Of course, the person who needed to learn a few things was me. At that time, I was a big proponent of light rail. Thinking that we were in for a "crude" awakening, I even joined a committee that met every week at some organic restaurant to form study groups and talk ... and talk ... and talk. Mike Kaiser, Executive Director of the LVPC, was widely denounced as the bad guy who failed to understand that peak oil was already here.
At that time, Kaiser dared dis the idea of light rail in the Lehigh Valley as too costly and frankly, ineffective in an area dominated by suburban sprawl. He thought improving bus service would be a better idea, but that just doesn't sound as sexy as a choo choo.
Well, the committee eventually faded away, and even rail advocates now acknowledge that light rail is a poor fit for the Lehigh Valley. So they wanted passenger rail, so that commuters could take the choo choo to NYC and Jersy every day. Never mind that the buses that already do that are quicker and cheaper. Never mind that Jersey train stations are away from the jobs. Never mind the cost. Never mind a study done by Kaiser, concluding that passenger rail, like light rail, would be costly and ineffective.
The LVEDC, joined by Northampton County Council and Lehigh County Commissioners invested $250,000 into a rail study about extending passenger rail from Jersey into the Lehigh Valley. As Kaiser had said before, it would be too costly and ineffective. And as it turns out, Kaiser was right.
Kaiser's Lehigh Valley Planning Commission is a rare regional body that actually works, despite having a 37-member board between two counties. It comments on and must approve ever subdivision proposed in the Lehigh Valley, has its own regional comprehensive plan and pays very close attention to trends in this area's demographics.
Most of its funding comes from PennDot, but it relies on the counties for financial support, too. It used to get $300,000 every year from subdivision review fees, but that is now down to about $80,000. So is the staff, which has been cut to 18 people.
Last year, Northampton County gave the LVPC $425,000, the same sum it received from Lehigh. This year, Kaiser has asked for $475,000, claiming that "we want to survive more than one year."
Council member Ron Angle, known for slashing programs, surprisingly supports the proposed increase, as does County Executive John Stoffa. Angle commented on the "old worn out chairs" used at meetings, which he likes to see, joking that Kaiser went to 16 discount places before replacing some of them. "It's the most frgal organization I ever served on," he stated. "They do an outstanding job with a minimal amount of money."
But Council President John Cusick wanted to know if Lehigh County is willing to increase its contribution, too. So far, it's still at the same $425,000 as last year. "I can't justify it if Lehigh County doesn't do it."
Angle vowed to bring it up at Monday's meeting of the combined legislatures of both counties, noting that this was an opportunity to put the regionalism it preaches into practice.