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'By-Passed' No More: Small Cities Make Big Transit Plans for Livability and Sustainability

June 7, 2013

Small cities and towns are forever being buffeted by the winds of fate. When they are the collection and distribution centers for rural areas, the agricultural economy — changeable as the wind itself — governs all. As a gateway to recreational areas they may fail along with the latest resort to go under, or struggle to maintain their character amid an onslaught of second homes and chain-store commerce. If they are within a longish commute to a major metro area, traffic and sprawl may arrive to swamp a formerly bucolic retreat. Adding to the difficulty, for many years state governments delivered much of their intended economic help in the form of highway by-passes, which often as not drew economic activity away from town centers so that they were by-passed in all senses of the word.

This is the tale of two cities in two different settings that have sought to buck the trends and take the reins of destiny in their own hands where transportation and economic development are concerned. They are only a few examples of the dozens of such towns and small cities around the country that are looking at their transportation networks and development opportunities in new ways. And much of the credit for these changes can go to the Internet, said Roger Millar, who oversees a program of technical assistance to smaller cities as vice president of Smart Growth America.

“What we’re finding in this digital age, when people can choose to live almost anywhere, is that they are,” Millar said. “What happens in small towns is you get these champions who are informed and articulate and effective. What they want for their community is a quality of life. For some it’s more about economic opportunity and for others it’s about a landscape, access to public transit or the social fabric. Many of these towns had a resource economy — mining, timber or farming — that has had to be restructured. People have had to be creative, and there are some very creative people in America.

“It doesn’t take a lot of those people to affect change in a small town,” he added. “These days there are a lot of resources available, from the feds and national groups like ours, or similar statewide organizations … there are a lot of places people can go to get good ideas.”

The New Normal, Ill.

A college town of 52,000 in downstate Illinois, Normal drew some raised eyebrows when their Uptown multimodal station became the first project supported by the federal TIGER program to break ground. First funded in the 2009 “stimulus” act, TIGER — Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery — was something of an experiment: a competitive grant program designed to award and spur innovative, multi-pronged projects. TIGER was meant to fund more complex projects that didn’t fit neatly into federal funding silos — which also meant they were likely to be harder to do and take longer. It was a surprise, then, that a small city with a tiny staff and budget in 2010 not only was among the first 51 of thousands of applicants to win a grant, but also was the first to turn earth on a project.

“The application looked like it was written for us,” said Wayne Aldrich, director of development for Normal’s Uptown redevelopment. “We were truly shovel-ready.” Getting there, however, took more than a decade.

The story began in 1999, when Normal hired Chicago urban designer Doug Farr with an assignment to “do something about our downtown,” Farr recalled. At the time, Farr was looking for opportunities to integrate his interests in new urbanist design and green building. He proposed a plan that recast an area of Uptown Normal from a gas station and dry cleaner at the juncture of a tangle of streets to a central city plaza anchored by a relocated Amtrak station.

The station, topped by offices, would become the hub of several modes and activities. He suggested rewriting design codes so that surrounding buildings would support a walkable center, with active uses like shops or restaurants on the ground floor. And he asked town leaders to stretch even farther, to require that buildings meet green LEED standards, and to use tax increment financing to build public amenities such as a central fountain that would cleanse storm-water runoff.

The city took on almost all of it, Aldrich said, adopting the plan in 2001. Most daunting, it turned out, was financing the multimodal station.

“In 2002 we hired a lobbyist in DC to help us get in the door to get federal funding, because everyone told us we would need that,” said Aldrich. For five years city leaders knocked on congressional doors, eventually winning earmarks of $10 million — but not enough to build the station.

In the meantime, they hired an architect to design the station and did everything they could think of to be ready. “Then in 2008 the economy tanked,” Aldrich said. The 2009 stimulus initially looked like a bust for Normal, because their project didn’t fit prescribed categories. But when the TIGER application process opened in late 2009, Normal pounced on it.

The city stuck to its guns and kept pushing for the station because it was so central to their revitalization concept, Aldrich said. “In a central business district like ours, if you’re going to do redevelopment, you need some kind of transit component,” Aldrich said. “We had Amtrak located away from downtown, and Illinois DOT was talking about higher-speed rail.”

Since opening in July 2012, Uptown Station and its circular plaza have become the new heart of the city. Amtrak now departs from the downtown station, with City Hall relocated to the upper floors of the station building, a children’s museum began drawing families and school visits from miles around and a major hotel has opened. After balking early on, the local bus service has since both rebranded itself and relocated its hub to Uptown Station, and inter-city bus service leaves from there to Peoria, the Chicago airport, Denver and other destinations.

“Chicago has Lake Michigan, San Francisco has the bay, but Normal doesn’t have much beyond rolling cornfields,” Farr said. “You have to make a different statement.

It was kind of unexpected that this would be the place that embraced the green building and urbanism ideas we were developing then, but they did, in a way that a larger community might not be able to.”

“It shows a huge amount of commitment on the part of a smaller municipality,” Aldrich said, “and we think it’s paying off in terms of getting us on the map.”

Making Bozeman, Mont., ‘The Most Livable Place’

How does a small city of 38,000 in the southwestern corner of Montana live up to an ambitious slogan like, “The Most Livable Place”? Part of the answer, it turns out, is a smartly executed public transit system.

Ten years ago, Bozeman was the only key urban center in the state without a regularly operating bus system. True, surrounding Gallatin County had an on-demand system for seniors and a service for the disabled called Galavan, operated by the Human Resources Development Council. And Montana State University (the largest area employer) operated some campus shuttles. But the systems weren’t coordinated and left most of the local population out of the story — including the many tourists who visit the Big Sky ski area and other nearby recreational opportunities.

In 2005, just as city leaders, the university and resort operators were talking about how to create a more comprehensive system, Congress adopted a new federal transportation program that included a special transit program for lower-population areas. Federal funds would cover up to 60 percent of a transit system’s capital and operating costs (larger than most states because Montana gets a little extra for hosting large swaths of non-taxable federal land). With the university providing most of the local match, the city’s Streamline service, with four fixed routes, launched in 2006 in conjunction with the Big Sky resort’s Skyline service. The fare-free service has seen growing ridership every year, including a 14 percent jump in fiscal 2012.

“The biggest problem they are having is managing continued growth,” said Lisa Ballard, who recently completed a new five-year plan for Streamline. As a Bozeman resident, Ballard was on the original working group that helped found the system. “That’s a good problem to have.”

Her recent survey of Streamline riders found that well over half are university students, faculty or staff. While 52 percent of riders cannot drive or have no car, fully 41 percent say they have access to a car but choose to take the bus, Ballard found. “Streamline is achieving a meaningful reduction in number of cars on the road by offering a convenient, safe, high quality alternative to driving,” the report concludes. Some of the cars being removed might otherwise be operated by intoxicated drivers. Streamline’s Latenight route — running Thursday through Saturday nights — gives students and other revelers a safe way home from entertainment areas.

“I think a lot of people were skeptical at first that people would ride in Bozeman,” Ballard said. “But now they see it has a real amenity.” Faculty and staff can get to their jobs from the outlying Belgrade community, parents can put their older kids on a bus to the local ski area on weekends, and resort workers can get to Bozeman to shop. Another indicator of success: “Classified ads now point out whether a rental place is near a bus line,” said Ballard.

The secrets of success? Free rides help, certainly. And the routes are designed to hit the hospital, university and downtown areas that see high traffic. But Ballard also credits the system’s creative and appealing branding, “some of the best I’ve seen in the country.”

“The community made a smart decision to invest in great marketing,” she said. The branding built from the buses that were chosen, which are similar to the historic, streamlined style used at Yellowstone National Park. That look inspired the name, which also resonated nicely with the surrounding landscape of mountains and streams.

The recent rider survey showed consistently high satisfaction with — and praise for — the expanded and better-coordinated Streamline service. The biggest complaint? They want more of it.