Parking we can’t afford

My commentary on the proposed 51 Biltmore parking deck appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times on Friday, Jan. 7.

Asheville is poised to stumble into a colossal financial blunder.

The proposed $14.8 million, 51 Biltmore parking deck is an ill-considered idea whose time has passed. The plan is based on a parking study which failed to consider alternatives (shuttles or a trolley) and took no note of rising fuel costs (with gas prices headed for $3.75 soon and $5 in the not-distant future.) When gas hit $4 two years ago, we saw a 25 percent increase in transit ridership. What kind of “parking study” ignores such facts?

To make matters worse, the 220-space net gain at 51 Biltmore amounts to more than $65,000 each. The new Buncombe County deck ran $17,000 apiece — the difference is boggling.

During the recession the cities where property values most collapsed are automobile-dependent Las Vegas, Phoenix and Detroit, while the U.S. city where property values rose the most is Portland, Oregon, widely known for its trolley, light rail, bike routes and other amenities that permit people to access downtown without cars.

We have been lucky to get some sidewalk help from the state this year. But the state is facing a multi-billion dollar shortfall that will continue into the future. We’ve been lucky to have some federal funding for buses. But there is no guarantee that more federal largesse is forthcoming in the ongoing financial crisis.

Our fiscal planning should assume that we are on our own to an extent we haven’t seen for decades, at least. Putting all of our transit eggs in one basket is completely irresponsible. And despite my requests starting a year ago for a study that considered alternatives, no meaningful consideration of shuttles or trolleys has been forthcoming from city staff or our paid consultants.

Finally, we have committed as a council and as a community to attempt sweeping cuts in carbon emissions. When we borrow $15 million to accommodate automobiles, we are choosing the unsustainable over the sustainable. We are making it harder to access downtown without a car, instead of making it easier for tourists, shoppers and workers to frequent our city. We are increasing the effects of climate change — a change already upon us. Warm air holds more moisture, so we have longer droughts, more intense rain events and flooding, and heavier dumps of snow. Floods and blizzards are not aberrational, they are the new normal. (Maybe some of that transit money should be held back to hire workers with snow shovels?)

We need to be honest with the people of this city. This deal means dedicating all of our transit money for the next 10 years and a significant portion for 25 — money that could be used in much better ways. By committing to this project, Asheville will say “no” to any meaningful increase in sidewalk construction, we will say “no” to a downtown trolley or electric shuttle system that could be powered with local energy, we will say “no” to maintaining flexibility in our transit planning.


Driving while striving

This is Strive Not To Drive Week in Asheville, and I’ve been doing my best, with mixed success. Too many appointments in too many disparate places with too many tools to easily bike, and impossible to use transit to any advantage.

Monday, May 17
Excuses, excuses.
Morning construction work in the depths of Kenilworth. Could have taken bus at 7 a.m. to Transit Center, transfer to bus south, past the hospital, and walked seven blocks carrying construction tools and materials. Would have arrived at work at about 9 a.m.
Need to be on Talmadge in West Asheville, 11:45 a.m.. Could have worked an hour and a quarter and caught bus about 10:40 a.m. to Transit Center, transfer to west-bound bus, land somewhere on Brevard Road and walk about eight blocks.
Tree Commission meeting at Taj Ma Garaj, Charlotte St., noon. The only bus back to downtown in time for this meeting is the same bus I would have taken out of downtown to make my 11:45 date.
Medical appointment near Claxton Elementary, 1:30 p.m.. No way to make noon meeting AND get to doctor visit via public transit or bike.
2:45 p.m. repair job in Weaverville – impossible via public transit/bike
3:20 p.m. repair job West of Weaverville – impossible via public transit/bike
4:00 p.m. Drive like mad to return to town, jump on bike to participate in Strive Not to Drive Leadership Ride event in Downtown Asheville.

Tuesday, May 18
Morning construction work downtown in easy reach via bicycle, but vehicle maintenance slated for my car at 8 a.m. So I drop off the car and walk to work.
Tutor at Hall-Fletcher Elementary 11:50 a.m. In order to not drive I would have to leave downtown at 11 a.m. so would have maybe two hours of work. After tutoring might catch 2:40 bus back downtown, but have to work in Kenilworth, so car makes more sense all around. Then must go north on Merrimon for more paint. Ach. Finally jumped on bicycle for evening errand.

Wednesday, May 19
Morning work in Kenilworth, need tools and paint which could probably be achieved via bus, but must be at Chamber of Commerce at noon for Blue Zone meeting. To make Chamber at noon, would need to be at Transit Center at 11, means walking seven blocks to catch bus on Biltmore by about 10:30 – essentially cutting two hours out of morning’s work. Instead take car to work, back home, take truck to Chamber, thence to building supply for materials, back to Kenilworth, unload. Home, ride bike to meeting downtown, discover meeting canceled, ride home. Intended to ride bike to interview on WCQS, but interview canceled due to technical hiccups at radio station.

Thursday, May 20
Headed off with too many tools to carry in both hands, to work in Kenilworth this morning. Car only realistic option.

From my latest newsletter

My first three months on Council have proven to be fun, time consuming and educational. I’ve made at least one serious mistake (viz: a Planning & Zoning Commission appointment oversight) and learned a lot about the City, the community and Council procedure.

This week I announced a new sidewalk initiative I’ve dubbed Z-Link (more info below). In brief, it is a volunteer effort to reconnect existing sidewalks throughout the City.

I’ve begun to advance the Civil Liberties Resolution I first announced in my February newsletter. In order to create an effective resolution with broad-based support, I’ve sought feedback from the Asheville Buncombe Community Relations Council, Police Chief Bill Hogan, Sheriff Van Duncan, City Attorney Bob Oast, several lawyers, civil liberties organizations including the WNC ACLU, UNCA ACLU, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee (Washington, DC), Nuestro Centro, Coalición de Latino-Organizaciones Americanas and others.

While the goal of the proposal is broad protection of everyone’s Constitutional rights, with particular emphasis on ensuring that law enforcement officers do not preferentially target anyone for arrest, surveillance or record keeping based on race, ethnicity, gender or gender-orientation, religious beliefs or practice, political affiliation or immigration status, it is the latter which has drawn right-wing outrage. (An entirely predictable reaction.)

My two reasons for specifying that Asheville law enforcement not participate in federal immigration enforcement have not been successfully challenged by any of the numerous naysayers on talk radio, in the blogosphere or in print.

1. A 2010 Police Foundation study established that cities where local police do not participate in federal immigration enforcement (the 287(g) program) are SAFER than cities which have joined the program. Furthermore, a new study by the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security has identified multiple serious problems with its 287(g) program, and concurs that non-participating cities are safer. Both results uphold conclusions in a 2009 study by the NC ACLU which showed that the law was having unintended and detrimental effects in North Carolina communities.

2. An Immigration Policy Roundtable formed by the Kenan Institute at Duke University and the Brookings Institution, consisting of a bipartisan group with widely divergent ideas about immigration, agreed on some basic policy ideas which are being advanced at the national level. These include better workplace identification and verification as well as speeded up naturalization for workers who have been in the U.S. for five years or more. The key point of agreement among the 20 participants was that immigrant labor is absolutely essential to the North Carolina economy. Managing immigration and finding ways to smooth the rapidly changing cultural reality in our communities must be a priority. Putting up barriers between the immigrant community and our law enforcement agencies is counterproductive and works against our collective economic interest.

I have advocated Council endorsement of a civil liberties resolution since passage of the USAPATRIOT Act in 2001. The Act threatened severe encroachment on rights guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution and resulted in widespread domestic spying. I am hardly alone in my concern. The illegality of some of that surveillance was affirmed in the March 31 decision of Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker which ruled that the Bush administration had engaged in illegal wiretapping of a charitable organization.

Three of the six bullet points in my draft resolution directly address such illegal spying on legal activities.

I hope you will join me in working to protect all of the rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution, as I affirmed I would do when I was sworn into office.
I delivered a kick-off presentation of Z-Link, a new volunteer sidewalk restoration project on Monday, April 12 at the regular meeting of the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods.

Asheville has two sidewalk problems. The big, expensive problem involves too few sidewalks in too many places. Extending our sidewalk system is urgent and will take time and money. The other problem involves existing sidewalks that have been neglected for years, and fixing those sidewalks is a matter we can literally take into our own hands. Sidewalks are an essential piece of a sustainable transit system, the piece which enables everyone to access transit routes.

The Z-Link initiative is a coordinated volunteer effort that will launch in coming weeks. The goal is to reconnect existing sidewalks that have been obstructed by eroded dirt, weeds and encroaching shrubs. A perfectly useful sidewalk that runs for ten blocks can be rendered impassable to those in wheel chairs or with mobility issues simply because dirt has eroded and mounded up in front of one vacant lot. We have the X portion and the Y portion but a real problem with the Z. Volunteers can step up to reclaim the Z-Link.

I’ve teamed up with People Advocating Real Conservancy with our campaign fund providing trash bags and PARC providing tools. Z-Link will enable citizens, neighborhood by neighborhood to reclaim their sidewalks through weekend work parties. At the same time, volunteers will be encouraged to take note of more serious problems such as broken pavement, missing bricks and other repairs which require attention from the City’s Public Works Department.

Join the team to help me keep Asheville real

1. Let’s Keep Asheville real when it comes to development and strengthen the accountability of City Council concerning development.

2. Let’s Keep Asheville real in our approach to the environment. The region needs a Plan B to prepare for a new energy future that may include higher utility and fuel costs and reduced tourism. Green jobs are local jobs that can’t be exported.

3. Let’s Keep Asheville real by demanding that county and state elected officials rework the water rules to be fair to Asheville’s rate- and tax-payers.

4. Let’s Keep Asheville real by reinstating the Minimum Housing Code (which was eliminated in 2002). We need to protect our housing stock, particularly so in this time of financial upheaval and rapidly shifting ownership of rental properties.

5. Let’s Keep Asheville real by establishing a meaningful Living Wage for all city employees, including contract labor.

6. Let’s Keep Asheville real by enacting a three-strikes law concerning contracts and purchases. Other cities have decided to not patronize businesses that have been convicted three times of tax fraud, civil rights violations, wage/hour lawbreaking or environmental violations. There’s no reason for your tax money to go to repeat offenders.

7. Let’s Keep Asheville real by enacting meaningful campaign finance reform.