Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Lehigh Valley Planning Comm'n Hits Hard Times

poor planning
When I first started blogging five years ago, one of my favorite targets was the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission. I'm amazed by how much they've learned in such a short time!

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.


Anonymous said...

An excellent question from Cusick. I can't imagine why the Northampton County contribution should be larger than the Lehigh County contribution.

Anonymous said...

certainly light rail could benefit Geeting, who couuld finally breeze in an take an actual look at the issues upon which he frequently comments.
Other than that - it's a loser

Jon Geeting said...

Long term, it would be great if they could get more contributions from business organizations. Combine it with the LV Research Consortium, and you've got a proper think tank like the Greater Philadelphia Economy League. It's nice that they're able to do a lot with a small budget, but this is valuable info, and there's even more valuable ideas they could be researching but aren't. They should have a much bigger budget.

Anonymous said...

Route 22 was also costly an ineffective at one time too.

Anonymous said...

Then write them a check Geeting, I'm sure they take contributions.

Listening to you spend other people's money is getting old.

Anonymous said...

Actually works? They have no authority so they just agree with the municipal decision that is coming anyway. The one time they disagreed was in regards to the Airport Rd shopping center and Hanover Township just laughed and approved it anyway.

BTW, peak oil is here so your efforts were at least guided on a valid concern.

Anonymous said...

Actually when you factor in oil sands and other sources, peak oil is a very long way off.

And please don't tell me "oil sands will never work" - history is littered with that prognostication.

Anonymous said...

The fact that the oil sands are there does little to help the rate which we have been extracting oil from the ground from continuing to decline.

It is a very expensive, energy intensive, and slow process to get anything out of oils sands we can use.

Anonymous said...

Lehigh County's contribution is lower because Don has a big problem with the Planning Commission because they have raised concerns and questions on nearly all of his administration's economic development projects.

It's further complicated by the fact that unlike the airport authority, Don can't stack the planning commission and move Kaiser out just because he wants to. Kaiser is the Valley's version of Joe Paterno. He's there until he doesn't want to be.

So, in lieu of being able to do any sort of board shuffling, he controls the budget and tries to isolate the organization. Just like in Allentown, you've got to be on board to get paid.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Angle. This light rail thing was a big distraction to the most pressing transportation concern in the LV, Route 22.

The well-intended smart growth advocates meeting in the coffee shops in traditional neighborhoods failed to recognize that most new employers were selecting to build on undeveloped land in less congested areas along the margin of the LV. Seems more effort should be given to promote the Route 22 corridor and our Brownfield sites to centralize private investment
Some can’t seem to recognize that the metro area now extends beyond the limits of the third class cities. A more vibrant Route 22 corridor may make improve the prospects for passenger rail service to the Cities.

Anonymous said...

Getting 725. We have over $16M in gaming money floating around the valley. Seems some of that money could have been diverted to the LV planning commission for regional planning purposes.

Interesting that most of the proceeds from gaming go to the Commonwealth. Maybe we should reconsider gaming laws and follow the Corbett model he proposed for Gas Impact fee and keep 75% of the gaming proceeds for local use.

Anonymous said...

Light rail is not politically and financially feasible. More effort should go into transportation powered by compressed natural gas. We're sitting on two Saudi Arabias worth in PA. Most heavy truck manufacturers have CNG models or are proposing them. PA will be the first state to lay out an infrastructure for fueling stations and PennDOT and Turnpike are already planning for it. It's cleaner and safer and doesn't require sending 19-year olds across the globe to die for it. And it's already here and quite politically and economically feasible. Widen 22 and run cleaner cars down it.

Anonymous said...

I urge everyone read a great book "Suburban Nation" by Andres Duany about smart growth! Hopefully, after reading it, you'll understand that Light Rail is a sound solution to the area traffic problems, the route 22 widening is not.