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February 18, 2011 - 6:01pm
posted by Timothy Hens in Albany, County, rural, Highway Funding, Complete Streets.

On a recent drive from Batavia to Geneseo I found myself, like several other vehicles, stuck behind a very slow moving piece of agricultural equipment that was taking up the entire lane and the paved shoulder. Although it was a bright sunny day in February, there were whiteout conditions from the snow blowing off the tops of the built-up banks along the shoulder of the road. It was challenging driving and being a County Highway Superintendent, I couldn’t stop thinking about the new “Complete Streets” legislation being considered by our State Legislature in Albany.

 A complete street is when all users, such as bicycles, pedestrians and wheelchairs, are considered in the design and construction of a roadway.  Common complete street initiatives include sidewalks, crosswalk enhancements, bicycle lanes, speed humps and other traffic calming measures. The idea of complete streets is an offshoot of the Livable Communities movement which is the latest urban planning fad. It is a noble initiative aimed at making our communities an easier place to live by making jobs, shopping, dining and medical needs all footsteps away. A sample outcome would be to have a senior housing complex less than a block from both a grocery store and the doctor’s office with sidewalks and paths in between and options for alternate means of transportation. 
On this fine February day, I just couldn't see how a complete street would accomodate a pedestrian or a bicyclist between the snow bank and the 18 foot wide Grouser travelling ahead of me.
The “Complete Streets” bill proposed by Albany would mandate that state and local governments study and consider making enhancements to roadways when building, re-building or rehabilitating streets with federal or state aid. The current legislation is backed and being pushed by AARP and several other groups as the demographic that benefits the most from these enhancements would be senior citizens. More senior pedestrians are killed by vehicles than any other age group. For this reason alone, it makes absolute sense to improve the safety of our roadways for all users. The bill, however, fails to differentiate between urban streets and rural roads. This lack of differentiation is one of many reasons why the New York State Association of Counties recently passed a resolution against the bill. 
A complete street might make perfect sense in Queens, but it has no place on a rural county or town road. Many of these roads are narrow with limited shoulders and often deep drainage ditches. They are used by farm equipment and often are covered in mud or manure. Widening one of these roads to accommodate even a bike lane would be a significant undertaking. The relocation of ditches triggers la engthy environmental review and possible involves the taking of additional right-of-way which is another lengthy and often controversial process. Often times, rural roads are “roads by use”, which means the landowners actually own the property to the centerline of the road and there is no established right-of-way. In this case, the municipality has no jurisdiction outside of the bounds of the roadway. Just imagine the disputes that would arise over trying to negotiate right-of-way with 40 or 50 separate land owners.
While, the proposed bill provides exceptions to complete street improvements based on lack of need and burdensome cost, the need for a study or evaluation is still required. The study process will add delays and costs to road projects that are already significantly under funded. In urban areas, most municipalities have their own well staffed engineering departments that could perform the studies. In rural counties and towns, often times there is no engineering function at all. In most cases, rural areas would need to hire an outside consultant to formally determine that there is no room for pedestrians or bicycles when a large piece of farm equipment travels a narrow rural road.  Do we need consultants to tell us that there are limited pedestriansa long a back country road with no houses?  These common sense decisions shouldn’t require an expensive study.
Most local governments already have a hard time keeping up with basic road maintenance. State highway funding has been relatively flat over the last 20 years while the price of oil and maintenance materials has skyrocketed. The burden of unfunded social service mandates has limited the capacity of local government to fund their own highway maintenance. This bill further misdirects funding and makes it harder to get the job done.
Where it makes sense, local governments already implement safety improvements that consider the needs of other users.  In the last 5 years, Genesee County has widened several roads to accommodate bicycle and pedestrian traffic along higher volume roads and in hamlet areas.  Several new road signs have also been added to aid disabled citizens.  All of these improvements have been made without state oversight and have been performed in a way that allows a balancing of the public interest at the local level.
The best course of action for our elected officials in Albany is to reject this bill and allow our local governments to decide what is best for their citizens. To add a bill that further detracts from highway funding and creates another mandate is counterproductive.
June 1, 2010 - 12:30pm
posted by Billie Owens in agriculture, farm bureau, rural.

Here's a press release from the New York Farm Bureau:

The New York Farm Bureau today announced a fight-back campaign against proposed Department of Environmental Conservation regulations that aim to restrict the use of outdoor wood boilers in rural New York.

"This is another attempt by Albany bureaucrats to single out the rural residents of New York," said Dean Norton, president of New York Farm Bureau. "DEC's decision on restricting the use of outdoor wood boilers will literally impact thousands of farmers and rural landowners across the state."

"Rural New Yorkers have been heating their homes with wood since the first Dutch settlers came up the Hudson," Norton said. "We all know it gets extremely cold in New York and DEC's actions will just drive residents back to using costly oil heat -- leaving a much cleaner renewable resource unused."

The Farm Bureau will rally its 30,000 members to fight these proposed regulations and will be lobbying furiously in the halls of Albany.

Thousands of owners of outdoor wood boilers will be forced to retrofit costly smokestacks to meet new DEC height requirements, limit the use of their units for almost half of the year and ultimately prohibit the use of any outdoor wood boiler that does not meet new, strict DEC emissions requirements.

The proposed regulations will have significant financial implications for farm and rural homeowners that heat their houses, barns and greenhouses.

"DEC's proposal is an overly broad plan to address the relatively few complaints that they have received about air-quality impacts from outdoor wood boilers," said Jeff Williams, Farm Bureau's deputy director of Public Policy. "This regulation punishes thousands of honest people that own outdoor wood boilers, use their own wood from their property and operate their units responsibly."

New York State residents will be required to retrofit their current units and then take their outdoor wood boilers out of service before the end of the unit's useful life and lose a major investment that can cost upwards of $10,000.

The owners can make the decision to purchase either a new, more expensive, outdoor wood boiler or return to non-renewable, petroleum-based fuels or natural gas.

"It must be pointed out that DEC does not provide any financial reimbursement or incentives for the retrofitting of smokestacks or the purchase of a new, compliant outdoor wood boiler," Williams said. "It is like the government telling you that you have to switch out your farm truck for a hybrid-electric car, but you have to pay for it yourself. It doesn't make sense."

DEC is holding a series of public information sessions/hearings around the state this month on the proposal. Farmers and rural residents are encouraged to go to <www.nyfb.org> for the hearing schedule, talking points and to send an e-lobby letter opposing the regulations to DEC and your state legislators.

Written comments will also be accepted by DEC until July 2.

January 15, 2010 - 9:05pm
posted by Howard B. Owens in business, localism, rural.

Small Business Trends has published a list of 10 trends to watch in 2010 for small businesses in rural areas.

Top of the list is the census.

Census 2010 – Population counts are critical for government programs, grants, and more for a decade. Smart small towns and counties will be actively finding ways to get everyone counted. Watch for town meetings to answer questions, and a whole bunch of canvassing. Your small town business will be indirectly affected by the results for ten long years.

At number three is the always important "shop local" trend.

April 1, 2009 - 8:21pm
posted by Howard B. Owens in genesee county, rural, broadband.

The Obama stimulus package includes $7.2 billion to help rural America access the Internet more easily, and officials in Genesee County would like to ensure some of that money benefits the region.

Known as "Title VI--Broadband Technology Opportunities Program," the allocation is a mere 1 percent of the entire stimulus program.

County Manager Jay Gsell clued me in a couple of weeks ago about the County's efforts to attract some of that money to help areas of the county that do not yet have broadband access. He said the broadband effort is one of many tasks on the County's to-do list related to bringing as much stimulus money to the county as possible.

Stephen Zimmer, Genesee County Director of Information Technology, said the county is participating in a state program to map current broadband availability and identify areas of need.

New York Farm Bureau President Dean Norton applauds the effort to help rural residents access the Internet more easily.

"Farmers in rural, agricultural areas need broadband," Norton said. "Support for broadband has been in our policy book for years. Technology is necessary to keep agriculture viable. Your business (The Batavian) thrives off of technology and agriculture is needing technology more and more."

Much is unknown even at this point about how the broadband program will be administered, and it may not be until 2010 before we see any results. This PCWorld article explains some of the unresolved questions about the program.

The broadband stimulus program is also not without controversy.

Former FCC economist Michael Katz has been acerbic in his dismissal of rural American and the need for spending $7.2 billion on improving Internet access.

Katz listed ways that the $7.2 billion could be put to better use, including an effort to combat infant deaths. But he also spoke of rural places as environmentally hostile, energy inefficient and even weak in innovation, simply because rural people are spread out across the landscape.

"The notion that we should be helping people who live in rural areas avoid the costs that they impose on society … is misguided," Katz went on, "from an efficiency point of view and an equity one."

According to the same NPR piece, a New York Times article has referred to the rural broadband initiative as a "cyber bridge to nowhere."

But others say the package could help another 20 million Americans get broadband access, and high-speed access does help create and retain jobs.

A study of 3,000 people in Michigan, Texas and Kentucky found those in areas that received broadband Internet grants from the federal Rural Utilities Service quickly signed up for service, matching the penetration rates in cities. That happened where network investment was coupled with community programs aimed at convincing people about the benefits of Internet access.

Home broadband users were more likely to start businesses or take classes online, and less likely to move away, the researchers at Michigan State University found.

Norton said a lot of farmers in Genesee County are still stuck with dial-up, which hurts their productivity. It also keeps them from accessing more advanced online-software that help them run their businesses.

"(Broadband) will help the more progressive and larger enterprises the most," Norton said, "but with the smaller ones, there lies another opportunity to educate people and help them."

March 28, 2009 - 8:21am
posted by Howard B. Owens in stimulus, rural.

Rural towns may find it hard to compete against metro areas for stimulus funding, according to an Associated Press report.

Big cities have more shovel-ready projects and deeper pockets to fund staff time to make applications.

"I feel that we're at an unfair disadvantage because I can't put a staff of 10 on to go out there and see what we can qualify for," Silver City Manager Alex Brown said.

Gov. Bill Richardson and Lt. Gov. Diane Denish said at a news conference last week rural communities need help to get their share of the federal money.

"Some rural communities, they don't have the staff and the expertise, in some cases, to make some of these submissions" required to apply for stimulus money, Richardson said.

Meanwhile, on small town in Vermont was surprised to find that it had to come up with 20 percent matching funds to qualify for stimulus aid on a project.

The town submitted its applications and learned it must come up with 20 percent in matching funds.

"We are at a definite disadvantage there is no way we can raise that kind of money," Viskup said.

The town says the 20 percent match was never mentioned and expected the stimulus money would fully fund the projects.

March 7, 2009 - 8:24am
posted by Howard B. Owens in Barack Obama, rural.

Early in his campaign for president, Barack Obama promised to call Republican and Democratic leaders together within his first 100 days for a rural summit.

NPR's Howard Berkes reports that the Obama White House seems to be backing away from that promise.

Inouye then cited rural initiatives in the stimulus bill and Obama's proposed budget. "His administration is taking affirmative steps to help strengthen rural America."

As to the pledge of a rural summit in the first 100 days, Inouye said, "[Obama] is working with his Cabinet, advisers and congressional allies to form a comprehensive rural agenda, and is planning on hosting a forum to discuss those ideas."

That's a commitment to do something, but not in the first 100 days, and not in the form of a summit in Iowa.

Yes, a lot has changed since Obama made his pledge, and it doesn't appear that Obama's administration is completely forgetting rural towns.  And I'm not even sure, frankly, what a rural summit would accomplish.

But it's good that reporters like Berkes are out there looking after rural America's interest.

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