Piedmont Triad Collaborates to Plot Course to Recovery

Transit and Development Plan Showcase Sustainable Designs

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David Taylor is senior vice president and national director of HDR Engineering's Sustainable Transportation Solutions division.

Posted: Wednesday, August 31, 2011 6:05 pm | Updated: 6:58 pm, Wed Aug 31, 2011.

The Piedmont Triad is a 12-county region in North Carolina with a hard-luck story and a bold new recovery plan that puts sustainable transit and urban design in the spotlight on a national stage.

In fact, says David Taylor, the national director of HDR Engineering's Sustainable Transportation division, this unique collaboration of rural and urban jurisdictions could be a model for attracting federal funding to an otherwise overlooked and down-and-out region.

Taylor gave a presentation on the triad's new transit plan at the recent Sustainability in Public Works Conference hosted by the American Public Works Association in Portland, Ore. HDR was one of the engineering firms that helped municipal planners craft the region's innovative plan.

The Piedmont Triad encompasses 63 cities in the north-central part of North Carolina, including the metro areas of Greensboro, Winston-Salem and High Point. The area's economy has been radically altered by the almost total collapse of the local tobacco, furniture and textile industries, which have accounted for the staggering loss of 70,000 jobs over the past decade. As a result, 11 percent of the triad's 1.6 million people are currently unemployed.

"Recently there's been an emphasis on developing regional partnerships to address transportation, economic development and education," Taylor said.

Rapid urban sprawl has been adding to the region's problems. The triad was recently ranked as the country's second most sprawling region by Smart Growth America, because of its expansive low population density, little mixed-use development, disconnected street networks and weak city centers. The triad has lost 4.8 million acres of agricultural land in the past 25 years.

"They were literally, just two or three years ago, out chopping it up two, three or five acres at a time, - because the market was hot - not thinking at all about what that might mean in the future," Taylor said. "Therefore the transportation numbers are not going to be very surprising. There is near sole reliance on the automobile. In fact, 95 percent of their trips have been by auto in the past 25 years. There is growing congestion and time lost sitting in traffic, and the increased VMT (vehicle miles traveled) means their fuel consumption and emissions have them right on the edge of non-attainment. So, they are constantly monitoring this situation."

Taylor said three quarters of the households in the Piedmont Triad now spend more than 45 percent of their income on housing and transportation, and the region's reliance on the automobile means they spend 10 percent more than the national average on transportation costs alone.

"About 42 percent of their renters can't afford a two-bedroom home, and 37 percent have serious problems with their cost-to-income ratios. It's just not a pretty picture," Taylor said. "The elderly and disabled, who are obviously good candidates for transit, are particularly impacted. So, they all need affordable, available public transit," he said.

"About five to seven years ago, they finally said ‘enough is enough, we just can't keep going this way.'"

Taylor said the communities in the triad have been very aggressive in establishing regional relationships. He said this "complex community" has one regional transportation authority, two councils of government, two regional planning organizations, and four metropolitan planning organizations. Several of these groups are currently considering merger, he said, and the cooperative spirit has resulted in a number of positive steps forward.

Based in part on a series of studies initiated by the Piedmont Authority of Regional Transportation (PART), a "2025" transportation and land use plan was drafted. The plan, branded "Growing Together in the Triad," began to define the issues and point the way to reversing the recent trends. It called for reducing VMT by clustering land uses to reduce trip lengths, adding more pedestrian/bike options, mixing land uses to increase walk trips, providing local and regional transit service, and redeveloping urban area to reduce trips.

This plan set the stage for another cooperative project that focused attention on 7,500 acres of land along the Guilford-Forsyth County line, west of the Piedmont Triad International Airport between Greensboro and Winston-Salem. Dubbed the Heart of the Triad: A Collaborative Plan for Economic Vitality and Quality of Life, the plan stresses sustainable solutions to relieving congestion and sprawl in the "no-man's land" between the region's primary transportation hubs.

The plan was adopted in 2010 by the partner jurisdictions of Forsyth County, the city of Greensboro, Guilford County, the city of High Point, the town of Kernersville, the town of Oak Ridge and the city of Winston-Salem.

Goal 1 of the plan: Protect and enhance the rich environmental resources in the region.

"For them sustainability was about connecting dots," Taylor said. "How would the urban and the rural start to be connected in this really interesting and diverse region? How do we start expressing sustainability and livability through this plan?"

Taylor said the fundamental concepts of the plan include concentrating residential development near employment; creating diverse use mixes; focusing on infill and compact development; offering mobility and increased mode choices; and developing coordinated transit delivery.

The plan's vision is "to improve the region's quality of life by delivering innovative transit solutions to meet the unique needs of all urban and rural residents." It will do this by developing a safe and connected transit network and fostering livable, sustainable development in the corridors between the three urban centers of the triad, Taylor said. The enhanced mobility created by the multi-modal transit network will connect people with employment and educational opportunities as well as healthcare services, while minimizing the impact on the environment. It will also provide increased access to affordable housing, testing the concepts of compact development.

Taylor said the environmental implications of the plan will be improved air quality, reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, lower energy and fuel consumption and minimal impacts on water quality and quantity.

He said the plan was developed first by examining census and employment data to see if existing transit routes were meeting the current and potential future demands of the region, and then by studying ridership propensity and conducting GIS-based analysis to refine routes based on propensity.

"We set up a whole series of indicators and scores to develop these propensity areas, and then used a model to estimate the 2025 potential," he said. "...Then we did something they had not done before, which is to validate it with the future land use and housing plan. This is a very direct connection between transportation, transit and land-use integration," he said.

The resulting transit plan adds and modifies routes to weave together local and regional transit systems with park-and-ride and pedestrian/bicycle amenities that the designers believe will provide sustainable economic growth in the region. It proposes a new streetcar system in Greensboro and Winston-Salem to help support the regional transit system by giving transit riders a reliable way to travel "the last mile" of their commutes to work.

Cost of the improvements locally are expected to total $47 million annualized over 13 years, with another $51.3 million coming from federal and state grants, Taylor said.

"They knew it was going to be expensive, but they said, ‘we're going to create a system that addresses our needs and addresses our economic development requirements, reduces our VMT, and provides access to affordable housing and employment opportunities.' ...At the end of the day, they really feel like the benefits are going to be an expansion of choices, allowing the linking of land-use and transportation to serve the entire community - urban and rural - and all socio-economic strata there," he said.

Taylor said one of the most critical lessons learned with the Piedmont Triad project has been the importance of regional cooperation. He said the federal government is giving special funding consideration to communities that work together. In fact, the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, launched by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2009, is emphasizing the need to remove barriers to collaboration and funnel grant awards to projects that have regional implications, Taylor said.

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