Monday, March 31, 2014

Keep Transit Village Goals on Track

Now that Plainfield has become the 28th Transit Village, someone asked what the impact of the designation has been on the 27 other ones.

The agency that has looked into outcomes in transit villages is the Alan. M. Voorhees Transportation Center within the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers. There is no bottom line, as each municipality has its own situation, but there are reports online that say what helped or hindered success in transit villages.

The center's Transit Village Initiative page has reports on the first two "generations" of transit villages. The first group was Morristown, Pleasantville, Rahway, Riverside, Rutherford, South Amboy and South Orange. The second was Belmar, Bloomfield, Bound Brook, Collingswood, Cranford, Journal Square, Matawan, Metuchen and New Brunswick.

When the program began in 1999, municipalities had no reporting requirement. In 2005, the center developed an assessment form to monitor changes in investment, construction and other indicators of success. As the newest transit village, Plainfield will benefit by all the work that has gone before and should be able to track progress in attaining goals for transit-oriented development.

The designation, like that of Urban Enterprise Zone way back in 1986, represents an opportunity, but one whose success will depend on many factors. Among them are the commitment of the administration and political will of the governing body to support the initiative. Residents and business owners need information about what the designation means for them. The city in general has to engage all the state support available.

Luckily for everybody, the timing seems right to move ahead. The city now has a cabinet-level person in charge of economic development and new Mayor Adrian O. Mapp has his eyes on the future. There are two transit-oriented development zones and interest appears to be picking up on construction around the train stations.

I mention the Urban Enterprise Zone program only as a cautionary example of the need for monitoring how things are going. The program was meant to increase employment, mitigate blight and restore prosperity. Retailers could charge only half the state sales tax and the revenues could be drawn down for approved projects in the zone. But Plainfield suffered a setback with the loss of Macy's as a downtown retail anchor in 1992. Many small retailers could not add employees, a requirement to be certified for the program. For that and other reasons, less than 15 percent of eligible businesses were certified. In recent years, city officials could not get internal information on the program and some applications to draw down money from the city's account were rejected. The promise was fading.

Plainfield's drift was mirrored in other UEZ cities. A state analysis of the UEZ program in 2011 found only an eight-cent return for every dollar expended on running it. The program was closed and unspent funds turned back to municipalities.

By contrast, the Transit Village Initiative appears healthy and robust in general. Plainfield is fortunate to be designated. My point is that ongoing analysis will help ensure progress toward the goals of transit-oriented development. There are no guarantees of success, but taking stock will keep the effort strong.


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