UPDATE (1/18/10, 7:05 pm): The Houston Chronicle has posted a story “Rule change could boost light rail plans” that includes quotes from Kimberly Slaughter, the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s assistant vice president of planning, and Alan Clark, the Houston - Galveston Area Council’s transportation manager on the benefits of the new rule changes for the Houston region:
“The old approach was designed to eliminate as many projects as possible,” said Kimberly Slaughter, the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s assistant vice president of planning. “The rule change is a significant move in the right direction, responsive to input from transit agencies across the nation.”
University line affected
The University rail line, which would extend from the East End through Midtown, the Montrose area, the Galleria area and into southwest Houston, is the only part of the agency’s rail expansion plans that will be affected by the new rules, Slaughter said.
Metro has secured federal funding for the north and southeast lines, she said, and intends to use local funds to build the east and Uptown lines. The Main Street line from north of downtown to the Reliant Park area opened six years ago.
The new rules will enable Metro to modify plans for the University line to incorporate elements that wouldn’t have been given credit under the old rules, such as opportunities for “spinoff development” around transit stations, Slaughter said.
Help for the future
Alan Clark, the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s transportation manager, said the new rules also could be helpful to future transit projects outside Metro’s service area. Many suburban communities are developing mixed-use activity centers that their leaders would like to connect to Metro’s system, Clark said, and the new federal approach seems to encourage such projects.
“The old rules focused on reduced travel times for commuters,” Clark said. “Now a broader array of benefits is considered.”
UPDATED 1/14/10, 11:41 am.
The Obama Administration announced that it will change the rules that govern how the Federal Transit Authority (FTA) judges proposals for federal transit funding, immediately eliminating some restrictions instituted by the Bush Administration and hinting at future policies, some of which will require Congressional cooperation, according to Reuters.
Under the Bush administration, cost-effectiveness was the biggest transit funding criterion, outweighing other considerations such as congestion relief. FTA’s new criteria will also allow for consideration of environmental, economic, and livability factors to determine the best use of funds, according to Streetsblog. Under the new rules, cost-effectiveness will still be considered, but it will be weighted equally with the other individual factors.
These reforms will make it easier to fund transit projects, and particularly smaller projects such as streetcar lines, with federal money. The new rules will require a public comment period, so they will not take effect immediately.
The cost-benefit analysis is heavily biased towards the number of annual hours commuters will save by using the new transit system. This means that people who already have longer commutes are seen as more valuable for the FTA than those who choose to live in in-town locations with shorter distances between their residences and workplaces. As a result, transit networks are encouraged to extend out into the suburbs, rather than be densified and reinforced downtown.
Urban corridors with very high densities and reliance on existing transit services do just fine on the cost-effectiveness index, as demonstrated by high marks given to New York’s Second Avenue Subway, San Francisco’s Central Subway, and Seattle’s University Link, whatever their individual merits.
Where the cost-effectiveness index goes really wrong is in medium-density cities hoping to cash in on transit as a tool for increasing density and developing a transit-friendly environment. ...[T]he index basically forces transit authorities responsible for choosing routes to pick less useful corridors within the inner-city in order to speed commutes from the suburbs. It also requires agencies to reduce spending on lines in order to meet the arbitrary limit imposed by the index, no matter the willingness of local taxpayers to contribute a higher percentage of a project’s construction costs.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood explains the decision on his FastLane blog:
[I]f we’re serious—really serious—about creating livable communities built around good transportation, then our Federal Transit Administration needs to consider key livability factors when evaluating non-Recovery Act transit proposals.
Factors like enivronmental benefits and economic development opportunities.
Unfortunately, FTA’s flagship programs use cost and performance requirements that are too narrow to allow for weighing these livability factors.
So we are opening them up to a broader set of six performance criteria:
* Economic development
* Mobility improvements
* Environmental benefits
* Operating efficiencies
* Cost effectiveness
* Land use
Obviously, we still must evaluate a project’s ability to move people from one place to another. But, as Publicola notes, now we can add to the mix how new transit ideas can help communities reduce their carbon footprints, spur economic activity, and relieve congestion.
Transportation 4 America says that while improving the criteria for transit funding is an important step for optimizing federal investments, it will not fix the problem of limited supply of transit funding, which will have to be accomplished in the federal transportation bill reauthorization or perhaps in a new jobs bill.
“Our new policy for selecting major transit projects will work to promote livability rather than hinder it,” said Secretary LaHood. “We want to base our decisions on how much transit helps the environment, how much it improves development opportunities and how it makes our communities better places to live.”
The change will apply to how the Federal Transit Administration evaluates major transit projects going forward. In making funding decisions, the FTA will now evaluate the environmental, community and economic development benefits provided by transit projects, as well as the congestion relief benefits from such projects.
“This new approach will help us do a much better job of aligning our priorities and values with our transit investments” said FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff. “No longer will we ignore the many benefits that accrue to our environment and our communities when we build or expand rail and bus rapid transit systems.”
FTA will soon initiate a separate rulemaking process, inviting public comment on ways to appropriately measure all the benefits that result from such investments.
This is not the first time the Obama administration has linked transportation systems and livability. In 2009, the administration announced that the DOT, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development would work together to promote smarter growth and more livable communities. The White House has also created a new Office of Urban Affairs and used some stimulus money to promote sustainable communities.