occasional series of posts on Greater City Providence where we identify areas of the city that display poor urbanism and propose ways to improve them.

Our interventions may be simple and quite easily realized, or they may at times be grand and possibly take years or decades to complete. Either way, we hope they generate interest and discussion.

Beneath College Hill there lies what could someday be the workhorse of our metropolitan transit system, a tunnel. Not the one the buses and trolleys run through between South Main and Thayer Street, a rail tunnel. The East Side Rail Tunnel has been sealed up since about 1993, no trains have run through it since round about 1976. Built for under $2 million in 1908, the tunnel provides Providence with untold savings in trying to jump start a regional rail system.

So where is this tunnel? Know that big blank concrete wall between Cafe Chokolad and Mill’s Tavern on North Main? The entrance is up above there. The tunnel runs under College Hill passing under Thayer Street near Waterman Street and emerging just west of Gano Street. The tracks out the west portal continue toward the erect bridge over the Seekonk River.

From Downtown Providence 1970.

In the past the tunnel provided passenger rail service between Providence and Bristol and Fall River. Later passenger rail was dropped and freight trains used the tunnel. Before it was sealed off, it was proposed that the tunnel would be used as an automobile expressway connecting Route 6 to Route 44 (that’s part of the reason for the Henderson Bridge). Today the tunnel is just sitting there. It is time for us to put it back to use.

Mayor Cicilline proposes using part of any stimulus money Providence may get from the Obama administration to study and build a Downcity streetcar line. As part of that planning I say we plan to re-use the East Side Rail Tunnel for light rail service to East Providence, the East Bay, and points in Massachusetts (maybe even all the way back to Fall River).

How and where those eastward rail lines would go we’ll discuss in Part II, now we want look at how will trains get into the tunnel.

The tracks leading into the tunnel were part of the “chinese wall” of elevated rail lines between Downcity and the State House which were removed to make way for the River Relocation Project. Because of this the tunnel portal sits above street level. The easiest way to reconnect rails to the tunnel is to build another elevated structure.

The Illustration at the top of this post shows a possible route for a new elevated light rail line. Tracks would emerge from the tunnel under Benefit Street between Mill’s Tavern and the Providence Art Club and travel on a viaduct over North Main Street and the Metropark lot at Steeple Street. The viaduct would then make an S-curve crossing Canal Street and the Moshassuck River to run behind the Citizens Building. The viaduct would then meet Exchange Street where a station could be built across from the Waterplace condos. Trains would continue on Exchange Street into Kennedy Plaza. From there they could head west and/or south to serve the rest of the city.

Alternately a station could be located right at the tunnel portal above North Main Street. However I think the Waterplace location makes for a better station. It sits a quick two block walk from the Amtrak Station, is in the center of a dense residential area with Waterplace Condos, Avalon Apartments, and the Capitol Cove Condos nearby, and sits within a block of the Citizens Building, the future BCBSRI Headquarters, the AmEx Building, and amongst parcels that could see dense office and/or residential development in the future.

Currently there is a parking lot where the tunnel portal is, the area between the portal and North Main Street could be excavated to allow for this parking to be moved down to street level under the new tracks.

An elevated rail line! Are you daft?

Yes, we did tear down the “Chinese Wall” because it created a barrier between Downcity and the State House. Yes, we are tearing down Route 195 because it creates a barrier between Downcity and the Jewelry District. Yes, people in Providence would not be all too enthused to build a new elevated structure Downcity. However, an elevated structure need not be a barrier.

artinruins_leoking

This 1954 photo from Art In Ruins shows that the old elevated structure was quite wide, wide enough for up to four tracks. The new viaduct will only need to be wide enough for two tracks. The old structure was also built over 100 years ago, with over 100 year old engineering. It was a massive stone and steal structure.

vancouver

This photo by sillygwailo from Flickr shows the underside of the Vancouver SkyTrain. A new light rail viaduct in Providence can be a slender structure with pleasing ornamentation and lighting. Areas beneath the viaduct should be properly programmed to allow for seamless integration of the streetscape. At the Waterplace Station for example, a small restaurant or cafe can be installed with outdoor seating along the riverfront at Waterplace park. At North Main Street development of the Metropark Lot will create a solid streetwall on the west side of the street.

Can’t there just be a ramp for the trains to climb?

Well, yes, there could be. I don’t know the exact height of the portal above North Main and I don’t know the maximum incline that a light rail vehicle can climb, but it is likely possible that a ramp could be built between North Main and the portal to bring trains up into the tunnel. However, if we bring trains down to street level, then they will have to travel in the street. As anyone who has ever traveled in this area knows, the streets in this area are highly congested, especially at rush hours. Putting trains into the mix will only worsen that congestion and result in trains being stuck in traffic. Putting the trains on the street could easily add 5 minutes to the trip between Kennedy Plaza and the tunnel portal. Building the viaduct keeps the trains and cars separated, allowing each to move freely.

Why do we even need rail to the east?

There are only two crossings from Providence to points east, the Washington Bridge and the Henderson Bridge. All commuters and visitors to our city from points east come through these two points. RIPTA route 60 which serves the East Bay has a high level of service and dedicated passengers, but the bus has to sit in traffic with everyone else. And aside from Route 60 and a few East Providence buses, there’s not much in the way of mass transit bringing people in from the east. Without the water barrier, people have more options coming in from the west. From the north we have Commuter Rail and that rail is being extended south. The East Side Rail Tunnel provides the best option for moving people into the city via mass transit without making that transit sit in the same traffic that people are trying to avoid.

In the next REBOOT we’ll be looking at the eastern portal of the tunnel and exploring some of the easterly locations that could be served by transit running through the tunnel.

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Where’s the strategic investment?

In President-elect Obama’s weekly address he discusses American Recovery and Reinvestment.

In the video above (transcript here) Obama says:

That’s why we need an American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan that not only creates jobs in the short-term but spurs economic growth and competitiveness in the long-term. And this plan must be designed in a new way – can’t just fall into the old Washington habit of throwing money at the problem. We must make strategic investments that will serve as a down payment on our long-term economic future.

and

To put people back to work today and reduce our dependence on foreign oil tomorrow, we will double renewable energy production and renovate public buildings to make them more energy efficient.

and

To build a 21st century economy, we must engage contractors across the nation to create jobs rebuilding our crumbling roads, bridges, and schools.

OK, yes, we do need to invest in our crumbling roads and bridges, especially here in Rhode Island where it seems just about every bridge is on the brink of collapse (I’m not the only one who holds my breath driving over the Pawtucket River Bridge I’m sure). However throwing more money at roads and bridges without even mentioning mass transit is not a strategic investment plan and is not the way to reduce our reliance on foreign oil.

While RIPTA runs on vapors, we are all quickly being lulled back into the familiar embrace of sub $2/gallon gas prices. It was only a couple months ago that people were abandoning their cars in droves to save money by riding on our already far too overburdened transit system. Current plans for RIPTA include rate hikes, the elimination or routes, and ending all service at 7pm. Without strategic investment now, our transit system will not be prepared when gas inevitably inches back towards $3, $4, or $5/gallon again.

A down payment on our long-term economic future cannot be more of the same building of highways that we’ve been doing for the last half century. Continual road construction with a lack of vision for public transit has put us in the economic and environmental mess we currently find ourselves in.

We must urge President-elect Obama to expand his vision and recognize that public transit is a tool towards our economic recovery and independence and a healthy and sustainable environment.

Update

So John Massengale posted this on his blog:

So at least when he’s campaigning in the Rust Belt, he gets it. How can he not get it? He went to college in Cambridge (a city with amongst the highest ratio of Public Transit and walking commuters), he represented Chicago in the Illinois General Assembly and the Senate, he did community organizing work in the poorest neighborhoods in Chicago… So bring it Obama!

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Rachel Maddow, Paul Krugman, and Infrastructure

Also, Bloomberg.com reports that road projects seem to be stepping to the front of the line for stimulus funding.

Dec. 24 (Bloomberg) — Missouri’s plan to spend $750 million in federal money on highways and nothing on mass transit in St. Louis doesn’t square with President-elect Barack Obama’s vision for a revolutionary re-engineering of the nation’s infrastructure.

Utah would pour 87 percent of the funds it may receive in a new economic stimulus bill into new road capacity. Arizona would spend $869 million of its $1.2 billion wish list on highways.

While many states are keeping their project lists secret, plans that have surfaced show why environmentalists and some development experts say much of the stimulus spending may promote urban sprawl while scrimping on more green-friendly rail and mass transit.

Trains need lobbyists.

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Branding New England

newengland

Scott Kirsner at his Innovation Economy blog asks us to do a test.

Here’s a quick city-association game for you.

When I say Hollywood, what industry comes to mind?

If I say Silicon Valley, could you name a couple companies based there?

Nashville conjures up country music chords, and Seattle connotes e-commerce, coffee roasting, and monopolistic makers of operating systems.

So here’s an experiment to try the next time you meet someone at a party in San Francisco, or sit next to a non-New Englander on a flight from O’Hare.

Ask them what their associations are when you say “New England” or “Massachusetts.”

I think you’ll be surprised how often you get responses like “the Boston Tea Party,” “the Revolution,” “covered bridges,” “Ben & Jerry’s,” “the Red Sox,” “history,” or “Kerry, Kennedy and Dukakis.”

Not very current of forward thinking is it? Kirsner argues, while those of us who live here know that we’ve gotten a few things done in these parts since one if by land two if by sea, we haven’t been very good at letting the rest of the world know what we’ve been up to.

I think that our great opportunity for 2009, as the world figures out how to emerge from its fiscal funk, is to come up with a strategy for telling our story. This is a hotbed of innovation, and we need the smartest people everywhere to know that. The smartest students already come here to get educated, but we need the smartest entrepreneurs to come here to set up shop; the smartest investors to set up branch offices; and the smartest big-company execs to establish manufacturing, R&D, or sales and marketing presences.

For whatever reason, we as a region, seem to never be able to get it together to think and act regionally. To take advantage of our collective strength (imagine the power of a region with 12 Senators in DC). And Kirsner doesn’t suggest we wait for the 6 governments to act on this. Thinkers outside of government in the 6 state region need to work together using current technology to market themselves. Maybe the states will jump on board after the heavy lifting is done.

What should we be doing to strengthen our region, work together, and market ourselves to the rest of the country and world?

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Rachel Maddow thinks Infrastructure is sexy…

…and so do I.

Update 12/29/2008: More infrastructure problems?

Video from WTOC-TV Savannah.

Georgia Power still has not determined the cause of this explosion, but there was a similar manhole explosion in downtown Savannah back in August.

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No American Streetcars!?!?

I got to thinking about streetcars and who builds them during a recent North Main Street meeting held by the Summit Neighborhood Association. Fellow gcpvd’er David Rocha mentioned that perhaps our struggling U.S. automakers could be deployed in building something other than cars, like streetcar systems and light rail.

This idea is especially attractive (and ironic) since GM was once accused of helping to destroy America’s streetcar networks. This sent me scrambling to Google and then to the realization that there isn’t a single U.S. manufacturer of streetcars. At least not yet…

The photo above is of an Oregon Iron Works streetcar, the first such American made vehicle. Through their United Streetcar subsidiary and a partnership with the European Skoda company, they hope to satisfy American cities’ increasing demand for light rail.

This issue isn’t just one of macro economics. As Providence looks to streetcars as one of many future infrastructure and growth options, the source of our streetcars could become an issue of some significance down the road. I’d hate to think that the increasing US demand for mass transit can be only satiated by supplies, expertise, and jobs from overseas…

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ProJo parent to liquidate real estate holdings

Ian reports that the Providence Journal’s parent company, A.H. Belo Corporation of Dallas is accepting proposals to buy the newspapers real estate assets, including the Fountain Street headquarters. The four properties up for sale may have a combined assessed value up to $33.2 million.

While this further sign of the struggles within the mainstream media industry (ProJo will continue to operate (for now) likely leasing it’s offices from a new building owner) it could be good news for Downcity. In addition to the Fountain Street office, Belo is also selling the Parkade Garage on Washington Street (which has a retail space that ProJo has been unable or unwilling to fill, most recently occupied by GroundWork Providence), the surface lot between Washington and Fountain along Matthewson Street, and I’m not positive but I think the 4th parcel would be the surface lot behind the Parkade Garage at the corner of Emmet Square.

ProJo owned parking lot running the block between Washington and Fountain Streets. View Larger Map

These surface lots represent stubborn holes in the urban fabric of Downcity. When Andres Duany last charretted in Providence, he proposed a Downcity movie theatre as a possibility for the Matthewson Street lot. Of course there is every possibility that a new owner for these parcels would be happy to just contunue parking cars, and with the current state of the economy, I don’t expect any cranes to be piercing the skyline soon (even if Belo can find a buyer), but these are strategic spaces in our city’s core and hopefully someone with a vision for them will scoop them up.

WPRI video:

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Mr. Cicilline Goes to Washington

The ProJo reports that Mayor Cicilline in his capacity within the U.S. Conference of Mayors headed down to D.C. yesterday to meet with a bunch of big wigs.

Cicilline and mayors from Stamford, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Dallas met with President-Elect Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and others to discuss direct economic stimulus to cities to jump start stalled infrastructure projects, in turn creating jobs. Providence is looking for $527 million to work on 79 capital projects which could generate 7,000 new jobs over the next two years.

Congress is preparing a multi-billion dollar state economic stimulus package for President-Elect Obama to sign shortly after he takes office in January. In the ProJo, Mayor Cicilline argues, “If the objective is to move resources quickly, then the fastest and most efficient way is to send the money directly to cities. We have public-works departments and planning departments to do this work and have been doing this work… This is an opportunity to create jobs, rebuild our infrastructure and prepare our cities for the 21st-century economy.” I.E., give the money to us, the state is too f*cked up to know what to do with it. OK, perhaps I’m putting words into the mayor’s mouth, but really, who can argue with that (well I suppose one could argue the city is f*cked up, but why filter money through two levels of f*cked-up-i-tude when you can simply go through one)?

The mayors are looking for money to kick start projects that are already in the pipeline, moving towards actuality. They released a report identifying $98 billion (with a ‘b’) worth of projects ranging from transit and highway improvements, school renovations, green jobs creation through to public safety and public housing projects and Community Development Block Grants.

In Providence these projects may include: $20 million for a Downtown streetcar system, $90 million for the renovation of Mount Pleasant High School, and $12.7 million for wind turbines at Fields Point. A full list of where Providence proposes to spend it’s money can be found here.

OK, a few things. $20 million for a streetcar system? Is that a study for a streetcar system? That doesn’t seem like much money. Also, I’m not aware of the streetcar system being too far down thte pipeline yet, Providence has a notorious amount of public meetings, I’ve not heard of one for proposing streetcars. I’d love streetcars, I’m all about streetcars, but when realistically, and for how much money, will this actually happen? And what will we be doing about our current transit system while we wait for streetcars?

$90 million for a high school!? Really!? When did high schools get so expensive!? I mean ALCO is looking to be a $200 million-something project, a high school is a half or a third of an ALCO? Really I’m shocked, but I read today in the Globe that Wellesley, Mass. is proposing a $130 million high school, so maybe that’s what high schools cost now-a-days.

As for the wind turbines at Fields Point, I have nothing to say other than do it, and do it now, please and thank you.

Towards the end of the ProJo article Cicilline is quoted saying, “This is not about governors competing with mayors competing with the federal government. Everyone will be working together on this. Most governors would acknowledge that the public process of approving government projects takes time. “¦ There are studies, the planning process, public hearings. …We’ve already done much of that.”

OK, yes, he is right, this stuff gets done at the city level, and for a lot of things, I’d much prefer federal dollars going straight to the city. But really, it is so sad that he even has to say this. Obviously it is the state against the city (or he wouldn’t have had to articulate such). The state and city notoriously cannot get along. We’re such a small state and the health of Providence is so vital to the health of the state and vice versa. Wouldn’t it be nice, if during these extreme economic times, if we could just all get along?

So one last thing, the mayor actually posted a little clip on YouTube talking about what he did in Washington (how Barackian of him). If you care to watch it is embedded here for your viewing pleasure.

In all seriousness, I’d be happy to see the mayor, members of his administration, and people up on Smith Hill do more of this. The intertubes are so hip, get with it!

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Oldest indoor shopping mall in America, closed

Arcade

ProJo:

The Arcade, the nation’s oldest indoor shopping mall, closed to the public this morning as its owners are preparing to transition the downtown landmark, which in recent years had been home to a handful of small, independent businesses and eateries, into a space for a single company or retailer.

Good luck with that.

“It’s gotten a lot scarier out there,” [Evan Granoff] said in his offices today. “There are not a lot of people thinking of expanding. Retailers are just trying not to have to hold onto a lot of inventory on their shelves, and other businesses are just trying to survive in this climate.”

It’s scary out there, we can’t afford to maintain the building, could we have an “emergency demo permit?”

The Arcade, which was built in 1828 and is on the National Register of Historic Places, is assessed at about $1.4 million, according to city records.

Really, how hard would it be for us to raise $1.4 million? I’m serious.

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Providence vs. The Economic Crisis

For groups such as our own, the usual desire is to focus on a specific set of topics, in a specific area, so as to achieve a specific goal. We aim to be optimistic with our expectations, positive with our critiques, and to avoid sounding overly negative about anything, so as to keep dialogue as open as possible. Unfortunately, sometimes there are factors that enter the equation that would never normally have to be considered. I personally believe that to say that these are such times would be a grave understatement, so I’d like to open a dialogue concerning the balance between our goals, and realistic expectations in the current global situation.

In light of this past week’s news of the bailout of Citigroup, which is truly a giant in the financial world, we must consider the possibility of an absolute meltdown of international banking and the trickle-down effects that this total seizure of liquidity entails. With such dire prospects properly understood, we must look to the solutions that ultimately make up the core goal of groups such as GC:PVD: true sustainability and independence.

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