Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Advisory Committee looks to Move LANTA Forward

The Lehigh and Northampton Transportation Authority (LANTA) is in the process of developing a new regional plan for transit. The Board held a workshop meeting on October 14 and the third meeting of the Regional Development Plan Advisory Committee took place on October 22. At both meetings, the Authority’s consultants provided a glimpse at the potential future of transportation in the Valley.

Prior to the presentation, LANTA held a series of public meetings, surveyed bus riders and residents of the Lehigh valley, studied demographics, reviewed similar-sized transportation systems throughout the country and obtained input from LANTA staff, drivers, and Board members. In addition, a special survey of community leaders was conducted and, of course, input was gathered through the Regional Plan Advisory Committee meetings.

Based on what LANTA has heard the community is seeking, the Abrams-Cherwony Group consultants, presented the Advisory Committee with a proposal for a phased set of improvements that could guide how LANTA services grow.

It was stressed that the plans presented are potential alternatives and that LANTA needs to evaluate them further. But the proposals set forth are exciting.
Following a complete evaluation of alternatives and costs, the Authority will host additional Advisory Committee and public meetings to gain input on the plan.

The goal of this process is for the LANTA Board to approve an official plan by March, 2009.

Transit Alternatives: A wide range of service improvements

The transit alternatives presented by the Abrams-Cherwony Group include a three-phased program beginning with “improving user friendliness,” “reducing complexity” and increased frequency on designated trunk routes, consultant Owen O’Neal said during the presentation.

Phase I of the project suggests providing mobility for people “to move throughout the region quickly and in an efficient way,” O’Neal said. The alternative essentially would realign bus routes to maximize trip frequency.

The phase centers on “connecting major [traffic] generating routes,” and, in a response to public input, suggests the creation of cross-town services. For example, routes running North and South on Cedar Crest Boulevard and Seventeenth Street without operating to the central business district, O’Neal said were examples of cross-town services.

“We’re making sure the level of service is meeting the changing environment,” O’Neal said, adding that bus service may focus on passengers who commute to work and retail areas, such as the casino underway in Bethlehem and the major retail developments being built in Easton and Allentown.

In the presentation, O’Neal said that Phase I would mean LANTA buses could provide “feeder services” to other long-distance commuter bus services.

Phase II of the suggested transit alternatives calls for a “higher level of service to an expanded area,” O’Neal said.

Suburban hubs, or “rings around the core” LANTA service area, may emerge in areas “depending on expansion and growth,” O’Neal said. The hubs, suggested for areas such as Emmaus, Nazareth and Coopersburg, would connect to the central bus district along higher frequency routes. The phase may even call for “hub-to-hub, peripheral connections,” according to O’Neal.

The third phase of the alternative calls for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). This type of system has buses operating along high-traffic corridors resulting in shorter trip times and more direct service.

There has been “a lot of talk and discussion” about commuter rail service, Walter Cherwony, of the Abrams-Cherwony Group said. If deemed appropriate, existing tracks west of Philipsburg and north of Shelly could be preserved for future commuter rail options. If a commuter rail service were to be implemented, LANTA could provide a feeder bus service to rail stations, Cherwony said.

“Nothing is specific,” O’Neal said of the three-phase timeline, and added that the phases “are not mutually exclusive,” which means that parts of Phase I and Phase II could be completed simultaneously. “Full completion depends on local desire” and sufficient fund resources he said.

Transportation and Land Use: Inextricably Linked

As part of the Regional Development Plan, LANTA is beginning the process of studying land use strategies needed to support potential transit alternatives. The consulting firm of Gannett-Fleming, represented by Susan Gibbon, presented the Board and the Advisory Committee with information on how land use effects transportation.

“LANTA does not control land use or highway infrastructure,” Gibbon said. Land use is determined at a municipal level, while transportation infrastructure – roads and highways - are determined by the state, Gibbon said.

“Land use and transportation are inextricably linked,” Gibbon said, adding that land use policies could improve transit operations and could increase ridership as well as the frequency and destination of trips.

Gibbon suggested that LANTA work closely with local municipalities to determine land use and to keep transit in mind while doing so, Gibbon said. The consultant said that a variety of housing in urban development areas, redeveloping abandoned properties, as well as zoning ordinances and municipal codes could all be used to create a more transit-friendly area.

For a basic transit system, there are a few requirements, Gibbon said. The surrounding areas must have medium population density, “walkability” – which includes things like sidewalks and areas that are safe for pedestrians – a connected roadway network and areas concentrated with residential and employment centers.

Traditional towns and urban areas, like Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton are “easy to serve with transit,” Gibbon said. They have continuous sidewalks, are densely populated, and have a good mix of residential, retail and employment buildings.

Modern suburban and rural developments are difficult to serve with transit since they lack sidewalks, have buildings set back far from the street, have low population density and road configurations that are difficult to serve with transit, Gibbon said. “Buses cannot serve cul-de-sacs,” she said.

Gibbon provided the committee with land use strategies that could advance the three phases of the Regional Development Plan.

In Phase I, Gibbon’s suggested focusing on zoning and ordinances to promote transit in both traditional and new neighborhoods.

A few possible changes to promote transit include distinctive bus-stop signs and poles, bus shelters and routing information in both urban and suburban areas. Gibbon called new bus-stop signs and shelters a “pretty low investment” for providing thorough “information and functionality.”

Phase II of the development plan intends to bring a “higher level of service to an expanded service area” and may include transit hubs in historic centers and typical suburban employment centers.

The population of the Lehigh Valley is not high enough along the main transit routes for higher modes of transit to be warranted or successful as suggested in Phase III of the plan, Gibbon said. However, steps could be taken to make it more likely. If new developments focused on being transit-friendly, Gibbon said, the increase in population density could create the right conditions for higher modes of transit, like Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) or light rail.

To implement land use strategies beneficial to transit, Gibbon mentioned that LANTA could assume an active role in promoting appropriate land use planning and development decisions throughout the Lehigh Valley, Gibbon said.

Getting involved with local municipalities and their development proposals and plan approval processes are two more steps toward improving LANTA’s ability to use the land.

The Next Step

After the Authority and the Board evaluates the alternatives and costs completely, LANTA will hold additional committee and public meetings to receive further input on the plan. It is LANTA’s goal to have a Regional Development Plan approved by March 2009.

October 30, 2008

15 comments:

Jake Barnes said...

I was worried reading this blog and not seeing anything of substance about how service would be improved. The latest posting helps a lot to understand what improvements are being considered.

I like the higher frequencies and more service during evenings and weekends. I'd like to be able to go to the movies riding the bus and this might make that possible.

Also I think a trip planner and improvements to information would go a long way towards helping new customers use the system. I know a few people who want to ride the bus but get so confused in the learning process that it makes it hard.

In any case, I appreciate what is being discussed and hope it all happens!

Sarah Gardener said...

I think it's neat how much LANTA has planned for the future and I think all the ideas mentioned here would make the bus more convienent to use for those of us who don't have a car.

More bus routes to more locations may even encourage those with cars to think about the environment and take the bus, too.

Although the blog said this area isn't big enough for commuter rail, it would be awesome! I'll keep my eyes open for a future public meeting.

Timothy said...

I hope there is money to do all of these things. In this economic situation, it sure seems that more public transit is needed in the Valley. Fares cannot pay for everything so funds are going to have to come from somewhere.

Is there a way more money could be raised locally? Other communities, other cities in particular, seem to contribute a lot to public transit.

Kevin.Farina said...

I would not mind seeing a rail service along with LANTA kind of like how SEPTA is in Philadelphia or for that matter, It would be nice to see bus services that goes towards areas where SEPTA services are located that way it would be easier to go to Philadelphia using public transportation (Lanta to SEPTA service)?

Moving LANTA Forward said...

Jake:
The plans being proposed are ambitious and perhaps the only limitation will be resources. The world appears poised for change and eager for alternatives to driving and, with the new federal Administration, it is hard to predict the future. But the future looks bright!
Thanks for the comment,
LANTA

Moving LANTA Forward said...

Sarah:
Commuter rail is an entirely other issue, but the proposals for change to the public transit system are exciting.
Thanks for taking the time to post to our blog!
LANTA

Moving LANTA Forward said...

Timothy:
As always, money, resources are a BIG question mark. Yet to be determined are the costs associated with the improvements being recommended. Adding to service hours and acquiring the vehicles necessary for expansion will be a major investment. But isn't it time we address these things head on? It seems to us, we've ignored our infrastructure for too many years. Here's to a change in focus!
LANTA

Moving LANTA Forward said...

Kevin:
Intermodal connections are an essential part of what is being reviewed in the planning process and, at a minimum, these will be addressed. Whether it is in the short or long term remains to be seen, but access to inter-city connections south to Philadelphia or north to New York City are very important elements of 'local' transportation.
Thanks for writing and emphasizing this point!
LANTA

sydpenguinbunny said...

I agree... PLEASE LANTA to SEPTA service. As a carless college student, carting myself back and forth between my college (Allentown) and my home (Philly) is a royal pain. There used to be a connection between Philly's Norristown High Speed Line and Allentown, is there any way LANTA can get that up and running again? Also, some buses clearly need higher frequency. The W, near where I live in Allentown, runs every two hours. That is ridiculous. They should make it at least run hourly - the W serves the Trexler Park Apartments which is one of the highest residency apartments in the Allentown area - they need to get places, so let them, or else there will be six million more cars clogging Tilghman Street and running people over.

Moving LANTA Forward said...

Sydpenquinbunny:

Thanks for your constructive comment. We had to do some digging to find information about the last time transit service was operated between the Valley and Philadelphia. It was in 1951!! That was the year that Lehigh Valley Transit, LANTA's private, for-profit predecessor fund it unprofitable to continue service.

And that has been the story about public transit: patronage dwindled over the decades to the point where it had to become a publicly subsidized enterprise. And much of LANTA's past three decades has been dedicated to the restoration and preservation of the transit service we enjoy today.

But that is the past hopefully. This study echoes the desires that you express: better intermodal connections between the Valley and other communities. And higher frequencies of service wherever warranted.

LANTA's policies have been to operate a system that meets as many demands as possible given limited resources. The hope is that going forward, sufficient federal, state and local funds will be made available to initiate 'policy' frequencies that are higher and thus provide more convenience to passengers.

The future does look bright for public transit and we thank you for your interest!

Elizabeth said...

It is disconcerning that the advisory committee is not considering health and air quality when developing its multiple phases of improvement. While it is necessary to expand the current bus system to serve more people, such growth will exacerbate the troubling health consequences caused by diesel exhaust if improvements are not made to the current buses' emissions.

In 2007 Northampton County received an "F" from the American Lung Association for its high amounts of particle pollution. The biggest culprit of such pollution is diesel exhaust from trucks and buses. Diesel exhaust is believed to play a role in many health problems such as eye irritation, headaches, lung damage, asthma and other lung diseases, heart disease and possibly immune system problems. Diesel exhaust is especially dangerous to children who breathe in twice the amount of air as adults. The poorly filtered diesel emissions from the current LANTA buses are both endangering the health of community members by contributing to poor air quality, as well as putting riders and drivers at risk when exhaust circulates back into the enclosed bus area.

LANTA must take proactive steps towards cleaner emissions which will improve air quality and health in the Lehigh Valley. LANTA has options to buy new buses with hybrid or natural gas technologies, or to retrofit preexisting buses with diesel filters (which the city of Pittsburgh recently implemented for all of its buses). The initial costs are high, but the long term benefits are necessary. Plus, the EPA has grant money set aside to assist cities in cleaning up their diesel emissions.

I hope that the LANTA advisory committee will take a serious look at how it can curtail bus diesel emissions in order to "move forward" the air quality and personal health of the Lehigh Valley.

Moving LANTA Forward said...

Good news Elizabeth: concern for the environment has been a central issue raised by the Advisory Committee. At their August meeting, their number one recommendation was for LANTA to utilize effective, alternative-fueled vehicles for its fleet. Specifically, they suggested that LANTA work closely with Air Products locally towards this end. Currently, LANTA is involved in the hydrogen-fueled bus project Air Products is managing in the Valley.

The LANTA Board is concerned about the environment as well. They have made a significant commitment to alternative fuel vehicle by specifying that the next major bus purchase for the LANTA fleet will be hybrid vehicles. Five, hybrid city-transit buses will replace diesel units within the next year and a half if funding remains stable. And, as you correctly point out, the initial cost is high: these hybrid coast area nearly twice the price of a 'regular' diesel bus. But, the operating costs being somewhat lower mean that it is basically a break-even investment at 12 years, a vehicle's useful life.

And, you might be interested to know that diesel buses are not as threatening to the environment as they used to be. In 2006, as per federal requirements for the diesel production industry, only 'clean diesel' is used in bus and truck fleets nation-wide. This ultra-low sulfur product effectively reduces the pollutants from engine emissions from 500 ppm to 15 ppm (ppm = parts per million). This is a significant advance. And additional environmental improvements to diesel fuel are due in 2010.

Read more about clean diesel here:

http://www.clean-diesel.org/highway.html

You suggest that LANTA buses are 'poorly filtered.' In fact, with an ongoing, aggressive preventative maintenance program, clean filters are installed in vehicles on a frequent basis and these pollution control elements have improved greatly over the years. Plus, keeping the age of the fleet low with an active fleet replacement program, has meant improved pollution controls have been brought to the Valley's fleet early in the process.

One observation you did not make in your post, is the intrinsic value that public transit has in reducing pollution on a daily basis. A person who rides the bus is not driving a car and thousands of people ride the bus every day. A LANTA Metro bus has the potential of removing 45+ automobiles off the streets on each and every trip! So expanding transit, rather than hurt the environment, has truly great potential to help it.

Over the years, LANTA has worked closely with the American Lung Association and in fact has earned the coveted R. Emmet Doherty Award twice in the past decade for involvement in Clean Air Month as well as the many summers of offering free transit rides on Ozone Alert Days.

It appears that LANTA is on your side on this issue Elizabeth and we appreciate your taking the time to post.

Jake Barnes said...

There are not many comments here, but those who take the time to write are pretty intelligent and insightful. I too wondered about alternative fuel and buses. It is good to read that something is being done locally and it seems like a natural partnership linking up with Air Products. Cool.

Elizabeth said...

Thank you for the opportunity to share my opinions as a member of the community, and thank you for your timely response. It is encouraging to hear that LANTA is indeed concerned about air quality and resident health, and therefore taking proactive steps towards reducing diesel emissions. Unfortunately, more effort will need to be taken as Northampton and Lehigh counties are out of compliance with the particulate standard set by the EPA. Please consult this page on their site: http://www.epa.gov/pmdesignations/2006standards/documents/2008-12-22/finaltable.htm

The use of ultra-low sulfur diesel on the existing fleet, as required by the government, is a good start in reducing diesel emissions, but more can be done. Ultra-low sulfur diesel only reduces emissions by less than 10%, while advanced filters can cut emissions by 30%-90%. Since it is economically unrealistic for LANTA to replace the existing fleet with new, clean technology buses, the filters offer a way to make immediate improvements on emissions while continuing to utilize preexisting buses. A helpful FAQ is provided by the EPA here: http://www.epa.gov/otaq/retrofit/documents/f03017.pdf

It is great news that LANTA will soon be investing in five hybrid buses. With this future addition, it is imperative to hold a real public discussion about where the hybrid buses will run, since some areas on the bus routes are exposed to more air pollutants than others. Does LANTA foresee public meetings on this topic in the coming months?

Lastly, the community partnership with Air Products’ hydrogen bus initiative is also encouraging news. Is there a time line for this hydrogen bus plan? How long will it be until that system gets up and running with a reasonable amount of buses?

Although I previously neglected to highlight the intrinsic value of public transit in reducing pollution on a daily basis, I am indeed a proponent of expanding the current bus system to remove cars from the road. However, when I experience first hand the health consequences of diesel exhaust I am compelled to request more responsibility from public transit. As identified by the EPA, particulate pollution is a serious issue in the Lehigh Valley and must be a central concern. I applaud your current efforts to clean up diesel emissions but hope you will bring some of the more aggressive solutions to the discussion table.

Ellie said...

I wanted to add two comments in support of rail transit: Commuter rail to Philly would be excellent. Are there talks or ideas in the works with Quakertown? I heard a talk with Rob Wonderling about possibly bringing Philly-bound rail transit to the Quakertown area. If this happens, hopefully LANTA will collaborate. Can you tell me where this stands currently?

Also, my second comment is regarding local rail transit. The circles around a core notion (as describe in the parent post) sounds excellent. This model fits the Lehigh Valley perfectly.

In addition, I would love information about how a citizen can become more involved in these processes.