First Suburbs, Keim Street Bridge & Keystone Blvd. extension

Exactly the kind of issue that would benefit from analysis and advocacy by the First Suburbs coalition is how PennDOT and the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC) set transportation funding priorities.

From their website: “The Southeastern Pennsylvania First Suburbs Project is a regional coalition of community leaders from developed suburbs that have joined together to harness their communities’ power by directly engaging citizens to affect policies and practices that will lead to the stabilization and revitalization of their communities.”

They’re holding the Building One Pennsylvania Summit tomorrow, Friday, July 16, 2010, 10:00am – 4:00pm (doors open at 9:00) at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, 750 E. King Street, Lancaster, PA.

I know a few Pottstown residents are going and I hope someone is going to officially represent the Borough.

In a recent presentation to Pottstown Borough Council, a representative of the DVRPC described how the funding for the repair/replacement of the historic Keim Street Bridge wouldn’t be available for approximately 6-8 more years, or completed for at least 10 years. See The Mercury’s video here. The issue was also discussed by Jeff Leflar on the Code Blue blog.

In the video, Council President Stephen Toroney notes that, ideally, the bridge would be re-aligned with Keim Street AND Keystone Boulevard would be extended to the Route 422 Stowe interchange, thus allowing Pottstown to be part of the 422 flow rather than cut off from it. Toroney rightly pointed out, “That’s the key to our Bethlehem Steel site. To get some businesses in there.” He asked about the possibility of fast-tracking and a public/private partnership to make those things happen. It wasn’t clear, due to the video editing, whether the DVRPC representative ever responded directly to those questions.

I would not let this go. And I don’t mean that in a confrontational way. I mean that there is a strong regional planning case to be made for addressing this root-cause, which is directly connected to jobs and fiscal stability, through recurring dialogue and a working relationship with these agencies specifically around this issue.

This problem is reminiscent of the ultimate effect on many of our nation’s cities of the Federal Highway Act of 1956, which funded the interstate highway system. Massive roadways and overpasses cut downtowns off from their rivers and diverted people, in their vehicles, away from city centers, opening up the countryside to housing and malls – what we now call “sprawl” – and leading to the disinvestment in urban cores.

On a smaller scale, that is what the current PennDOT/DVRPC transportation funding schedule perpetuates – the continued re-routing of traffic (and consumer dollars) around a town center/small city. This funding schedule, even if unintended, is in effect their public policy. It is a policy that, due to inadequate access for the movement of raw materials and finished goods, actually also hinders private sector economic development dollars from flowing into Pottstown.

For Pottstown’s former industrial sites ever to be re-used to their fullest, the newly formed Pottstown Partnership (which includes the County) will want to hit the ground running in talks with PennDOT and DVRPC to re-consider the current timeline on the Keim Street Bridge and to get the Keystone Boulevard extension on the table. The Partnership will also need to actively engage property owners, determining any clean-up and marketing strategies that will put these sites back in use. They are absolutely essential to Pottstown’s revitalization. None of these efforts toward the Pottstown Industrial Complex should be news. They are part of Goal #1 in the Action Plan of the Pottstown Economic Development Strategic Plan (March 2008).

There may be a history here (of inaction) such that funding agencies might be leery of directing resources where they’re skeptical about their ultimate benefit. Fair enough. That’s where the Borough – on its own and in the context of the Partnership – needs to step up and be pro-active with property owners, pro-active in seeking grants for brownfields redevelopment and putting together a package of other financing incentives, and leading the way in this kind of First Suburbs conversation.

4 thoughts on “First Suburbs, Keim Street Bridge & Keystone Blvd. extension

  1. Can First Suburbs sufficiently “affect the policies and practices” of PennDOT and the DVRPC to win money sooner for projects like Pottstown’s Keim Street bridge or the Keystone Boulevard extension? Maybe, Sue, but I’m skeptical. Its various members commendably say they share common goals. However, if the money arrives and they start scrabbling over who gets what pieces of the pie and when, I suspect it will be every municipality for itself. I would love to be proved wrong, but the phrase “politics as usual” was coined for a reason.

    Which leads me to observe that the other half of your column, urging the Partnership and the borough to “hit the ground running” and effectively do the lobbying and coordination themselves, is on target. To be honest, I think a little confrontation wouldn’t be a bad thing. For decades in Pottstown, the public attitude has often been “accept what we’re given.” The rise of activist blogs and groups in town offers hope that we can and should start demanding what we need, and deny our support to those who don’t deliver.

    1. Hi, Joe – thanks for your thoughtful response.

      I did intend to convey a two-pronged approach – being active in First Suburbs AND pursuing an actual change in the funding timeline through the Pottstown Partnership. I don’t know a whole lot about PennDOT, but DVRPC is a planning agency that reaches to Mercer County here in my neck of the woods. They care about good planning. Pottstown’s got to lay out its case, its story, again and again, in multiple venues. I think there’s room for hope here, especially with the planning folks. If I’m accused of giving planners too much credit, because I am one, so be it!

      Overall, I was trying to point the way to where Pottstown is active everywhere all at once, with a louder (more reasoned, confident) voice than it’s had in recent history, to turn some heads for all the right reasons, and maybe able to command a few more seats at the tables where decisions are made.

      I take your point about First Suburbs, although it’s still unknown what kind of force it might be. In general, I think the concept of municipalities with similar interests against historically inequitable practices is a very good thing. Working together to get a little more of the pie is way better than not getting any more of the pie at all (especially when pies are shrinking.)

      I am in no way advocating that Pottstown defer to any other municipality when it comes to actually grabbing whatever funding they can get for anything! You gotta do what you gotta do, and it’s all business at that point. I’m picturing Pottstown in that situation as a strong forward, wide stance, elbows out, boxing out and going for the ball!

  2. The issue seemed pretty clear to me Monday night-there is a massive traffic problem as everyone in the western end of the county drives to the other end to work daily. The solution also seems pretty clear to me-not tolling the highway and building light rail to continue funneling people east but convincing employers to look to the western end of the county. The first step would be showing the employers that there is good access in and out of their businesses-something we lack now. Even if the Keim STt. bridge is still standing, it is narrow and misaligned with 422. It is a choke point. I am skeptical about anything in Penndot’s schedule changing to benefit Pottstown. After all, the powerful politicians do not live here, and the money follows the powerful.

    1. Reading your blog post and thinking on it for a couple days caused me to post, so – thanks, Jeff! I have also been trying to get my thoughts together about Pottstown and JOBS, because, of course, that’s the crux of the matter (for everyone, everywhere these days.) And you’re right – the sensible thing is to re-use existing sites in the western part of the county.

      I hear and totally get your skepticism. But could that be running in both directions? The town hasn’t lived up to funders’ expectations in the past; that shadow is going to be hanging around until the town proves otherwise in some fundamental, visible ways. I think/hope it’s on track to do that. There’s lots to be done with property owners and a whole host of other funding sources to assemble, prepare and market these areas around a cohesive vision. And investors want to come into a predictable regulatory environment; time is money. The functions of various agencies and districts must be clear. All land use ordinances must be clear, consistently enforced and not onerous. The Borough, individually, AND as part of the Partnership needs to show that it can do all of this. Who knows what might happen if the landscape were changed in these ways?

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