Federal Funding Outlook Brightens

Atomic Taco (Flickr)

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of taking high speed rail from Dallas to Austin, rolling past Mesquite trees and into the Hill County at 200mph. I had the pleasure of doing this because Obama put $47 Billion for high speed rail in his 2013 budget.

Except that didn’t happen of course, because Presidential budgets are generally all smoke and no fire. If there is one thing you can count on from Congress in this polarized age, it’s the ability of habit and inertia to overpower the bluster of the Executive.

Trump’s recent budget was a disaster for transit and red meat to our Manhattanite President’s ironically anti-urbanist Republican base. It sought to zero out long-distance Amtrak funding, cut TIGER and New Starts grants, and even deny those projects in their last few months of project development, leaving projects with nothing after nearly a decade of work. Critically, it not only hung a cloud over ST3, but also threatened ST2 projects such as Lynnwood and Federal Way.

Yesterday, the outlook brightened a bit, with the plan for a Continuing Resolution floating around that would fund the government until September. Fearful of a government shutdown despite universal federal control, Republicans have been cutting deals and ignoring the President’s will. Amidst higher profile squabbles such as Trumpcare and the border wall, most other discretionary spending was retained in a business-as-usual sense. Funding is explicitly retained for Lynnwood Link, the Center City Connector, and SWIFT II. Lynnwood is further along in the New Starts process (Engineering) whereas Federal Way was not mentioned, as it is still technically in Project Development.

Amtrak also retains $1.5B in funding, including the long-distance network. TIGER is funded at $500m, and total transit spending sees a 5.5% boost. There’s no telling what 2018 holds, but for now we may pull back from the edge.

Tear Down the Malls, Build Housing

Decomposing Grandeur

Per the New York Times, the end of retail is nigh:

E-commerce players, led by the industry giant Amazon, have made it so easy and fast for people to shop online that traditional retailers, shackled by fading real estate and a culture of selling in stores, are struggling to compete. This shift has been building gradually for years. But economists, retail workers and real estate investors say it appears that it has sped up in recent months.

This transformation is hollowing out suburban shopping malls, bankrupting longtime brands and leading to staggering job losses.

More workers in general merchandise stores have been laid off since October, about 89,000 Americans. That is more than all of the people employed in the United States coal industry, which President Trump championed during the campaign as a prime example of the workers who have been left behind in the economic recovery.

We’ve been reading about the death of retail and shopping malls for years now, but the trend does seem to be accelerating.  The trend is especially pronounced in the suburbs, where some are projecting a retail apocalypse as consumers shift their shopping spend to Amazon and other e-commerce outfits.

If there’s a silver lining (other than to Amazon’s bottom line), it’s that suburban malls present great opportunities for infill development.  For a region like ours with an acute housing shortage, the end of the shopping mall era could be a blessing in disguise. It’s politically easier to raze a mall and build dense housing than it is to displace a whole bunch of single-family houses.

Whatever the flaws of the Puget Sound’s suburban-oriented light rail, it will go past a fair number of malls: Northgate and Alderwood Malls will have adjacent stations, as will Federal Way, Factoria, Bellevue, and Redmond.  Everett Mall is somewhat close to a future station.  Tacoma Mall, Southcenter and Totem Lake could be candidates for extensions in ST4.  That’s 10 transit-adjacent malls with a combined 619 acres of  land (only counting the malls and their parking lots and ignoring the surrounding properties, which are also potentially ripe for redevelopment).  Combined, that’s roughly the size of Downtown Seattle (bounded by Jackson, Denny, and I-5).

Of course, some regional malls seem rather unlikely to collapse in the immediate future.  Bellevue in particular has smartly followed the trends and added upscale dining and entertainment to stay viable.  But the trend is clear. The days of a few “anchor” department stores sustaining a forgettable collection of small, interchangeable chain stores are ending.   These spaces could – and should! – be redeveloped into dense, transit-oriented housing over the coming decades.