» New transit projects are absolutely necessary, but what’s most needed is an increase in funding, not a change in regulations.
In reviewing transit capital projects to fund with New Starts grant money, the Federal Transit Administration evaluates proposals from a variety of perspectives. Since 2005, it has placed an overwhelming focus on one criterion, requiring a medium “cost-effectiveness” rating, which values predicted overall travel time saved by commuters likely to use the new service.
Transit agencies pushing big new line expansions have argued that this specific guideline is too strict, forcing unreasonable cutbacks in project costs and valuing suburban, long-distance lines over slow-moving urban ones. Now two Democratic congressmen are hoping to overturn the policy. But their efforts may compromise the FTA’s ability to pick the nation’s most important new transportation programs.
It has been easy enough to pick on the Bush-era rule, since it put major barriers on new projects and shut down projects in areas as disperate as Miami and North Carolina’s Triangle. Many cities were only able to get their medium-low-rated corridors into the pipeline because of exceptions written into the law. Under the Bush Administration, no streetcar projects were funded directly with New Starts money. Other agencies that were successful in winning grants were forced to be cost-cut to keep their corridor budgets within the established guidelines.
But the biggest problems with U.S. transit funding have little to do with the cost-effectiveness rule. Despite the good motivations of those that would change the game — Representatives Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Keith Ellison (D-MN) — Jim Oberstar (D-MN), the chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has yet to sign on to the idea.
There are good reasons for him not to do so. The FTA must sort through dozens of projects every year, choosing only a few to move forward to full funding under the New Starts program. Plenty of these corridors meet the medium cost-effectiveness ratings, and those that have been rejected because of their low cost-effectiveness arguably do not deserve federal funding, at least when they’re put up to comparison with other planned corridors around the country that would serve more people taking more arduous commutes. And the FTA must have an adequate mechanism to establish the value of each new line.
The solution advanced by Mr. DeFazio and Mr. Ellison would instead increase the importance of such characteristics as land use and local support, both of which are important but neither of which is vital enough to discriminate between similar projects in different cities. In other words, with a limited pot of funds, the FTA can only choose to invest in so much. It’s not as if it’s operating with an overflow of cash right now.
This is not to suggest that the New Starts process is perfect. Rather, the program could be seriously reformed to ensure an objective, equitable standard to determine which projects should be moved forward. Cost-effectiveness guidelines such as those the FTA uses will be an necessary element in that game.
In the long term, transit proponents must attempt to dramatically increase the size of that pot but hold off on preventing the FTA from making discriminating choices in the short term. Current efforts to do the former have been lacking — the House passed a jobs bill this week that funded roads at a three-to-one ratio compared to transit, exactly as had the stimulus. The Senate is currently planning a climate bill that might add an average of $1.6 billion a year over the next ten.
These are baby steps. According to the most recent Census estimates, the American population may grow to 458 million by 2050 from 308 million today. How will those people move around in the cities in which they’ll live? The amount we’re currently committing to transit won’t be nearly enough to fulfill those needs.
This means we’ve got to use the resources we do have even more judiciously. Attempting to deny the FTA the ability to take advantage of the important cost-effectiveness guidelines would be no help.