In this past summer’s publication of its revised Small
Starts criteria, the FTA could not have been clearer in its preference for BRT
and its disdain for streetcars. Those who advocate and seek federal financial
support for the latter must now rethink their strategy. Barring revision of
federal transit law, it is now unlikely that streetcar systems will get much
traditional transit funding, regardless of their appeal to local communities
and national sustainability objectives.
In its Federal register notice of August 8, 2008, the FTA
eliminated the requirement that all four project elements (low-floor buses,
traffic signal priority/pre-emption, significant stations and branding) must be
part of the project, and instead, now allows a project to be eligible if it
includes at least three of the four elements. Previously, Small Starts projects
that did not include a fixed- guideway (i.e., exclusive or mostly-exclusive BRT
running way or track for rail projects) were not eligible for Small Starts
funding if any of the four elements already existed in the corridor.
This change was made because the agency said it was
concerned about how minor improvements already made in a corridor, such as the
existence of one of the four required elements, prevented projects from being
eligible for Small Starts funding.
“[FTA’s] intent for the Small Starts program has been to
differentiate the program from the Section 5309 Bus Program by funding
significant corridor improvements,” the agency explained in its announcement.
“By revising the policy to allow projects in corridors with one of the existing
elements to apply for Small Starts funding, FTA has attempted to strike a
balance between being too restrictive so that many worthy projects are excluded
from eligibility, and being too flexible, thus allowing eligibility for
projects that are not significant corridor improvements but rather incremental
improvements better funded under another program.”
This and other changes did nothing for rail-based Small Starts.
In fact, by lowering the bar for bus-based projects once again, they put
streetcars and commuter rail at further comparative disadvantage.
Forget the DOT?
Streetcar advocates formulating their strategy for the new
President and Congress are not happy with this state of affairs, and some are
expressing willingness to try a wholly different approach — seeking something
new in federal urban development programs outside of the Department of
Transportation (DOT). The rationale for this approach is based not only on
current and recent rules requiring additional documentation and analysis for
projects, which, frankly are not all that different from traditional “bigger”
starts and, thus, is an apparent violation of at least the spirit of
There is also some precedent for this approach, because many
large transportation investments have also had a redevelopment component.
Streetcars particularly fit this strategy because they are mainly about
economic development and community revitalization and less about mobility
Much of this strategy’s viability will depend on the
political climate next year, of course. How Congress and the new administration
will deal with mega-issues like the economy, two wars, climate change, energy
security, the budget deficit and even healthcare will in part determine whether
transportation funding will be decided as it has been or with new twists.
If Barack Obama becomes president, the urban agenda is
likely to have a higher profile than John McCain, who has viewed federal
transportation investments more skeptically. If this non-DOT tack is taken, it
would be an ironic twist, for that is where federal transit funding began in
the early 1960s before the DOT was created. Just as streetcars themselves
represent an old-is-new again idea, perhaps federal policy must do the same.