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Louisville's New Transit Plan Draws Criticism From Advocates

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer is touting the city's Move Louisville plan as the framework to guide the city's future transportation development.

He presented the plan Thursday to a crowd of about four dozen transit advocates and city planners gathered at the Frazier Museum. It calls for a reduction in vehicle usage and an increase in bike, bus and other pedestrian-centric, multi-modal transportation over the next two decades.

The plan presents 16 specific projects, from painting crosswalks and fixing sidewalks to massive overhauls of major transit corridors, including Broadway, Ninth Street and Dixie Highway. It also mentions policy shifts necessary to see the plan fully implemented.

Each project is focused on encouraging greater pedestrian access and reducing vehicle usage.

"I imagine there's going to be a lot of excitement about this plan," Fischer said. "Some people will think it's tremendous, other people will tell us how crazy we are, how uninformed we are."

He's right. There's been support and criticism in the day or so since the plan's official release.

Some transportation advocates say Move Louisville fails to address systemic issues causing the city's transit woes and is an incomplete commitment to future infrastructure development.

For instance, the plan doesn't call for a light rail network in the city, which transit advocates have viewed as a must. Its absence is disappointing, said Clarence Hixson, a spokesman for the Coalition for the Advancement of Regional Transportation.

"But I can't say I'm shocked," he added.

Hixson's group has called for light rail service for years. He said city officials refuse to consider a light rail plan because of their ties to the automobile industry.

"This mayor and this planning group have put a public relations gloss on what is basically a capitulation to the Kentucky manufacturers," he said. Ford has two manufacturing facilities in Louisville and employs thousands in the city.

The head of Louisville's transit service said the absence of light rail from the plan is a good thing.

"I think for where we are at, at this point, in some ways, it would be a distraction," said Barry Barker, executive director of TARC.

He said light rail isn't practical for the city's present transportation needs. Barker said the city should prioritize more funding for the bus service, which is struggling to meet current needs.

"There is still a need for more service," he said.

Fischer said the city's lack of residential density is the reason light rail service is not included in the Move Louisville plan.

But Jackie Green, a former mayoral candidate and longtime transportation activist, said the city lacks density because there hasn't been a commitment from city officials to discourage development in the far-flung reaches of Jefferson County.

"It's clear we need to address population density," he said "That is a must, that is a basic of good city planning."

Green said the plan has ambition but lacks focus to address the issue of population density. He said continuing to support development in outer parts of the city, which Move Louisville does, is counterproductive to a strong system of bike, bus and pedestrian mobility.

The city's plan does stress a need to bring residents closer to transit corridors, but there is no tangible incentive to encourage such infill, Fischer said.

"The incentive is just for people to feel like they've got a better lifestyle," he said.

Green also questioned the plan's validity, pointing out that Fischer has yet to introduce a preferred funding mechanism for Move Louisville.

"That's not a plan, nor is it really commitment," Green said.

High Cost

Fully implementing Move Louisville and the 16 projects highlighted in the plan would cost about $1.4 billion. To reach that goal, Metro Council members and the mayor's office would have to funnel about $70 million annually into transportation efforts. That's roughly $55 million more than what's currently being spent on such development.

Fischer said the 60-day public input period kicking off this week would help determine how the plan would be funded.

"That will be driven by our citizens and their desire to move forward," he said. "Nothing's free."

He also said a local option sales tax could jumpstart the funding process, although that requires enabling legislation from the General Assembly, which is likely to adjourn the current session Friday without voting on the bill.

Fischer also said the city should push harder for federal grants, which are helping fuel a planned transformation of the Dixie Highway corridor.

Metro Councilman Bill Hollander, a District 9 Democrat and chair of the council's majority caucus, said the plan takes a long view, and funding doesn't need to be secured immediately.

He said the plan would enable council members to begin a broader discussion about the city's transportation infrastructure, both existing assets and new developments.

"If we don't set goals and make long-range plans, nothing will get done," he said.

Councilwoman Marianne Butler, chair of the council's budget committee, did not return a request for comment on potential funding.

Increasing Urban Density

Boosting bike and bus use in lieu of vehicles is an element particularly concerning for residents in the nearly 80 suburban cities in the county, said Jack Will, spokesman for the Jefferson County League of Cities.

"Obviously that is of high concern to residents because a lot of the neighborhoods they live in are not traditionally designed such as in the Urban Services District," he said.

Some residents in suburban cities live farther from major transit corridors than their urban counterparts, he said, and getting to those roads and routes without vehicles could be challenging.

Fischer and other city planners praised Move Louisville as way to attract young, talented workers to the city.

David Allgood, director of advocacy for the Center for Accessible Living, said he wants to ensure Move Louisville also takes into account residents living with disabilities who may struggle to get around city streets and sidewalks.

Allgood said the city is accessible, but it could be better.

"It's just a challenge sometimes," he said. "The bumps, the broken concrete, the potholes."

He said he's confident the plan would address his concerns and those of residents who use wheelchairs or other supporting tools and depend on smooth, accessible options.

The plan hinges heavily on residential reception. Calling on people to drive less will be challenging, said Mary Ellen Wiederwohl, the city's chief of economic development. But she's hopeful that providing options is the first step in breaking lifelong habits — like driving cars for short errands.

"We have become so pre-programmed to just hop in the car and go somewhere," she said. "A great place to start is to just start talking about it."

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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