Durham votes Nov. 8 on Transit making an economic and cultural decision

There’s a referendum vote tomorrow, Tuesday, Nov. 8 in Durham, N.C. Voters go to the polls to decide whether to build a new light-rail transit system designed to increase the city’s transit service and eventually connect it to Chapel Hill and Raleigh.

The outcome could determine a great deal – how the city grows as a job center and how it and its residents grow as a culture.

Fmr. Gov. Parris Glendening

In the run-up to tomorrow’s vote, former Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening spoke at a Durham Chamber event on Nov. 2 at Duke Gardens. He was there as the head of Smart Growth America, an organization pushing for nationwide smart growth. Glendening said the country is at a pivotal time.

According to the governor, if our cities don’t employ plans for how we grow, they will experience lower productivity, higher inflation, and mandatory wage increases for workers faced with long commutes due to a lack of nearby jobs.

“Rebuilding the nation’s economies must be one of the defining acts of our generation,” he said, emphasizing a new vision of the future is at hand. “It must be front and center – getting the most out of private and public investments.”

Durham Central Park

The Triangle is fortunate to be in a time of both economic and population growth, Glendening said. But that growth also presents economic challenges and forces the Triangle to determine how to present itself in the future.

A sense of “place” is a city’s greatest asset, he said. It provides a sense of community and fosters an appealing environment that is a livable, walkable place to work and raise a family.

“Today, even in a recession, 45 percent of students think about where they want to live – then they look for a job,” he said. “Cities must compete to attract and keep bright workers.”

There are also financial ramifications to forgoing a plan.

According to research, the average American makes seven trips away from home each day, Glendening said. These commutes drive the average house prices outside of urban areas dramatically higher than they are on face value, he said.

The “Affordable Housing Index,” which calculates in transportation costs, shows real estate markets outside of greater city centers are unsustainable, he said. This unsustainability will create a vacuum when gas prices likely reach $10 per gallon, and entire regions will suffer.

The governor said the market is “ripe for investment in transit.” As of 2011, he said, 87 percent of transit ballots have been approved in the United States, and demographic information only points to that figure increasing. He anticipated that by 2025, 72 percent of households will be without children, taking into account young workers and the increase in the Boomer generation population.

Supporters say as many as 6,400 jobs would be directly created by the transit program.

So, tomorrow could mean many things. But, the choice comes down to how we want to live. Let’s hope people vote tomorrow and have a voice in how all this plays out.

Designing a jobs plan around a city map

There’s a lot of talk surrounding investment in infrastructure as a means to create jobs for Americans, more than 10 million of whom are out of work. President Obama this week unveiled his jobs plan that would inject $447 billion into projects covering bridges, roads, and other public structures that are and have been in decay for years. The rationale behind the proposal is two-fold: to create jobs for unemployed Americans and to promote the transport of U.S. goods for interstate commerce and foreign export.  Awesome.

One of my paranoid projections is that we invest in the highway infrastructure around cities and continue to promote sprawl. I submit sprawl is not only an environmentally bad eyesore, but it also degrades cohesion of the workforce and scatters the unemployed population across miles of terrain. Perhaps sprawl is one reason why telecommuting has become so popular in some areas.

I haven’t seen the details of the plan, but I would hope any jobs plan would include a framework for how cities function, as they are the center of where Americans live and work. Or at least want to.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 16 percent of Americans overall live in rural areas. While there are Americans still moving outside of cities, they are predominantly older retirees.  Just look at a new trend of reporting on the best retirement cities in America, such as Durham, N.C.

But this isn’t the population Obama is addressing when he says, “You know, we’ve got a lot of folks in Congress who love to say how they’re behind America’s jobs creators…Well, if that’s the case, then you should be passing this bill. Because that’s what this bill is all about, is helping small businesses all across America.”

Durham, NC Tobacco District (photo, Derek Anderson / Indyweek)

Small businesses downtown will create jobs only if we have a plan. With outer suburban areas growing quickly, urban job centers are at risk. In many ways, we’re feeding the brain without maintaining a beating heart. America’s cities are its primary job centers – we need to figure out how to integrate them with the growing suburbs. Some call it sustainable urban development.  Some call it smart growth.

Whatever its label, a successful jobs program employs a long-term vision that promotes technological innovation, creates jobs, improves quality-of-life in our nation’s cities, and pulls us together as a culture of people, not just as a culture of the trained and employed.