Management & Operations

A desire named streetcar

Posted on March 1, 2006 by Cliff Henke

The explosion in bus rapid transit (BRT) interest has somewhat obscured another, quieter renaissance. More than 100 cities in the U.S. are interested in streetcar projects, according to estimates by Jeff Boothe, founder of the Streetcar Coalition, a group that seeks funding for these projects. As much as or perhaps even more than BRT, streetcar interest is what drove Congress to create the Small Starts program in SAFETEA-LU. That bill authorized $800 million over the life of the program — $200 million for the next four years. (The Bush Administration, however, cut the amount for the first of those years in half in its recent FY 2007 budget proposal to Congress.) Crowded fiscal picture
Whether this program existed or not, smaller projects will likely be the norm in the coming years, simply because the demand for better public transit is outstripping the supply of funding at all levels of government. BRT and streetcars could become the modes of choice in this climate. Recently appointed Deputy FTA Administrator Sandra Bushue put it this way in her March testimony on Capitol Hill: “The [administration’s proposed] budget requests almost $1.5 billion for the New Starts program…The $1.5 billion fully funds the federal commitment included in 16 existing full funding grant agreements (FFGAs) with transit agencies. Funding also supports two FFGAs that we expect to sign before the end of FY 2006, one in Pittsburgh and one in New York City.” The FTA also announced in its recent annual report on the subject that five new projects have completed final design —“the New Starts finish line,” as Bushue called it — and are thus ready to receive grant agreements. FFGAs are the FTA’s commitment that a project will receive a specified amount of money — though not necessarily in the amounts and years that a project specifies. The Small Starts program was created to give smaller projects and systems a fighting chance in the very crowded game. A few years ago, former FTA Administrator Jenna Dorn pointed out that there was a $16 billion gap between what was being sought in the New Starts program and what she could afford — even at the record levels of funding authorized last summer. The fact of the matter is that transit has become a victim of its own success; its popularity throughout the country outweighs what the public sector can afford. Enter the Small Starts idea, which provides up to $75 million in federal funding for projects under $250 million in total cost. Although Bushue said that her agency wanted it “because it levels the playing field for medium and small communities,” it already stipulates that the federal share will be far less than even the current average of 50% in the larger New Starts program. The FTA explains that it only requested $100 million for next fiscal year because the regulations governing this new program will not be finalized until June 2007 at the earliest. Thus, smaller projects seeking less federal funding will favor lower-cost and faster-to-implement technologies — like streetcars and BRT. Why streetcars?
So why reintroduce an idea that is at least a century old again now? It is all about shaping development and urban form, say Boothe and others. Whether operated by volunteers using restored equipment as in Dallas or using more modern, off-the-shelf versions as in Portland, streetcars are quick to implement, cost less than light rail to operate, help create ambiance and thereby shape urban form and, most importantly, attract development. Because of the slowdown in the federal pipeline, look for communities to fund these with a package of nontraditional sources of investment — private and local government — rather than take a number and wait in line.

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