February 2010

New Starts moves continue rail favoritism over BRT

by Cliff Henke

Courtesy SFMTA

The Obama administration continues to display a preference for rail-based public transportation modes in its recent regulatory and budgetary actions. However, whether transit agencies and cities can take advantage of these new opportunities will continue to depend in part on local factors.

Taking away BRT favoritism

The first recent move came with the FTA's announcement in December of two new programs designed to implement the administration's livability agenda. The programs total $280 million for urban circulator, bus and bus facility projects. The first is for urban circulator systems, funded with $130 million in unobligated discretionary New Starts/Small Starts money.

The second is for a Livability Bus program, funded by $150 million in unobligated Discretionary Bus and Bus Facilities Program money. Evaluation criteria for both programs are the same; promoting transportation options is only one evaluation measure, with the others having to do with economic development and energy security.

Project proposals for both programs were due Feb. 8, 2010, with expected project awards announced by the summer of this year. While both programs were launched with already appropriated funds for previous years, they showed that the administration was committed to assisting projects that emphasized economic development as much as promoting mobility.

In January, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood proposed a revision of funding guidelines for major transit projects so that evaluation of submitted projects will be based equally on livability issues, such as economic development opportunities and environmental benefits, in addition to cost and time saved - currently the primary criteria. The FTA immediately rescinded budget restrictions issued by the "Dear Colleague" letter and other policy guidance of the Bush administration that focused the agency's evaluation primarily on a cost-effectiveness index that emphasized how much a project shortened commute times in comparison to its cost. In the Bush criteria, bus rapid transit (BRT) almost always scored more favorably than rail-based projects because of this index.

Local decisions

Both announcements clearly signal a new desire to de-emphasize evaluations based on criteria that almost always favored BRT over rail and virtually shut out streetcar projects from federal funding. This is not to say, however, that the feds will rescue a project that is struggling locally. For one thing, the new programs have grant caps of $25 million, meaning that other funds will have to be lined up; moreover, statutory local match rules still apply.

Secondly, environmental review, local approvals and demonstration of local financial and technical capacity are still required. Finally, while the recent moves undid some of the rules stacked in favor of BRT, it only leveled the playing field.

In other words, a worthy project still needs local support and local financial contribution, regardless of mode.

 


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