Louisville’s New Transportation Plan Proposes More Upkeep, Less Driving

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But how the city will cover the cost of what Mayor Greg Fischer’s administration has floated in the new 20-year planning document remains unclear.

Maintaining the existing road and transit infrastructure in Louisville, Kentucky, and reducing the number of miles people drive in the city are top priorities in the draft version of a long-range transportation plan Mayor Greg Fischer unveiled there Thursday.

The so-called Move Louisville plan is meant to guide choices about transportation policy and spending over the next 20 years in the city, which is the most populous in Kentucky. The plan calls for prioritizing about $1.4 billion of projects and maintenance over the coming two decades. Preserving the city’s current transportation system is a key tenet of the proposal—it recommends dedicating 45 percent of the proposed spending toward upkeep.

There are no guarantees the plan will be executed as written. And it is unclear, for now, where exactly the cash for the proposed maintenance and projects could come from.

According to the draft document, to cover the cost of the total plan, the city would need about $71.6 million annually. Louisville currently appropriates an average of about $14 million each year for transportation, meaning there would be an annual funding gap somewhere around $57.6 million.

On Thursday, the leader of the Louisville Metro Council’s Republican caucus voiced opposition to the idea that the city needed new funds on that scale to meet its transportation needs. Local transportation advocates, meanwhile, are skeptical that the mayor’s proposal went far enough to provide new transit options, and one knocked the absence of light rail investments.

While broad in scope, a main premise of the plan is that cars will remain the dominant form of transportation in Louisville in the coming years. But, it says, there are opportunities to shift people away from car travel for shorter trips, such as those that are less than three miles.

Some of the 16 priority projects the plan includes would involve bus rapid transit lines, with dedicated lanes, as well as bike lanes and pedestrian improvements.

There are proposals for an east-west, crosstown transit corridor, a redesign and rebuild of the Dixie Highway, which carries as many as 60,000 cars per day, and building out transportation infrastructure around a sizeable tract of sparsely developed land known as Oxmoor Farms.

Keeping freight moving smoothly through Louisville, improving pedestrian safety and cutting air pollution are other broad goals the Move Louisville proposal identifies.

Fischer’s administration is now beginning a 60-day effort to gather public feedback on the plan.

As he presented the proposal on Thursday morning, the mayor, who is a Democrat, framed it as critical if Louisville wants to edge out other cities when attracting businesses and younger members of the workforce—particularly professionals in the millennial generation.

“Remember, we're competing for talent," he said.

The mayor then noted upgrades to pedestrian and bike networks in Indianapolis and Nashville, and bus rapid transit investments in Columbus, Ohio.

“If we want to keep our economic momentum going we have to do likewise,” Fischer said.

“Today's young mobile professionals are less interested in owning and using cars,” he added. "Move Louisville addresses that and many other concerns, like the fact that too many of us drive to work alone and that we need to help more people live closer to their jobs. And we need our job centers to be located along major corridors."

The mayor explained that the last time Louisville undertook a transportation planning effort comparable to the one now underway was 1979.

Louisville has a population of about 600,000 residents, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. During the next two decades, it’s projected the city will add roughly 130,000 new residents, according to the transportation plan.

Local transportation assets there are valued at around $4.8 billion, with over 4,500 lane-miles of pavement.

Some of that pavement has seen better days.

“Our roads are in pretty bad shape,” Councilman Kevin Kramer, who chairs the Louisville Metro Council’s minority Republican caucus, said by phone Thursday. “Certainly we would be onboard with improving the infrastructure that we have.”

But that does not mean Kramer is cheering the mayor’s proposal.

He stressed that he had not yet thoroughly reviewed the plan, griping that the mayor’s office had not given him and other Council members advanced notice about the 110-page document released on Thursday.

Kramer pushed back against the notion that the city needs tens-of-millions of dollars in new annual transportation spending. And, he said, there was little appetite among Council Republicans for tax or fee hikes to help cover those sorts of expenditures.

“With the uptick in the economy, with the increase in revenues that we’re already collecting,” he added, “it’s hard for me to fathom that we can’t talk about what our real problems are without automatically jumping to the conclusion that we’ve got to raise more money.”

Kramer was unconvinced that the city would become less attractive for workers and businesses if it did not make a concerted effort to build denser, and more transit-oriented neighborhoods.

“I’m not sure that I agree that millennials feel like they have to be able to walk everywhere, or be able to hop on a bus,” he said. “I think commute times is really going to be the discussion point.”

And, in Louisville, he believes they’re not that bad compared to bigger cities.

“In Louisville, you can get just about anywhere, from just about anywhere in 20 minutes,” Kramer said. He added: “We actually get around pretty well here.”

Under the recommendations in the plan, the city’s annual appropriations for preserving existing transportation assets would increase to $31.3 million from $7.3 million. Funding for the 16 priority projects would be $24.3 million per year, and spending on bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure would rise to $10.4 million from $3.9 million.

Asked if the mayor had a position on local taxes or fees that might support the Move Louisville plan, Chris Poynter, a spokesperson for Fischer’s office said: “We haven't gotten to that point.”

But, he said, “to fully fund everything there would have to be some type of new revenue stream, whether that’s grants, increases locally.”

Poynter emphasized that no matter what happens locally with revenues, paying for the recommendations in the plan would require the city to pursue state and federal dollars.

At the morning news conference, Fischer acknowledged that Move Louisville did not include light rail.

“That is not part of this plan simply because our analysts said that we lack the population density, at this point, to make light rail economically feasible,” the mayor said.

That doesn’t sit well with some in Louisville.

“He’s wrong to reject it,” said Clarence Hixson, an attorney affiliated with the Louisville advocacy group Coalition for the Advancement of Regional Transportation.

Hixson had not yet looked over the new draft plan. But, in general, he believes pressure from automakers in the region has held back the expansion of transit infrastructure in the Louisville area. And he doesn’t think policymakers are doing enough to factor costs like car wrecks and vehicle pollution into economic analyses of transit projects.

“The city's program and public transportation decisions are falling short,” Hixson said.

He added: “I think that the public needs to have a better understanding of how central transportation planning is to their lives and how much impact it has on their lives, and their pocketbook and their health.”

Fischer said Thursday his administration is ready to engage with people who are interested in these kinds of topics in the coming weeks, as they gather feedback on the plan.

“The fundamental question about what we’re going to do with our transportation system, and how we’re going to pay for all this,” he said, “is one that we’re going to have to answer as a community.”

Bill Lucia is a Reporter for Government Executive’s Route Fifty.

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