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In a New Decade, During a New Recession, Cities are Going Back to Public Transit

In the midst of the Great Recession, civic leaders, developers, and designers are relearning old lessons: Investment in public transit infrastructure is an investment in economic development

by Zach Mortice

Associate Editor

Post-WWII prosperity brought to America coast-to-coast interstate freeways and sprawling green suburbs that become the quintessential image of the American dream, but during today’s economic recession, a different set of development patterns are being rediscovered: dense, urban neighborhoods facilitated by public transit infrastructure. Cities across the country are re-investing in light rail, street cars, and bus lines.

The potential causality between previous automobile-centric development patterns and the economic crash will be a topic of discussion for scholars, politicians, and interest groups for decades to come, but the connection between the economy and public infrastructure development is clear in one way: Just in time for a global economic meltdown that created a call for massive investments of public capital, including public transit spending, a growing consensus has settled in among civic leaders, developers, and designers that cities and towns are more sustainable and stronger economically with mass transit.

US Census data reveals that city growth accelerated between 2006 and 2008, and the entire decade saw an increase in the use of mass transit. At least half a dozen cities (like Phoenix, Houston, and Charlotte) have invested in new light rail lines over the past 10 years. Last year, the Obama Administration unveiled an ambitious $8 billion plan for a nationwide high-speed rail network. Los Angeles, a city that has tied its fortune to the automobile in brazenly iconic fashion, is now investing $40 billion into mass transit as part of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s 30/10 plan.

“When you start to see Los Angeles really ramping up their transit expansion, then maybe there’s a groundswell that’s really starting to change how people think about public transit,” says Sam Zimbabwe, director of the Center for Transit Oriented Development in Washington, DC.

Key components of the AIA-backed American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) economic stimulus bill supply billions of dollars of public transit projects by the DOT, Federal Transit Administration, and Amtrak. In February, the DOT’s Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants gave $1.5 billion to 51 transit projects across the nation with the participation and input from HUD and the EPA. However, this $1.5 billion is a drop in the bucket of cities’ true transit needs. The grant program was besieged with $60 billion worth of funding requests. Zimbabwe’s Center for Transit Oriented Development did a study before the recession that revealed $250 billion worth of transit spending demand. In the wake of the housing market crash, homes nearest to mass transit networks retained more value, Zimbabwe says. A recent report by the AIA and the Center for Transit Oriented Development identified ways that the tax code encourages sprawl and makes transit-oriented development financially strenuous.

Mass transit in smaller cities is getting Normal

The DOT’s TIGER grants aren’t just investing in large cities where subway commutes are as common as car rides; not-quite metropolises like Ames, Iowa and Kent, Ohio are also getting intermodal transit stations. Normal, Ill. is working on the largest of these projects: a $47 million bus and rail intermodal station that will be completed with $22 million worth of TIGER grant funding. The City of Normal hired Ratio Architects of Indianapolis to design the station, which will include a new three-story city hall. Normal is served by Amtrak, and generates surprisingly robust ridership rates, as it’s located in between St. Louis and Chicago. The building site has been under consideration since 2000 as part of a central business district economic redevelopment plan. The Uptown Renewal Plan is bringing mixed-use developments, a hotel and conference center, a children’s museum, and park space to the town through a public-private partnership. “We see this multimodal [station] as being a major component to the success of the central business district,” says David Krc, an owner’s representative for the City of Normal with Cotter Consulting. Without the infusion of federal dollars, he says, the intermodal station would probably not be happening.

Ratio is aiming for LEED Silver certification for the transit hub. Its brick and limestone façade wraps around and embraces a traffic roundabout with a tall clock tower volume for added civic presence. Krc hopes for construction to begin this summer.

Ed Scopel, AIA, of Ratio Architects says he’d like to see the transit station catalyze more urban, mature, boutique shop development in Normal’s central business district. The town, he says, has already come to a sophisticated understanding of the connection between mass transit, economic development, and sustainability. “Normal gets it in a big way,” says Scopel. “They get it on multiple levels.”

The city’s living room

In larger cities with a well-documented history of public transit, often the task is to restore the infrastructure that was in place before the car became the national transportation default.

That’s what’s going on in St. Paul. Ramsey County (where the city is located) has hired the local firm HGA to restore St. Paul’s old rail station, Union Depot, and turn it into a multimodal transit hub. The train station will welcome back Amtrak service, which left the building in the 1970s, and will feature a stop on the Twin Cities new and expanding light rail system. The project will cost $238 million, and it’s received $50 million from the TIGER grant program. Project backers are still looking to fill a $100 million funding gap, but this summer another $600 million round of TIGER grant funding will become available, and the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority will apply.

HGA (who are also working with Beyer Blinder Belle on the project) will restore Charles Sumner Frost’s 1924 Neo-Classical head house, the perpendicular passenger waiting rooms, and the train platform stairs, all by 2012. Organizers are hoping that the refurbished station will encourage more retail and commercial development in the area, recreating a bustling urban hub of activity and shaking up the perception that St. Paul is the sleepier of the Twin Cities. “We’re hoping the head house can become the living room of St. Paul,” says HGA’s Michael Bjornberg, AIA.

The station is at a critical urban juncture in St. Paul. It’s the fulcrum between the downtown business district, the revitalizing Lowertown warehouse district, and the Mississippi riverfront. Bjornberg hopes that awakening this disused site can spread urban energy and enthusiasm throughout the area, coaxing more business owners to move into the vacant warehouses of Lowertown.

This is a view he shares with the civic leaders responsible for the train station project. “For urban metropolitan areas, the two main investments that will position core urban centers to be successful in the future is investment in transit and workforce development,” says chair of the Ramsey County Regional Rail Authority Jim McDonough.

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An Unusual Solution for Urban Transportation


Visit the AIA’s Rebuild and Renew Government Advocacy Web site.

Read the AIA and Center for Transit-Oriented Development report on the tax code’s effect on development practices, “Promoting Livable Communities.”

See what the Public Architects Knowledge Community is up to.


The waiting room of the restored St. Paul Union Depot. Image courtesy of HGA.

The Twin Cities Metro Transit light rail system will stop at St. Paul’s Union Depot. Image courtesy of HGA.

Ratio Architects’ Normal Multimodal Transportation Center curves to embrace an adjacent traffic roundabout. Image courtesy of RATIO Architects, Inc.

The intermodal transit hub features an Amtrak stop. Image courtesy of RATIO Architects, Inc.

Dubuque, Iowa’s Historic Millwork District received $5.6 million for multimodal streetscape improvements. The Minneapolis-based Cuningham Group Architecture drafted a masterplan for the area. Image courtesy of the Cuningham Group.

The goal of the Millwork District project is to create a lively, urban mixed use neighborhood. Image courtesy of the Cuningham Group.


Do you know the Architect’s Knowledge Resource?

The AIA’s resource knowledge base can connect you to the 2009 AIA Convention presentation, “The Public Architects’ Role in Creating Successful Historic Preservation Projects.”

See what else the Architects Knowledge Resource has to offer for your practice.


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