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LaHood Loosens Rail Transit Noose – Will DC Streetcars Benefit?

Thursday, January 14th, 2010

As many of you may have read or heard by now, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced a major policy change that will generally make it easier for rail transit projects to qualify for funding under the New Starts Program. The policy change rescinds a Bush Administration policy that restricted New Starts funding to projects that received a cost-effectiveness rating of “Medium” or higher. (The cost-effectiveness rating measures project cost per number of hours saved by riders each day.) Under the new policy, projects receiving an overall rating of “Medium” or higher will be eligible for New Starts funding.

Many congressional leaders and transit advocates hailed the change, saying it will loosen the noose that has choked off federal funding from countless rail transit projects and bring project evaluation in line with statutory framework outlined by Congress. Perhaps no one expressed the joy and relief of transit advocates more succinctly than The Overhead Wire, which featured the great headline “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead.” (The Overhead Wire often features fun headlines, including this favorite.)

As an advocate of rail transit and of cities, I share that joy. Though touted by the previous Administration as a way of directing scarce funding to the most worthy projects, the general result, and probably intention, of the policy was to bias the New Starts Program towards less expensive Bus Rapid Transit and commuter rail projects that focused on moving suburban commuters to central cities as opposed to light rail and streetcar projects that improved intra-city mobility. The policy also elevated one evaluation criteria over all other evaluation criteria.

Thus, under the Bush policy a project that scored poorly on cost-effectiveness was dropped, no matter how strong its potential to reduce congestion, cut air pollution or promote economic development. In addition, the Bush policy often forced ill-advised changes to rail transit lines as project backers removed rider amenities or even whole stations to bring down costs or reduce travel times in an effort to garner the all-important “Medium” cost-effectiveness score. As outlined by Yonah Freemark on The Transport Politic, this scenario most commonly played out in medium-density cities, where planners were forced to choose routes less useful to central city neighborhoods in order to speed travel times for suburban commuters. Quoting Freemark:

“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. “

So, sounds like good news for DC Streetcars, right? Though Local coverage of the decision, such as the story in the Washington Post focused on what the policy change will mean for the Purple Line in Maryland and the K Street Busway, concluding that the change is good news for those projects, the short answer is yes. However, the more nuanced answer, as both The Overhead Wire and Freemark outline, is not entirely. Though the policy change removes a major obstacle to receiving federal funding for rail transit project, a bigger obstacle remains in place: money. SAFETEA-LU, the previous surface transportation bill, provided approximately $8 billion for New Starts over five years. However, a study released by Reconnecting America estimates national demand for new rail transit projects at $250 billion. According to that report, even if SAFETEA-LU’s successor doubled New Start funding, that would be just enough money to meet the demand for new rail transit in Maryland, with perhaps a few dollars left over for another state.

Transit advocates and their allies on Capitol Hill are working hard to increase the New Starts pie in the next federal surface transportation bill and this policy change makes DC Streetcars more competitive for federal funding. But given how competitive New Starts remains it is little wonder that many cities are choosing to go it alone.

On a brighter note: unlike other cities, the District of Columbia does not have to grapple with a state DOT: the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) is a state DOT, with the power to flex federal highway money to transit. So, keep the pressure on DC elected leaders and officials to make investments in transit improvements that increase mobility and opportunity for District residents.

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