July 29, 2012

Transportation a key to success

Colin Read, Everybody's Business

---- — This is a transportation region.

At the crossroads of a major North-South highway corridor that connects two of the largest economic regions in the largest trading partners in the world, Clinton County knows a lot about international transportation.

As a pioneer in automobile transportation at the former Lozier plant, where Georgia Pacific now resides, Plattsburgh knows cars.

Once the home of a major Strategic Air Command Air Force Base, primarily because of the large number of clear-sky days, Plattsburgh understands airports.

Years ago, Bombardier, a world leader in air and rail vehicles, recognized the quality of the Plattsburgh workforce and its proximity to the home office. They continue to expand and invest here, and have amassed orders worth billions of dollars for their rail cars made here. Plattsburgh knows mass transit.

More recently, Nova Bus came to town, and they too have amassed huge orders for their innovative and energy-efficient buses. Plattsburgh understands green.

And, Plattsburgh is here because of its strategic location where the Richelieu River in Quebec widens into Lake Champlain. For longer than there have been planes, trains and automobiles, Plattsburgh has been a major strategic port of call for the barges and boats that moved goods during our Gilded Age, and well before.

Transportation has changed a lot since pivotal naval battles off our shores that made our nation. However, transportation remains as essential to our region today as it was then. And, transportation touches each and every one of us.

This past week, the Vision2Action group once again sponsored a forum, this time on Clinton County transportation.

The open house and workshop, followed by a town forum and call-in show conducted by Mountain Lake PBS, let our residents know what transportation in Clinton County could look like by 2040. Indeed, many of these innovations are already occurring today.

For instance, a discussion of Complete Streets informed those who participated that streets are not simply pathways for cars to get from point A to point B. In fact, our streets now share more with streets from 1776 more than the streets of 1976. Increasingly, our downtown streets are places for small businesses as people are once again recognizing the value of a downtown core.

Our streets are pathways for pedestrians, trails for trekkers and those who realize exercise enhances health, and routes for bicyclists who get healthy as they get to work. Visionary communities recognize these multiple uses of our modern streets, and now design them accordingly. In fact, the Clinton County Health Department documented the many ways our smart streets translate into a healthy county.

Over the past few years, other transportation networks have been expanded dramatically in Clinton County. It makes sense that a major, world-class producer of mass-transit buses and subway cars should have some sort of mass-transit system in place itself. Of course, a smart community scales its mass-transit mode to be proportional to its size and needs. The small, colorful buses that our county operates are a prime example of an appropriately-sized solution for our community.

The county is still experimenting with the viability and design of its bus network. Any such network must create benefits that exceed the costs, and must constitute the best investment of public funds. The costs are easy to quantify. These are the expenditures represented on spreadsheets our county legislators pour over. On the benefits side are the revenues from fares. More difficult to quantify, though, are factors such as the value to a worker who would otherwise be unable to take a job at the hospital, for instance. Or, the value of peace of mind that, should one’s car be sidelined, there is a temporary solution.

And, there is value by having more people take a fuel-efficient bus rather than be the sole driver of a gas-intensive car.

The challenge is to quantify such benefits and to develop a plan to get ridership up so taxpayers are assured their investment in transportation is well spent. The county is working diligently on this equation.

The Vision2Action forum gave Clinton County participants an opportunity to see for themselves that transportation networks define communities, while communities define our transportation needs. A thoughtful community does not design itself in a haphazard manner. Nor does it let happenstance dictate its future. We all have witnessed examples of poor urban planning. This Vision2Action forum, and the others in the series, give us ways to help forge our own future.

You can catch a repeat of the town forum this morning at 10 a.m. on Mountain Lake PBS. Check it out.

Colin Read chairs the Department of Economics and Finance at SUNY Plattsburgh. Continue the discussion at