Without a permanent trust fund, Amtrak could go to the dogs | Railway Age

Without a permanent trust fund, Amtrak could go to the dogs | Railway Age.

The opening paragraph is wonderful (read the entire thing though!):

Ever present is former House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.)—now just a T&I Committee member—whose shtick is an enduring impersonation of an annoying hemorrhoid, as he perpetually interrupts Amtrak officers from running the railroad to absorb his screeches over the profit margin of a ham sandwich and glass of wine aboard Amtrak.

We need to reject calls to shift all funding for long-distance Amtrak to the states, and we need to continue support of passenger rail transportation. The amount spent on rail, even the amount request, pales in comparison to the amount thrown to roads.


Urban Chickens!

Quick update!

The urban agriculture ordinance passed Planning Commission last month and is headed to City Council soon. The tentative schedule is laid out below:

  • Introduction: December 3 (assumed date)
  • Second hearing: December 17 – a hearing intended specifically to allow for public discussion.
  • Final hearing: December 31 – generally the up or down vote on an ordinance.
The Neighborhood Alliance, a group with which I’ve been involved, and on whose Board/staff I have many friends, published the following text via email:
Public Hearing on Urban Agriculture in Oklahoma City

This ordinance addresses: Community Gardens, Composting, Home Gardens, Urban Farming, Roof Gardens, Greenhouses, Hoop Houses and Rainwater Harvesting.
The ordinance also allows backyard chickens with the following restrictions:
Parcels that are less than one acre may house up to six chickens, no roosters, a coop is required, chickens must have access to the outdoors, may be located in a fenced back or side yard only and no outdoor slaughtering is allowed.

Personally, I do not like that they pulled chickens out specifically. If there was one area where I thought people might raise too much of a stink and sink part, or all, of the ordinance, it was the chicken issue. Properly cared for chickens are not loud and will be beneficial to those urban residents that choose to have them. Roosters, yes, they are loud, and they are NOT permitted in the ordinance.

A sticking point, and one on which I agree, is that code enforcement at the City is already stretched, and generally works on a complaint-only basis. This means that, unless a code enforcement officer is in a Weed and Seed area with extra funding, they only respond to submitted complaints, and ONLY from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. Many people will complain that roosters and bad conditions may not be noticeable during those times.

A workable solution, in my opinion, is to keep the ordinance as written, and look for additional funding to support code enforcement overtime to work on neighborhood-scale issues in the evenings, or some other arrangement by which we can expand code enforcement’s effectiveness.

The Future of Urban Agriculture in OKC


When I left my job at The City of Oklahoma City, staff had made various forays into reviewing zoning regulations regarding urban agriculture. Euclidean zoning, by its nature, generally causes zoning practitioners to err on the side of caution – if something isn’t explicitly permitted, then it’s not allowed. At the very least, if something is questionable, it becomes bogged down in the red tape of government review. Therefore, when it comes to urban agriculture and its various elements, if it’s not explicitly permitted in OKC’s zoning code, it’s not allowed.

This week, while doing my regular browsing of OKC’s City Council and Planning Commission agendas, I noticed that OKC staff was bringing a rather large urban agriculture ordinance to Planning Commission for first hearing. The ordinance is more than just permitting home gardens, hoop houses and even greenhouses in all parts of the City. It allows chickens on lots less than one acre, roof gardens and rainwater harvesting. This is a great step forward to allowing, even encouraging, urban farming and related endeavors by residents of OKC.

The drive to be a healthier community is rooted in the physical environment. Our reliance on the automobile and the limited walkability that we have designed around that lifestyle, has greatly reduced the healthy of our City and the nation. Furthermore, the refined, processed and non-fresh food that most of us consume contributes to our overall lack of health. An increase in home gardens, hoop houses, greenhouses and urban farms would do wonders for our collective health. Additionally, raising one’s own food (and eggs) could also lead to less spending on food overall. The ordinance is not limited to homeowners – it appears to be written to allow and encourage restaurants and the like to grow more of their own food. The allowance for roof gardens, hoop gardens and greenhouses feels particularly useful for this.

To read the staff report and the proposed ordinance for yourself, go here: http://www.okc.gov/AgendaPub/meeting.aspx?cabinet=published_meetings&docid=55920 (Item 29).

A few specific notes: First, the item that I predict will be the most controversial is the allowance for up to 6 chickens per home on lots less than 1 acre. It shouldn’t be controversial, the conditions attached to the use require that each chicken have 4 square feet of living space in the coop and 8 square feet outside the coop. Additionally, the structure must obey all setback rules and be at least 10 feet from a property line. Finally, they must be hens – no roosters, which are what cause the noise that people associate with chickens. I hope this part goes through – it will certainly need the verbal and written support of the residents of OKC.

Second, the ordinance surprised me in that it specifically deals with compost. I’ll be honest that I hadn’t ever thought that compost would be a legal issue, that it wasn’t already permitted. However, reading the ordinance I can see that people needed to distinguish between compost and trash. So, if you compost at home and don’t already keep the compost in a bin or related enclosure, you need to get ready to comply.

Third, I’m pleased that the ordinance specifically codifies and allows rainwater harvesting. Collecting what rainwater we can will lead to slightly less usage overall, and will assist in irrigation. Garden plants should also do better, because rainwater is (freer) of the chemicals introduced in the drinking water treatment process.

If you support this ordinance, please write your Planning Commissioner and City Council person (as well as those that aren’t yours).

Believe it or not, I don’t have a dog in this fight, so to speak. I live in Lincoln Terrace, and our zoning is controlled by the State of Oklahoma. Any change to the City’s zoning has no bearing on our neighborhood (until we dissolve the State’s zoning control – that’s another story).

Oklahoma City Planning Commission meets Thursday Oct. 24, at 1:30pm on the third floor of City Hall for the 2nd and final PC hearing. Then it’s on to City Council. Read a good blog update from Dave Cathey here: http://newsok.com/looking-for-fowl-in-all-the-wrong-places-urban-chickens-need-your-help/article/3896757?custom_click=rss

A Vision for North Lincoln Blvd

We bought a home in Lincoln Terrace in July of 2012; we moved in in March of 2013. Living in this area has provided me with a great opportunity to explore my urban planning dreams and ideas. For today’s lunchtime blog post, I’d like to share a small glimpse of what I’m thinking about.

I would love to see light rail some day in Oklahoma City. I think N. Lincoln would be a perfect place to run a line from downtown to the northeast. I need to spend time drafting my ideas and comparing them to other people’s and to the Fixed Guideway Study that OKC has already done. Today’s post includes just a glimpse of what could be if light rail was built along this corridor.

N. Lincoln is currently a 6 (wide) lane expressway from NE 4th all the way to NE 50th Street. Traffic counts range from 26,000 ADT just north of 4th to 14,000 ADT just north of 13th to 20,000 ADT just south of NE 50th Street. FHWA guidance indicates that most streets less than 20,000 ADT are eligible for Road Diets, whereby a 4-lane or 6-lane road is reduced to 1 lane each direction with a center turn lane and bike lanes, or some variations. Therefore, except for a few select locations, N Lincoln meets guidance that says it should be 3 lanes total, not 3 lanes in each direction.

The image below is from the fantastic new site StreetMix.net. Street Mix helps you easily visualize a street section – you can use it to look at current vs. future, the what-if scenarios of planning. I love it.

N. Lincoln Blvd today (at approximately NE 16th Street):

N Lincoln Blvd - Current

Notice how wide the lane widths currently are – I walked them off yesterday, and they appear to be 15′ each. Street Mix is so kind as to say “This segment might be too wide”.

Now, let’s take a look at a “what could be” scenario.

N Lincoln Blvd - Future

Using the same right-of-way width, I’ve added separated light rail (with island boarding and alighting), kept two lanes of traffic each way, and also added a separated bike lane on each side. On-street parking isn’t noted because, at least in this area, all of the existing homes front the side streets. That would change elsewhere. This specific section can’t be done exactly like this south of 13th, because the median disappears, but you can get the feeling of what could be done. As part of my light rail analysis I hope to be able to do this type of Street Mix scenario for a variety of areas around OKC.

What can you dream up with Street Mix? Show me!

Branding a Bland Holland

Time for another lunchtime post. Today’s topic: Bland branding and my hometown. As a point of order, if you follow my blog, I apologize for being all of the map with my topics. I have so many varying interests, I couldn’t keep myself to posting about one certain thing on a blog.

I grew up in Holland, Michigan, on the shores of Lake Macatawa and Lake Michigan. For a very interesting, and fresh, summary of what my hometown area is like, head on over to The Atlantic and their American Futures special series. Holland is the first city that James Fallows is visiting (updates started Sunday, 11 August 2013.

Perusing through his first posts, I noticed that James hit on something that I have complained about on Twitter in the past. He put the following one-liner in his notes about the flight path he chose (flying a small aircraft to visit the cities for this series): “Tulip City Airport (which now has some more boring generic name) in Holland, MI.

I completely agree with the “more boring generic name” for Tulip City Airport, now known as West Michigan Regional Airport. The new name was adopted in 2011 after Zeeland and Park Township came together (after voting) with Holland to form a new airport authority (read the Sentinel’s wrap-up). The new name has no more geographic meaning to it than it did before; I would argue that the new name has even less meaning. To an outsider, West Michigan could be Grand Rapids, it could be South Haven, Grand Haven, Muskegon, Ludington, or even Traverse City. At least Tulip City conveyed the sense that it was related to Holland, which is on the west side of Michigan.

Similarly, the once aptly-named Holland Area Chamber of Commerce (with the simple logo, below) also decided to rename itself. What did they choose? West Coast Chamber; yet another broad and bland brand. The new logo has no basis to tell you which region this applies to – west coast of what? It doesn’t reference any of the history or geography of the area, and certainly doesn’t enforce any type of regional identity.




New (and not improved)


I don’t know the history of either branding effort. I do know if if they surveyed business experts, or, if they did, what the survey results are. My only guess is that some people’s feathers were ruffled that Zeeland doesn’t get full bill, or Holland or Park Townships are being ignored, so someone felt like a re-branding was needed to keep people happy. If so, that’s unfortunate and unnecessary.

I do know that, amongst various people I’ve talked to, mainly Millennials, that they enjoyed the original names and don’t agree, at all, with the new branding efforts. Regional identity and cultural association are very important to the younger generations. To me, the blanding of these brands leads to a “better than crappy makes us happy” (thanks Steve) type of feeling. No one can hate the new brands, but they certainly don’t excite anyone.

Bring back my Tulip City and the Holland Area Chamber (or at least be more thoughtful about the immediate regional identity)! Be proud of Holland and its region. Don’t shy away from the history and culture that makes people aware of this area.

Quiet Zones and Nuisances

UPDATE: As of 28 February 2017, OKC’s downtown Quiet Zone is in effect! Per OKC, it may take until 3 March 2017 to be fully quiet. https://okc.gov/Home/Components/News/News/2119/5146 Excited to this project come to fruition.

Today’s quiet zone article in the Oklahoman has initiated some interesting comments online and on Twitter. Many of these reactionary comments are along the line of “they shouldn’t have opened a yoga studio near the tracks” or “it’s downtown near the train line, of course there will be noise.” Many other people, particularly those with vested interests in areas affected by train horn noise, find that line of thinking hard to fathom.

Being an urban planner who grew up near farming communities, I understand some of the people who are surprised when people when someone moves into a nuisance area. For instance, back in Ottawa County, MI, many people would complain about farm smells (cattle, turkey and pig farms especially) after moving into new subdivisions built near old farms. The farmers, and I believe rightly so, could not understand how their traditional mode of operation was somehow a sudden nuisance. The people moving nearby should have known what type of area they were moving into. Unfortunately, farmers often lost that battle. (Ottawa County, did, however, come up with an amazing campaign to educate new homeowners about the smells associated with farming, including a scratch and sniff brochure).

The same type of battle can be had with the train noise downtown. The rail line has been there 100+ years, and it should be known to anyone moving/opening a business down there that train noise will be an issue.

HOWEVER, as Rob Crissinger said today, “blaring horns in this tech age seems pretty old school”. The traditional method of warning people that a train is approaching is cheap, easy and very established. But now it is certainly not the only method available, and when possible, I certainly believe new methods can, and should, be employed. The last half of this post is dedicated to the specifics – for now I have a couple more points to make.

Knowing that alternative methods are out there, I see no reason NOT to establish a quiet zone. Yes, businesses are moving into an area of a known noise nuisance, but NO, they shouldn’t have to accept it. With the pace of downtown redevelopment, any reasonable, cost-effective effort should be made to make the area more desirable for new and/or relocated businesses and residences. Many other cities, including Tulsa, have realized the benefits and worked to adopt quiet zones.

Once the quiet zone is established downtown, OKC will have no train noise (except for Amtrak when starting at the station) from SE 23rd (or 24th, if BNSF can close 23rd) to Wilshire. That is good for business and residents all along there. AND, if this is successful, it could hopefully pave the way for future quiet zone extensions. ON EDIT: I also think that the cost to develop the quiet zone will be far outweighed by the future economic development potential of developing the remaining open land and unused/underused existing buildings in the area.

A few of the people that are commenting on the Oklahoman’s article appear to be train nuts. I get it; I’m a train nut too. I love trains and the rail industry in general. If all train horns sounded like the one in my video, below, I’d have a tougher time being against them. But they don’t sound that romantic anymore, and it’s time to let new technology in. We can be safe and train horn-less.

A primer on train noise and establishing a quiet zone:

From the Federal Railroad Administration: “Under the Train Horn Rule  (49 CFR Part 222), locomotive engineers must begin to sound train horns at least 15 seconds, and no more than 20 seconds, in advance of all public grade crossings.”

In Oklahoma City’s downtown, the number and spacing of crossings (before the closure of 14th, 12th, 11th and Park Place) essentially requires an engineer to sound the horn at 10 crossings in less than a mile. At speed, a horn then could be sounded almost simultaneously for 150 to 200 seconds (2.5 to 3.3 full minutes). A train horn’s maximum decibel level is 110 db, and the minimum is 96 db. For comparison, a power saw is about 110 db and an electric drill is 95 db, close up. Therefore, the train noise in the downtown area, especially close to the tracks, can be long and very loud.

Train horns are the standard of safety for rail crossings because they alert drivers and pedestrians to a coming train. In order to create a quiet zone and remove train horns, something as equally, or more, safe must be put in place. The list below lists most of the methods available – some methods can be combined with others to create even safer methods:

Close the crossing completely: No crossing = no need to warn.

Grade separation: Move the road above or below = no need to warn.

Quad gates: Place a crossing arm on all 4 sides of the crossing so that a car cannot drive around the gate arms (requires coordination and working signals/timers, etc).

Medians: Construct 100’ (or more) of curb down the middle of the road so that a car cannot drive around waiting cars and into the crossing.

Pop-up Bollards: Install bollards that pop up every time a train comes (like what the City has for Reno Ave. outside the arena).

Directional Train Horns: Install speakers that direct simulated train horn noise at the road crossing instead of the multi-directional, moving train horn itself.

Certain safety levels must be met in order to officially receive a notice from the Federal Railroad Administration that requires the railroad to not sound a horn (except in emergency situations). The safety levels take the methods into account, etc. If the City proves that the safety levels are met, FRA will tell BNSF that a quiet zone is established. The FRA has a “How to Create a Quiet Zone” site if you want more information.

The City has already done a lot of work on this project, and began studying the issue back in 2007/2008. I was one of the first staff members to actually spend time on the project, and I was able to work on initial cost estimates and coordinate with BNSF on some issues. If you want to learn more about some of the engineering work that has been done, take time to look at Cardinal Engineering’s presentation to the APWA Spring Tech. Conference.

Funding Downtown Improvements

We appear to be heading into a battle about funding of some of the public improvements that voters “approved” in Maps 3 (approved is a loose term, since we approved sales tax collection for improvements in general). I think now is as good a time as any to point out something that I haven’t seen discussed much – private assistance. If some of our community leaders are so enthusiastic for certain projects, why aren’t they offering up some private assistance of their own?

I grew up in a similar consertative political atmosphere in West Michigan. When I was young, a group of local business leaders realized that quality of life was extremely important, and they started to band together to help supplement public funds in order to create great amenities for Grand Rapids and other areas. Their group, called Grand Action, has helped with various items, including a new convention center and an arena (something to think about, OKC).

The information below comes from the Grand Action website.

Van Andel Arena: Public funds – $56,000,000; Private funds – $21,000,000

DeVos Place (Convention Center): Public funds – $181,800,000; Private funds – $33,200,000

Michigan State University Medical Center: Private funds – $40,000,000; Corporate donation from Spectrum Health – $55,000,000

Other projects have been funded as well. You can check them out on the website.