As of this week, the big U.S. transportation bill has passed the Senate. This means that the measure still has to overcome a good deal of irrational opposition in the highly ideological and Republican dominated U.S. House of Representatives. Changes, like the Senate version, that go to simplifying the number of transport related federal programs. And consolidating some is a good thing. Eliminating guidelines to use as part of these huge programs outlays for things like bus transit and some related outlays that have special relevance for modest income and essentially voiceless people may go away in the new bill, So local efforts -- intense local efforts -- to get our state Department of Transportation, the legislature and others to focus on these needs will be highly material. Essential, even.
Extra funding for a more agile, sustainable and imaginative local transportation system is at stake. The thousands of Tulsans who participated in PlaniTulsa called for a denser, less autocentric Tulsa, going forward. So, the Washington struggle over national dollars for transport, as I tried to suggest last week, is a special moment for Green Country.
In recent weeks I've written that Tulsa's great new planning process was finally getting underway at City Hall -- part of my optimistic outlook came from the hiring of Dawn Warrick, the City's new planning/economic development chief. She is an aggressive and clearly very intelligent party who looks committed to doing the small area plans in Northland, the Utica corridor and in Tulsa Hills. These are the first parts of a long, multi-element process to put the new planning process in place. Warrick is a landscape architect, a geographer and an urban planner. She's also someone with deep experience in community outreach, securing public participation in complex planning efforts and using technology for planning and enhancing public service delivery.
But it looks as if there's a problem emerging that may fundamentally compromise the entire process. The emerging challenge may well be a violation of public trust and broadly inconsistent with crucial ideas and the notion at the center of the elaborate public participation process that animated PlaniTulsa.
The "Cap X" Connection
I was once the staff liaison to a couple of investment banking firms and an architectural/engineering firm in Tulsa. Much of the work of the architectural firm entailed designing/overseeing the construction/expansion of new public facilities -- courthouses, juvenile/adult justice facilities, performance/convention centers etc. I had senior responsibility for helping the communities that were the firm's clients and the investment banking professionals we worked with, to identify new funding waypoints for these projects -- typically we looked at sales tax initiatives, bond issues and other public finance mechanisms. We called these projects -- long lived efforts -- "Cap X."
The City of Tulsa's capital improvement process is long-standing -- it dates from the mid '70s. Basically, the routine entails having city department heads, the mayor, the city council, neighborhood/lay folks and other parties including business people, make suggestions on how Tulsa's now multibillion-dollar capital process should proceed -- what projects should be selected for funding in the usually three to five year periods that make up the process is central. Because the draft list of projects always exceeds available dollars (usually by billions), a set of cut/pick filters have been put in place to narrow the large wish list routinely crafted. Moreover, analytics have also been used to do project selections: For example, one of the key drivers for street projects, used in the last round of the process, was the Pavement Condition Index. It is used to guide street project/maintenance "targeting" efforts.
One of the emerging problems is that this measure and others like it, are classical engineering/public works metrics that don't fully incorporate wide public sentiment or some of the environmental, open space, amenity centric, quality of life aspirations that are so central to PlaniTulsa -- like better bus transit, or even light rail -- assets that would support a denser, more vibrant build environment. And too often, the classic process serves to deliver on "inside baseball" projects that don't have a real link to quality of life or economic development and will engender massive opposition (like expanding Riverside Drive). Or, are vital but have advocates who don't have much power (like transit proponents or strong supporters of more balanced growth in Tulsa).
But using a broader, more varied basis for selecting big capital projects has to be a much larger part of the region's process going forward. Planning, if it is going to be more than a map/meeting regime, has to have a connection and privileged link to public financing, Tulsa's capital improvement process, the renewal of the Vision 2025 project effort, and to imaginative incentive packages designed to encourage private players to play effective roles to bring PlaniTulsa to fruition. Without real dollars -- for say, the plan's inventive complete streets effort, a planning element recently reaffirmed by the City Council -- there is no mechanism making PlaniTulsa real.
I spoke with Tulsan Bill Leighty and several others about these matters recently. Leighty is a member of the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission and a member of a crucial Transportation Advisory body charged with advising regional elected folks on crafting the next iteration of Tulsa's transport system. Leighty feels that there is a huge gap emerging between the preliminary set projects coming out of their early phases of the City's capital project identification process and key aspirations embodied in PlaniTulsa.
It looks as though, unless something magical happens, many of the notions, ideas and projects associated with PlaniTulsa will have no claim to the next $400-$600 million capital program that Tulsa folks will be asked to approve sometime in the next 16 to 24 months.
This is tragic and wildly inconsistent with the expectations of thousands of Tulsans. And the "disconnect" will get amplified if the new federal transportation bill strips away what many call "enhancements."
The Mayor, the City Council and public advocates for actually executing Tulsa on the great new plan need to rethink the capital connection to PlaniTulsa -- the City's "autopilot" recycling of the capital improvements program needs to be hacked up and re-imagined and it needs to happen soon.
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