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Archive for June, 2010

Rochesterians happily enjoy the ride to their new bus barn.

Bus transit here in our region fell off the wall last night, as Rochester City Council turned our regional transit “agency” loose to construct a 26 bay bus transfer facility downtown. The proposal passed 7-2, one vote short of defeat. 

Some of us spoke up. It didn’t help. 

Transit in this region is stuck in the 1950s – even though life here in our region has changed drastically over the last half century. All we have are buses, and all they do is go downtown and back out on ancient radial paths. If real people didn’t have to rely on this system every day, rain or shine, snow or heat, it would be laughable.

Unfortunately real people do use this system, and the system will still be incomprehensibly obsolete despite the transfusion of massive amounts of cash. (How, exactly, do you spend $750 a square foot on a bus station: both Detroit’s and Nashville’s recent bus barns, about the same size, were built for way less than half this amount)?

For those of us who have spent a lifetime working in transit, this is pretty sad stuff. We watch some cities trying hard to get transit right, and a few actually succeeding. As of last night, Rochester has proven that it will be free of this kind of success for some time to come.

By the way, Humpty didn’t fall. He was pushed.

I’ve had a wonderful time, but this wasn’t it.   Groucho Marx

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Herewith, the text of a second communique to City Council members urging that they oppose the downtown bus facility. I keep trying….

We’re coming down to the wire now, with the Planning Commission hearing the issue this evening, and the City Council slated to hear the proposal tomorrow evening. I guess I know where I will be for the next couple of nights. Wasn’t it Firesign Theater who said, years ago, that what we need now is a really good futile gesture?

The plan.

Council members, I want to share a few more thoughts on the plan for a downtown bus transfer facility in advance of this evening’s Planning Commission hearing. In addition to my earlier communication to you, in which I offered a series of reasons why you should oppose this project, I offer a few further thoughts.

1. The largest buses with the highest capacity, articulated buses, are to be located curbside on Mortimer Street. At this location there will be no shelter, so transit patrons using these vehicles will be forced to stand outdoors in inclement weather, and they will have to cross an active lane of traffic in order to transfer to other buses inside the facility.

Accommodation of these larger vehicles inside the facility is not be possible due to the tightness of the site – the facility itself cannot accommodate their length and wider turning radius.

Why would the city approve a building that cannot serve its function properly? On an alternate site, a building could be conceived that will not leave some of the most important transit vehicles outside the facility.

2. The building now is planned to accommodate 26 buses at a time. This is a very large number of vehicles in a very limited space. One of the consequences of this decision is that buses will be forced to move in reverse to leave their bays, and as they do so, they will block other vehicular movement inside the building. What does this mean? Slower movement of vehicles, and increases in bus dwell times and headways.

3. The plan of the building makes flexible, rapid movement of buses very difficult. If RGRTA replans its routing at some future time (as I have suggested previously), and the need for 26 bays inside the facility is reduced, the building itself will prevent a more appropriate and timely movement of vehicles. Reconstruction and replanning will be necessary in order to create a facility that will be able to respond to these modified operational requirements.

Whether this facility is considered from the perspective of urban design, or from the perspective of transit architecture, the current plan is deeply flawed. It will be a mistake of substantial proportion to approve this, a mistake that Rochesterians will regret for generations to come. I continue to urge you to oppose this proposal.

Stay tuned, Town Square visitors, for news of the outcome.

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Proposed Mortimer Street Transit Center, looking south.

I am going to take one more crack at Rochester’s ill-conceived $52 million downtown bus barn. I am having a Don Quixote moment – City Council cancelled consideration of this issue until July, and then, suddenly, today rescheduled consideration for next Tuesday. Somebody is getting pretty pushy, it seems.

I drafted the text below in order to provide talking points for City Council members who might want to oppose this very bad idea. Now, it seems, we won’t get to have those discussions. I fear that we must add the bus barn to the long list of gaffes in Rochester’s urban life. How sad.

My thanks to Reconnect Rochester colleagues, and others, for their suggestions and revisions.

Proposed Transit Center, looking east.

Why You Should Oppose Rochester’s Mortimer Street Transit Center

Constructing a Transit Facility for the Rochester Genesee Regional Transit Authority (RGRTA) on Mortimer Street in downtown Rochester would be a “legacy” mistake – one the city will be forced to live with for many years to come. The best example of a legacy mistake in Rochester is our Inner Loop. The proposed Mortimer Street facility fails to meet many of its claimed objectives, and should be reconsidered.

Here are several reasons why you should oppose this facility.

1. Operations

A. Construction of a downtown transit center will not improve overall RGRTA bus operations, nor will such a facility increase ridership or make transit alternatives more available to the city’s citizens.

The system now operates in what is called a hub-and-spokes model, with Main and Clinton as the hub, making regional bus trips unnecessarily long and complex. The current operational model requires that most users must first go downtown, and then transfer to an alternate route to reach their destination in localities throughout our region.

RGRTA should remodel this system of delivery of transit services. RGRTA is not heavily dependent on electronic infrastructure for coordination and tracking of routes, and so all that would be required to make the system more accessible and efficient would be to remap the routes, and to add hubs in locations throughout the region.

This has been contemplated by RGRTA for over 10 years, and most recently in a study completed in May of 2009 entitled the “Satellite Transit Center Study.” Before coming to the questionable conclusion that only four satellite facilities were required, the study looked at 19 potential transfer stations. These satellite hubs, if constructed, would make the system a true hub and spokes operation, and would greatly improve regional transit.

Before constructing a downtown transit facility, RGRTA should overhaul its bus routing and operations, adding satellite hubs as planned. This will substantially reduce the need for a large, centralized, downtown transit center.

B. It has been suggested that the Transit Center will remove buses from Main Street. This is not true. Buses will continue to travel on Main Street in both directions. It is true that they will loop into and out of the Mortimer Street facility once downtown, but it is not true that Main Street will be free of buses, or that heavy bus traffic on Main will be reduced.

C. A transit facility on Mortimer Street will not reduce the number of high school students gathering downtown. In Rochester, public high schools do not provide bus service. Instead, they rely on the public transit system. As a result, high school students are forced to gather downtown and wait approximately 40 minutes in order to transfer to buses carrying them to or from school. These young people will continue to be a presence on and near Main Street. And of course the sometimes troublesome behavior that comes with their gathering in a focused location will be intensified at the Mortimer Street site, not reduced.

If the system routing were altered, some of this focused gathering would be reduced. A centralized downtown transit facility will not accomplish this, however.

2. Downtown Development

A centralized, large scale downtown transit center will not enhance or induce downtown development. The proposed facility may negatively impact existing downtown residential and mixed use development, and is already opposed by one major downtown developer with a project adjacent to the proposed site. The presence of a large number of buses, and the attendant traffic, emissions, and noise, will not be an appropriate neighbor for existing and future redevelopment.

The Rochester Regional Community Design Center (RRCDC), in its 2000 Downtown Charrette, which morphed into the City’s 2004 Center City Plan, imagined dividing the Mortimer street block in half between Clinton and St. Paul, making the resulting two blocks more attractive for future redevelopment. The proposed transit facility preempts this possibility, creating a nearly 650 foot long barrier to future redevelopment to the north and east.

3. Intermodality

Constructing a transit center and bus transfer center separate from other modes of mass transit does nothing to enhance, enable or support transit use. As we increasingly discuss the need for high speed rail, enhanced intercity transit, and the possibility of a citywide or regional fixed guideway (streetcar) system, any downtown transit facility must be adjacent to other existing modes, and easily accessible to any future modes. The Mortimer Street location segregates the RGRTA bus system from existing Amtrak and intercity bus transit.

A true intermodal transit center in downtown Rochester would be a single location where intercity buses meet Amtrak trains. Such a center would also provide for taxis, shuttles, car rental, and shelter for existing RGRTA bus routes.

As cities across the nation consider and construct intermodal transit facilities to meet future needs, it is incorrect for our city to construct a facility that fails to integrate bus transit with heavy rail, intercity bus, future high speed rail, a possible future streetcar, and other potential future modes such as bus rapid transit or light rail systems. Mortimer Street is the wrong location for the RGRTA Transit Center.

4. A Downtown Circulator and enhanced downtown mobility

The proposed facility fails to take into consideration the possibility of a downtown circulator. The city is currently evaluating a variety of means to enhance downtown mobility, and to more easily connect downtown destinations and parking infrastructure. The Mortimer Street facility is not planned, and may not meet, the goals resulting from the city’s study. The city has stated, in its objectives for the study, that one option for enhanced mobility could be a streetcar. If a streetcar mode arises as an option in the course of the city’s study, questions of intermodality again are important.

5. Economics

A. The federal funds earmarked for this project will not be withdrawn if you oppose the project. While it has been stated that this is the case, conversations with officials in Washington suggest that this is not the case.

Most important is to plan for a facility, and a system of operations, that enhances transit for citizens. Federal support will remain available for a properly conceived and designed facility.

B. Cost estimates for this project are not consistent with similar projects in other U.S. cities. Current budget estimates ($52 million)suggest that the facility will cost seven times more than the U.S. average (according to R. S. Means, $124.89 per square foot is an average cost for a similar facility). This fact merits further consideration.

Conclusion

The concept of a downtown transit center is at least ten years old. Initially, the idea emerged as an underground component of a larger, and now defunct, development proposal called Renaissance Square. It is not clear how the proposal emerged from below grade and now is a stand-alone facility in the wrong location: certainly Rochester transit patrons were not among those asking for this proposal. Instead, they would simply prefer enhanced transit operations.

And so these are some of the reasons why this proposed transit center should be reconsidered. Of the highest priority is remapping the system so that its operation is optimized. Once this remapping and reorganization is complete, the need for a downtown transit facility can be reevaluated. Until then, this project should be opposed.

A note to our non-Rochester readers. You don’t know the details of this debate, nor the geography of the proposal, but it shouldn’t be hard to see a bad idea when it surfaces. The bus barn was once upon a time in the basement of a development proposal for downtown, a project that died last year. Miraculously, the bus barn emerged from that basement, and is now stalking the streets of our city.

Onward, I guess.

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A Milestone

Thanks to all of our visitors – today we will greet our 100,000th reader!

It’s been a great pleasure to have all of you join us in the Town Square. We hope you will stay with us as the conversations continue.

Onward!

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