Widening of Rt. 22 to start…

According to the Morning Call

The $64.7 million project, which will stretch to November 2020, will ultimately replace three bridges and widen the highway from four lanes to six. PennDOT is requiring lane closings to come only at night, but planning officials warn that no project this big comes without pain.

Needed and long overdue. However if we continue on the same path we’re on its essentially a bandaid. Moving forward unless we’re prepared to repeat the same conversation in another decade we have to get land use policy under control.

This is because… induced demand is a thing. In the world of traffic improvements it’s been proven time and time again. What it means is basically improvements are forced because of existing capacity issues. Problem is those same improvements just generate more induced demand instead of forcing a self correction in terms of land development practices. This leads to a vicious and expensive circle. 6 lanes today is a band-aid for a few years. But we’ll need 8 lanes tomorrow.

Remember when I-78 the last “big fix” was the end game?

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How do we unlock the Lehigh Valley from the vicious and massively expensive circle of induced demand? Preserve remaining farmland.

How do we unlock the Lehigh Valley from the vicious and massively expensive circle of induced demand?
Preserve remaining farmland.

Meanwhile we continue to lose the character that makes the Lehigh Valley a special place. The reason so many move here.

Lower Macungie – We’re a part of the problem.

Since 2010, Lower Macungie has rezoned over 850 acres of land for more intense development.

For starters, Lower Macungie will generate 800 more residential units than were ever planned for, nearly 4+ million square feet of warehousing and a couple hundred thousand additional square feet of commercial.

Strategic planning? How can you possibly plan for such a moving target?

Lower Macungie is definitely in part responsible for the expensive mess we are in. But we certainly aren’t alone. Other communities are as well. Moving forward unless we want to plan to throw another billion dollars at Rt. 22 or some other massively expensive capacity project for 8 lanes in another decade we have to get land use decisions under control across the Lehigh Valley. Remember, in a world where state and federal funding is less and less reliable eventually the pain could very well be felt more intensely at the local to fund these improvements. Personally, I think that is the most likely scenario.


Why do we overlook a golden opportunity?

According to the One Lehigh Valley Local Food Economy Report – The biggest barrier to fostering a more robust local food economy is continued loss of farmland.


130+ acre working farm in Lower Macungie. If the township doesn’t get proactive in preservation this will be 300 units someday.

Important to note since often overlooked: Agriculture IS a form of industrial infrastructure. Yet communities continue to pave over this invaluable asset only to replace it with uses that require additional infrastructure and strain local resources to sustain. Farmland is fiscally one of the highest value land uses in terms of liabilities vs. revenue.

  • Since 1930 the LV has lost 80% of it’s farms. Based on average diets Lehigh Valley farmers can only produce about 20% of the Valley’s food demands. With a market shift towards locally grown foods there is clearly money to be made in both local and regional economies.

All it takes are strategic investments in “food infrastructure” needed to support a local food economy. For ex: Aggregators, distributors, food business incubators, grain mills, and more food hubs. Even underserved and undervalued we already today have a local food economy that contributes 17 million annually to the LV economy.

900,000 residents with 145,000 more on the way. We have restaurants today who seek local sourced food. We have a network of municipal farmers markets. Eight Lehigh Valley areas today have limited access to fresh foods. *Super-majorities of residents value preserving farmland. Yet as a matter of mis-guided policy localities encourage the loss of the agriculture infrastructure. We have the will, there is demand, our economies will benefit. The economics make sense. What exactly is the holdup? Let’s acknowledge this as a regional opportunity!

What I can’t help but think is which forward thinking local municipality is going to recognize this and jump on it? A tenet of smart growth is utilizing existing infrastructure. Remaining farmland in our outer ring suburbs is just that. Who will make these connections and reconcile it with a communities desire to protect farmland and the corollary quality of life benefits. Which community will take the ball and run with it? Yes, it’ll take some time and a little more work vs. turning over a greenfield to a developer. And the benefits won’t be as immediate as one time cash infusions of a major real estate transfer. But over time it’s a move to set a community up for the long term. It’s the long play. The smart play.

For a community like Lower Macungie despite the continued loss of much of our land including 700 acres in 2010 the opportunity is still not lost. A local food economy thrives on small farms > 40 acres. These are the operations that grow the food we eat and we still have many parcels that fit that criteria. It’s incorrect to assume that only large contiguous acreage is worth preserving. The alternative is to pave them. If we choose that route we should be prepared to pay the long term price.

Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 1.20.25 PM* Lower Macungie Parks and Recreation Comprehensive plan: 60% of respondents to public survey component rank acquiring and protection of open space as “extremely important” in a ranking of priorities. (the highest ranking)


Don’t blame the Truckers.

I had another beneficial conversation with a trucker last week. It’s why I’m hyper active on social media. It’s a way to solicit this kind of helpful dialogue. This particular trucker is named John. I met him after he msg’d me in response to a post I made. John has worked on or around trucks his whole life.

John saw a comment I made and took it as an affront to truckers. That wasn’t my intention, but hindsight I can see how he took it that way. Below is the conversation we had. In the end John understood my position and I better appreciated his issues. He’s someone I’ll stay in tough with when I have a truck questions. Truckers are not the bad guys. The failure is a breakdown of good planning.

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Thoughts on LV rail.

Every couple of months we see another article about the potential for passenger rail in the LV.

I am a big dreamer when it comes to potential rail service in the LV. To me it’s ridiculous we are the population center and the location we are and have no passenger connections to the rest of the NE.

The latest article in the Morning Call focuses on new leadership in the LVPC who may be interested in taking another look at rail.

“For some, Bradley’s arrival this month as the new  LV Planning Commission director also comes at a good time. Bradley succeeded Mike Kaiser, who directed the Commission for 45 years. Rail advocates frequently blamed Kaiser for not taking their pleas to bring passenger rail to the Valley seriously. Kaiser always explained that he liked passenger rail, but argued that the limited number of people it would benefit in the Valley didn’t warrant the more than $1 billion cost of building it.”

As I said, I’m admittedly a dreamer when it comes to the possibility of passenger rail.  I’m all for addressing the issue. BUT the key is building a true high speed rail (HSR) system. And the reason is to make the system financially viable. If we don’t truly commit to HSR then I tend to agree with Kaiser that the market just isn’t here. Why? The issue with Amtrak is profitability. Today with most destinations the bus network is a far better value then Amtrak. *And this is with Amtrak benefitting from massive gov’t subsidies. This won’t change until we unlock the potential of HSR. As a country we’re behind Laos, Thailand, Turkey, and Morocco in terms of HSR.

*You can make the argument that the bus system also benefits massive gov’t subsidies via highway funding. Though not the case in the Lehigh Valley where LANTA operates on a pretty streamlined budget.

Chinese Bullet train travels at over 300 mph. I’d love to see more train routes in the NE and specifically here in the LV. But the key is speed. 300mph bullet trains like this one here could people from the LV to NYC in less then an hour with stops. Speed is the key to making trains marketable and profitable.

It’s simple, until rail offers a significant advantage over buses and even goes so far as to compete with ‘short hop’ airlines there is no reason to make the investment and I wouldn’t support it. Once trains are getting people from Boston to DC in 3 hours then folks will pay a premium price and the critical mass of trains will run full. Just look to Acela, the train that runs by far and away Amtraks most successful route. Coincidently it’s the closest we have to true HSR. Even the most conservative estimates show a 20% profit margin with some bolder claiming upwards of 40%.

People will pay premium for convenience. With travel that means comfort and speed. Show me a rail plan that addresses these two critical goals and I’d be leading the charge. The economic benefits of HSR passenger connections for the LV would be tremendous.

UPDATE: Found this Express Times guest column which uses 2010 data from a study that was conducted. It supports my thoughts that anything “low speed” isn’t worth the investment. HSR would completely change the argument. The study cites a 2.5 hour train trip to NYC. The kind of HSR I’m talking about would get you to NYC in an hour. It’s interesting to see train supporters absolutely unload on this study in the comments which are worth reading. I tend to agree with many that the study seems seriously flawed and biased so look forward to tackling the problem from a more optimistic angle.

Here is a counterpoint in support – Kirk Raup has worked as an advocate for LV Rail for 2 decades makes a great case for the why. All of his logic on the ‘why’ I agree with.

With about 80 percent of our federal transportation dollars going to highways and aviation, we should have the best and least costly travel and commuting options anywhere. But we don’t, and there’s no excuse for it. Decades of widening roads, building new interstates and performing endless work on the Turnpike and routes 309 and 22 are breaking our backs; we all know this nonsense is unsustainable.

(Speaking of highway funding breaking our backs….)

His solution is a SEPTA like system connecting the valley to other lines. It’s an interesting proposal. I still think my argument that only higher speeds can change the games makes sense. People would pay double the projected price changing the whole base economics.