Friday, November 9, 2012

Economist Talks Urban Transportation Corridors In Spokane

For the past two days, I've spent my time at a serious of events centered around the visit of economist Dena Belzer to Spokane. Ms. Belzer, founder and president of consulting and research firm Strategic Economics out of Berkely, CA, specializes in connecting regional economic and demographic growth trends to real estate development activity and local policy initiatives. Her firm helps local governments, community groups, developers, and non-profits understand the local economic and development climate in order to take strategic steps towards creating high-quality places for people to live and work.

SRTC partnered with the Spokane Regional Health District (SRHD) to bring her to our area to talk about
Urban Transportation Corridors (UTCs), what they are, if they're feasible for our region. UTCs are neighborhoods and/or districts that can accommodate new mixed use development and roads that can accommodate multimodal travel such as cars, transit, bikes and pedestrians.

Ms. Belzer's visit was in conjunction with the work SRTC is doing on our long range transportation plan, Horizon 2040. While traditional transportation measures such as congestion levels and safety are still important, the economic downturn has shifted the emphasis from reducing congestion to identifying projects that will also work to revitalize the local economy. UTCs are one such possible investment, which is why we decided to take a look at them.

I have pages and pages of notes from Ms. Belzer's visit, so over the next week or so, I'm going to post 'installment' pieces of what I gathered from her visit, including her opinions and perceptions of our area and the reactions of our elected, civic and business leaders who saw her presentations.

The first event featuring Ms. Belzer was a forum on Wednesday that targetted local business and civic leaders. Ms. Belzer made a presentation, then a panel featuring local developers Mick McDowell and Chris Olson and City of Spokane Planning Director Scott Chesney, responded with their thoughts. The facilitator for the forum was Spokane International Airport (SIA) Director Larry Krauter.
Ms. Belzer started with requirements for UTCs:
  • Modest increases in development (she cited an average of 7 or 8 housing units per acre).
  • Located near major employment centers.
  • In neighborhoods with public amenities.
  • Must have opportunities for bicycling and walking.
  • High performance transit must be present in the area.
She said employment density is critical for UTCs. If you still have to drive to your job, there's no benefit to creating them. Another thing she said that may surprise you is there are a lot more families without children in Spokane County than those with. Here's the breakdown: 28% of households in Spokane County are families with children, 35% are families without children, 29% are single-person households and 8% are other non-family households. That's going to change how transportation is planned for. Those without children don't necessarily want to live in the 'burbs in a large home with a double car garage that you can't get to any other way than driving. And with many single women buying homes, many are leaning toward condos or townhouses so they don't have to worry about maintenance.


She said that cost of living prices in our region may not be as low as we think. Most people are spending 30% of their household income on housing, which is fairly inexpensive. But add another 15% for transportation costs because we live in an area where it's not always easy to get around without a personal vehicle, and that's almost half of a household's income spent on housing and transportation.

Ms. Belzer's opinion on how to get started developing UTCs (or determining if they're right for our area) is to conduct a real estate market study to see what the state of the market is in general, and what areas are "hot," because those are the areas people want to live in, so it's safe to plan public transit around them.

I've got a couple other projects I have to tackle for today so come back next week for more on Urban Transportation Corridors and if they have a place in our community.

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About SRTC

SRTC is the federally designated Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) for Spokane County. Urbanized areas with populations exceeding 50,000 people are required to have an MPO. SRTC was formed to address the county's transportation planning needs. It provides coordination in planning between the public, cities, small towns, the county, the state, transit providers, and tribes.

SRTC offers services including transportation monitoring, transportation modeling, census information analysis, travel demand forecasting, historical traffic count analysis, geographic information systems, and trip generation rates.