PART summit paves the way for progress

by Jim Longworth

Last week over 200 publicand private-sector officials gathered for the Piedmont Triad Livable Communities Summit. The event, presented by PART, afforded participants an opportunity to share information about the needs of their localities and propose ways to meet those needs for the future, especially with regards to the role transportation plays in improving quality of life.

The program included a panel discussion led by Piedmont Triad Partnership CEO Don Kirkman and featured transportation officials from around the state, as well as local industry leaders. But the summit was highlighted by the keynote speaker, United States Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, who reported on how federal funds were helping to create and sustain livable communities throughout the nation. LaHood spoke of how DOT, HUD and the EPA are working hand in hand to tear down barriers to growth, and he explained the importance of increasing state and local capacity for integrating housing and transportation. That initiative is especially significant in today’s economic climate, where jobs are scarce and people need cost-effective and accessible transportation, as well as affordable places to live.

Services like the ones provided by PART help to address those needs, but LaHood also promoted other alternatives, such as streetcars and high-speed rail, the latter in which the Obama administration has invested $545 million for development here in North Carolina.

Speaking of funding, USDOT has awarded over a billion dollars to qualified localities under the Transportation Investment Generating Recovery (“TIGER”) program. Those funds can be applied to any number of local or regional projects that promote livable communities, and include construction of sidewalks, bike paths, streetcars and safe streets. The city of Dubuque, Iowa received TIGER funds for street improvements which helped to attract a new IBM plant and create more than 100 new jobs. Unfortunately, North Carolina did not qualify for the first round of TIGER monies, and LaHood admitted that he was given a tongue lashing by Gov. Perdue for the funding slight. That prompted several summit-goers to ask why our state failed to receive TIGER funds, and what we needed to do to qualify. At first, the secretary tried to be diplomatic, but when pressed for a substantive explanation, he morphed into Harry Truman and gave the audience some tough talk. Said LaHood, “You have four MPOs, and that’s three too many. You need to get your act together. If you speak with one voice, you’ll be pretty damned powerful.” Suddenly 200 movers and shakers had been moved and shaken as LaHood took them on a long overdue trip to the woodshed.

MPOs (Metropolitan Planning Organizations) were established by the federal government in 1962 as a way to assure that urban areas with populations of more than 50,000 would have comprehensive transportation planning processes. Later, RPOs were created to do the same thing for rural areas.

Today, there are 17 MPOs and 20 RPOs in North Carolina. Here in the Piedmont, Winston-Salem, Greensboro, High Point and Burlington-Graham each comprise their own MPO, but if they heed LaHood’s advice, the four groups should become one entity. The problem is, there is turf to protect and power to wield. But these are extraordinary times we live in, and they call for extraordinary measures to be taken. LaHood’s message was clear: If you want to receive federal funds, if you want to attract solid new business and industry, if you want to improve quality of life for residents — then you have to cooperate and consolidate. PART Executive Director Brent McKinney is to be commended for bringing together so many diverse voices. Now the challenge is that they begin to speak as one.

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).